As parents, we teach our kids every day how to cope and interact with the world. From those difficult toddler tantrums to preschooler meltdowns to sulking fits to teenage rebellion, we help our children learn to manage their feelings and cope with stress, anger, and disappointment. Kids have really big emotions, and those emotions often feel too large for their little bodies. They don’t have the life experience or maturity yet to handle their feelings, and that’s where parents have to step in.
In my other job, I work with children and teenagers with mental health difficulties, and I often support them to create a personalized list of ideas to help them cope with anger, stress, sadness, and anxiety. I use many of these techniques with my own kids when they’re struggling with their feelings, and I wanted to share some of our tools with you.
When your child is melting down, it’s okay to postpone dealing with whatever the issue is. Kids in the middle of a tantrum or meltdown can’t process what you’re saying anyway, so insisting on talking about the issue at that moment is unlikely to be helpful. Allow your child the space to regroup (and you might appreciate some time and space too) and then come back to talk once you’re both feeling calmer. Kids often need some help to calm down. Here are a few ideas that have been proven to work.
1. Listen to music
William Congreve famously wrote, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” Music is a great way to help kids calm down. Familiar and soothing music can help kids change their emotional state and let go of their anger or frustration.
2. Jigsaw puzzles
I use jigsaw puzzles as a calm down activity with my kids all the time. Putting a puzzle together requires your child to pay attention to details and think visually, and that shift in focus helps them calm down and regain control. When your child is feeling overwhelmed by their emotions, offer a well-loved familiar puzzle. If it’s too challenging, your child will only feel more frustrated, but a familiar and fairly simple puzzle will encourage them to keep working at it and calm down in the process.
3. Deep breathing
When we’re feeling anxious, we tend to take short, shallow breaths. Taking deep, controlled breaths instead helps kids calm down and reduce anxiety. Deep breathing increases the oxygen going to their brains, helps them pay attention to their body, and stimulates the body’s calming parasympathetic response.
When your child is calm, take the opportunity to teach your child square breathing, an exercise named for its 4 steps. It goes like this. Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 4, slowly and evenly exhale through your mouth for a count of 4, then hold for a count of 4 again before breathing in again. Encourage your child to place their hand on their stomach so they can feel it rise and fall with each breath. Have them do this exercise for 2-3 minutes, paying attention to the feeling of air filling and expanding their lungs and then leaving their body.
4. Blow bubbles
If your child is too young to practice square breathing, try giving them a bottle of bubble solution. Blowing bubbles requires long, slow, controlled breaths, and this will help the same way as other intentional breathing exercises.
5. Get moving
Kids who are feeling overwhelmed or out of control often benefit from going outside and moving around. Fresh air and physical exercise is known to improve mood and reduce stress. Older kids can take a walk around the block, shoot hoops, or go for a run. Younger kids can go into the yard to run races, jump up and down, or chase a ball around.
6. Build with LEGO
Toys that you already have around your home can also serve as therapeutic tools. Building with LEGO bricks requires attention to detail and fine motor skills that help refocus your child away from their emotional overload. My youngest prefers exercising her creativity by “free building” with a random assortment of bricks, but my oldest finds it helpful to focus on the detail and ordered thinking required for following instructions to build a kit.
Depending on age and interest, LEGO and other building toys like Magformers, classic wooden blocks, and magnetic wooden Tegu blocks are all great ways to help kids calm down. Heck, if it’s good enough for Beckham…
7. “Count the colours”
You may have heard the term mindfulness before. All it means is being able to focus on the present time and immediate environment while calmly acknowledging and accepting all your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. There are lots of strategies that can help people become more mindful, and “Count the colours” is one of the simplest exercises I teach to younger children.
Upset kids (and adults!) have a hard time processing new information, so like many other techniques, it’s best to practice this simple strategy when everyone is calm. Direct your child to slowly walk around the room and count all the red (or blue or green or brown) things they can see. This encourages your child to shift attention to their immediate environment and focus on identifying and counting objects around them. You can do this with multiple colours if your child needs more time with this activity to settle down.
Speaking of colours, colouring is one of those universal activities that every child enjoys. What parent doesn’t have a pile of half-done colouring books and a box of broken crayons kicking around the house? The act of colouring can be very relaxing and helpful for kids trying to manage too much emotion. Picking the colours, focusing on colouring inside the lines, creating something beautiful – these all help kids let go of negative emotions, cope with stress, and relax.
9. Play dough
It’s not just for making a mess on the kitchen floor anymore! Play dough or cloud dough can also act as a sensory tool for helping kids calm down. Everyone loves squishing play dough through their fingers, and for many kids the feeling can be soothing as well. The repetitive action of rolling balls and snakes out of play dough can also be helpful, and finally, the creative act of imagining and making something can be very therapeutic.
10. Pet therapy
There’s a reason why so many programs use dogs, horses, or other animals as therapy adjuncts. If you have a family pet, spending time petting or playing with them can help kids feel loved, accepted, and calmer. Use your judgement to ensure pets and animals are safe at all times.
11. Take a warm bath
Just like soaking in the tub helps adults to relax, a warm bath can do the same for anxious and stressed out kids. Lying in warm water is also a full-body sensory embrace that can help their muscles relax and minds to calm down. Add some bubble bath to enhance the sensory experience!
12. Splash cold water
Guide your child to the sink and encourage them to run cold water over their hands or gently splash cold water on their own face. The feeling of cold water can act like a mini sensory “shock” to the system that helps kids switch emotional gears. Cold water can also help reduce the discomfort and puffy feeling from crying. NEVER throw cold water in your child’s face in an attempt to stop the tantrum.
Create a Calm Down List
These are just a few of the many helpful activities out there. You and your child can come up with more based on their interests and your own experiences. Ask your child what activities help them calm down. Observe them to see what other strategies and activities might help. When your child is calm, come up with a list of helpful activities and and keep it on the fridge or on their bedroom door. This will be a living list; whenever you find certain activities aren’t helpful, ditch them and brainstorm other ideas.
At first, you’ll need to direct your child to try this or that particular strategy, but over time, they will learn to identify when they’re overwhelmed and start a calm down activity on their own, a skill that will stand them in good stead their entire lives.
What other activities would you suggest for helping children calm down?