Helping Children Calm Down

When a child is upset, hyperactive, or otherwise dysregulated (i.e. out of control), it can be a very difficult situation for everyone. 

As parents and caregivers, the chaos can be very frustrating, and in our attempts to regain control of the situation, we may find ourselves yelling, physically restraining our kids or giving out punishments. But in the process, what we are doing is actually just adding to the chaos (as well as modeling some behaviors that we don’t want our kids to emulate).

So, how do we, as adults, keep our cool in these situations and also model calm and appropriate behaviors that we want our kids to learn? And how do we teach our children the skills that they need in order to get back to a calm and controlled state?   

Step 1: Make a plan for how you will manage your OWN emotions/impulsive actions in these situations.

Many parents can feel out of control themselves when their children are dysregulated.  It is important that you work on your own self-control first, so that you can act in a way that’s intentional and model appropriate and controlled behaviors for your kids.

  1. The first step is to notice when you start to feel “triggered” (i.e. angered, frustrated, overwhelmed).
  2. The next step is to do something to manage those emotions so that you can stay calm.

Strategies for remaining calm may look different for everyone, but many parents use calming strategies such as:

  • Take a long deep breath
  • Squeeze your hands together for a count of 5
  • Go into another room to get away from the chaos for a moment
  • Simply state your emotions in that moment (e.g. “this is super frustrating for me”)

All of these are strategies that our kids can use as well and using them ourselves is really a win-win: We will be able to act from a more calm and controlled place AND our children will see what it looks like to use effective techniques for maintaining self-control.

Step 2: Teach your child the skills they need to be able to slow their bodies down and get back to a state of calm.

We often assume that our children are behaving in a certain way by choice and that if they wanted to, and if they would just listen to us, they could change the way they are behaving.

But it’s important to consider that our children may not have the skills needed to make a change in their behavior.

As you may have noticed while considering Step 1, maintaining self-control and calming oneself down is not always easy for adults, let alone our children.

Below are the ABC’s for helping your child acquire these important skills.

NOTE: Make sure you/your child are in a teachable moment when you introduce the ideas below. None of us are very good at learning new skills when we are upset or feeling out of control. Find times during the day when you have your child’s attention, when they are happy and calm (e.g. snack time, while reading books together, while they are in the bath) to teach/practice these new skills. 

Gain attention

The first step in being able to go from upset/dysregulation to calm is identifying the need for a change.

But our children are not yet independently able to recognize that a change is needed. In order to create this awareness, we need to interrupt the chaos, even if just for a brief moment and get their attention.

This can be done with a vocal cue:

“Stop!” “Red light!” “Freeze!”

Or with a non-verbal cue:

Flicker or turn off the lights

The intention is to create a cue that means, “we need to stop what we are doing” without using too many words and without making the child feel as though they are being “bad” or about to be punished.

The child should respond to this cue by stopping and looking at the adult. Again, be sure to spend time practicing this skill in moments of calm first. 

Relocate and redirect

Assuming that calling attention to the chaos was not enough to reset your child’s behavior, the next step is to calmly guide your child to the predetermined space where they can finish letting out their energy and emotions – a space that is safe, supportive, and calming for them.

  • This can be in a specific area of the house (e.g. a calm-down corner), on a specific piece of furniture (e.g. a bean bag chair) or in a specific room.
  • This space should be one that is easy to get to (you can have one space upstairs and another downstairs)
  • This space should be safe and comfortable for the child.

Tip: Many parents like to create a space with pillows and blankets, as well as books and sensory toys.

It is important to note that this is not a time-out procedure, and it is not a punishment.

The parent should guide the child to their specified location using a kind, neutral and calm tone, saying something simple like “let’s go relax for a minute” or “come with me to this comfy spot”.

It is not required that the child immediately quiet down or “relax”, as they may still be letting out energy or emotions. It is also not necessary that the child be left on their own in this space, although we want to minimize how much attention we are giving to their inappropriate behaviors.

If you are going to sit with them, be ready to just sit calmly and quietly until they are able to engage with you without yelling, etc.

This is not the right time to talk to them about why/how they were behaving; these conversations should be had later when the child is back to being calm and able to process information that we want them to hear/remember.

Again, introduce this space, the activities in this space, and the expectations for this space when your child is calm and able to learn. It should be a space that is associated with happiness and calm before they are asked to be there in a state of upset or dysregulation. 

Praise the progress

Finally, once they are in the designated space for calming down, acknowledge your child for their progress toward calm.

Some children will benefit from direct praise statements like “Great job slowing your body down” or “I like how you are snuggling with your bear” while other children prefer this to be done in the form of observations such as “I see a nice, calm kid over there” or “This house feels much more peaceful now” etc.

Reinforcing progress is key, especially for young children.

And staying nearby to offer suggestions for what they can be doing (“you can squeeze the pillows super tight” or “you might like to look at the shark book”) or to give them a hug/squeeze if they need one is also important.

Eventually we will want to see our children be more independent in calming themselves down, but they may need guidance and support as they are learning to do so. 

As parents, we learn early on that things may not always go as planned, especially when we are trying something new. But by following these three steps consistently, and by maintaining your own self-control and composure in these moments, you are well on your way to a calmer future.

For more suggestions on how to help teach your child the skills they need to engage in appropriate behavior check out online class: Helping Your Child Calm Down.