Young toddlers are not generally capable of calming themselves down – they’ll need your support. (Learn how here.) But as our children move into their preschool years, we can begin teaching them more about how to soothe their own upsets.
The first step in calming emotions is to have an understanding of what emotions are and how they feel in our bodies. You can read here about Understanding Feelings and learn more about Emotional Literacy here.
Here are tips to help your child learn about emotional regulation:
- Label their mood when they are calm and relaxed, talk about their facial expressions and body language that tell you they’re relaxed, so they know this is what they are hoping to get back to.
- Help them notice early cues that they are feeling upset. It’s much easier to manage feelings when they’re little.
- Help them understand that all emotions are normal and natural. Sometimes we’re happy, and sometimes we’re sad or angry and that’s OK. But sometimes our emotions lead us to behave in ways that cause problems. So, we’re not trying to say “you can never be mad”, we are focusing on ways to express and work with that anger that don’t harm them or anyone/anything else.
- Model positive self-talk. “I am frustrated, but I can calm down.” “I am feeling scared about trying something new, but I’m going to try it anyway. I bet it will be fun in the end.”
- Give them examples of positive self-talk they can use themselves: “I can keep calm when things are hard.” “Take three breaths.” “I can handle this.” “He didn’t mean to hurt me. It was an accident.” “Everyone makes mistakes, I just have to help clean it up.”
- Help them think of “happy thoughts” they can focus on when they’re feeling sad.
- The Incredible Years program recommends “the turtle technique.” Tell your child to imagine she has a shell she can retreat into. She can imagine going into the shell, taking three deep breaths, and saying to herself “Stop, take a deep breath, calm down.” As she takes the deep breaths, she can focus on pushing out some of the air to her arms and legs so she can relax her muscles. She can then continue positive self talk and breathing till she’s calm enough to come out and try again. Here’s a children’s book about the turtle technique.
- Praise your child when s/he successfully manages and recovers from negative feelings.
- Remember to focus on the positive feelings they have when they’re calm, and on the strategies they use to get there, than you focus on the negative behaviors. If we give lots of attention to negative behaviors, we “feed the monster.” Instead, give attention to what you want to see more of.
Teaching Appropriate Expression of Emotions
Search online for images of “calm down for kids.” You’ll find lots. Print your favorite to use with your child, or even better, make a customized list / diagram of calming tools that work well for your child.
Some helpful ideas to consider are: Deep breaths, blowing bubbles (really blowing bubbles or even just pretending to), taking a deep breath and pretending to blow out birthday candles. Running, jumping, dancing, tensing up muscles then relaxing them, or doing “heavy work” – activities that use their muscles. Quiet time, time out, cuddles, holding a stuffed animal, wrapping up in a blanket. Sensory play. Using their imagination… Don’t pick the things that you like to use. Choose the tools that help your child to calm. Make sure they have some they can use outside of the home, whether that’s at school or on the playground.
You could also download free these anger management strategy cards. Make your child a deck of the cards that you know are effective for them.