Have you ever been frustrated or angry with a co-worker and dashed off a not-so-nice email, only to stop yourself before hitting “send”? Maybe you took a deep breath, closed your computer or took a walk. Whatever you did, it worked, and you could think more clearly — and calmly.
We all need a break from our overwhelming emotions sometimes. This is especially true for young children. They haven’t yet mastered impulse control, so a big feeling like anger or fear can result in a tantrum, hitting or other problematic behaviors.
“Teaching and modeling self-regulation skills is one of the best things we can do to help children because we rely on these skills throughout life,” says Laura Jana, MD, a pediatrician, author and associate professor in the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University. Dr. Jana also serves on the Primrose Schools Early Learning Council, where she advises on Primrose’s Balanced Learning® curriculum and child development.
Brains develop executive-functioning skills, such as the ability to self-regulate emotions and actions, rapidly between the ages of 3 to 5, Dr. Jana says. Children as young as 2 can be introduced to and begin to practice calming techniques, but they are developmentally less likely to be able to use them consistently at this age.
“It’s important to understand that young children are at a very early stage of social, emotional and language development,” says Dr. Amy Jackson, Chief Early Learning Strategy Officer at Primrose Schools. “Still, it can be stressful for adults when children exhibit challenging behavior. Responding consistently and calmly is important, which is why it is best to be prepared.”
Try these five calming strategies the next time your little one starts to feel overwhelmed.
1. Focus on breathing.
Mindful breathing is a powerful way to initiate a calm response in the body. That’s why the Primrose Harmony & Heart® music program includes a song called “Stop, Breathe, Count to Three”:
Stop! Breathe in … count to three — 1, 2, 3 — then breathe out. I’m in charge of me if I remember to stop, breathe, count to three.
Whether you sing the song or just invite your child to stop their body and take deep breaths with you, this technique is simple, effective and can be done anywhere. (Stream the Summer Music Collection to find “Stop, Breathe, Count to Three.”)
2. Help children find space.
For some children, it can help to move away from the environment that is triggering their big feelings. For example, if they are having a tantrum in a living room full of family, you can gently take them to their room for some quiet time.
This shouldn’t be treated as a punishment or even a “timeout,” Dr. Jana says, but rather a chance for the child to regain some composure and equilibrium. In their room, they can color, read or play until they feel calmer. In public, you can help children move away from stimulating situations and stay with them in a safe place until they calm down.
3. Ask them to draw it out.
Many adults find it calming to write or make art. Children can benefit from putting crayon to paper, too. When your child is experiencing anger, fear or sadness, invite them to create art, either by themselves or together with you. They can express their feelings in the art or simply feel the relief of taking action. You can even keep “calming art supplies” in a special spot to use in tough moments.
4. Run, dance, move!
Sometimes, the best way to calm the mind is to move the body. Exercise is linked to better mental health in both adults and children. “Young children need more physical activity to be healthy than parents often realize,” says Dr. Jackson. “Physical activity is an important part of the day at Primrose schools, and it’s a great way to help children be well at home, too.” You can take your child for a walk outside, play in the backyard or put on a favorite song and dance.
5. Create your own “cozy corner.”
Families can create a calming spot at home, stocked with soft materials and sensory objects for children to use when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Start with pillows, plush animals or toys that can be safely squeezed or manipulated with the hands. If your child is open to it, you can look in a mirror with them and talk about their facial expressions and what feelings they’re having.
Whatever calming technique works for you and your child, remember that it might not work all the time, as children need time and practice to master self-regulation, Dr. Jana says.
“It can admittedly be quite frustrating when a child has a tantrum, but understanding what you can — and can’t — expect from them developmentally can help keep you from getting angry or upset at a child,” she says. “Instead, you can help them understand that it’s not acceptable behavior and help them learn more acceptable ways.”
Of course, parents are only human, so you might need to do your own calming technique alongside your child. That’s a good thing — modeling these skills sets a great example and shows children that even grown-ups need to practice taking a deep, calming breath every now and then.
For more on social-emotional development, check out: