Chances are that most of us have witnessed a child having a meltdown in the grocery store, whether it’s our own kid or someone else’s. Why is it so common? Are there just loads of “bratty” children throwing a tantrum because their parent refused to buy them a candy bar? Not likely. More often than not, it’s simply that the child is hungry, tired, bored, or overstimulated. Filling your child’s toolbox with strategies to calm big emotions is critical, especially considering the high-stress environment of school that many of our kids need to navigate.
Without any tools to self-regulate their emotions, children may turn to crying fits, angry outbursts, or full-on tantrums, leaving parents frustrated, ashamed, and even embarrassed. But regardless of the child’s age, there are things parents can do to help diffuse the situation and quickly calm down an upset child. The first step is to regulate your own emotions so you can then co-regulate them with your child.
Co-regulating emotions with your child
Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has probably heard the flight attendants advise passengers to “put on their own oxygen mask before attempting to help a child.” The same is true when it comes to helping your child calm down quickly.
We don’t fully develop the ability to self-regulate until our prefrontal cortexes are fully developed at age 25 … (or later). So kids need their parents to co-regulate our emotions. We need to support, coach, and model what it looks like to express emotions appropriately, to name them, to talk about them, to normalize them, and to model how to work through them.
Here are a few steps to help you present the face of calm to connect with their child in emotionally volatile moments:
- Lower your voice.
- Soften your facial expression.
- Relax your posture.
- Be near your child and get down on their level.
- Dim the lights and sounds, if possible.
- Take a walk.
- Name the emotions you’re experiencing.
- Model breathing exercises.
Breathing exercises to help your child calm down quickly
When kids are upset, we think we’re helping when we go, “Take a deep breath!” Actually, the exhale is more important than the inhale. A long exhale is what lowers our heart rate. The important thing to remember about breathing exercises is that your child can’t access them in the heat of an emotional moment. We can’t wait until the crisis to teach them these breathing techniques; they have to be taught and practiced.
They’re good for us, they’re good for our kids, and it makes it easier for them to access those when you can just give them a little reminder when they’re escalating!
Ready to learn a few breathing exercises to reset the nervous system, which you can then teach your child? Check out these five examples:
1. The Sigh
A deep sigh actually engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which presses the brakes on the fire. It’s going to lower our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, and it’s calming and really natural to do.
How to do it: Breathe in, take a really quick breath the second time, then let it out in the form of a sigh. Repeat two or three times.
2. 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
How to do it: Breathe in for the count of 4, hold it for the count of 7, and then exhale for the count of 8. Repeat three or four times.
3. 54321 Grounding Exercise
How to do it: Ask them to name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can feel, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste (if possible). Repeat two more times.
There’s no magic to the order of these senses, so if you’re in a highly auditory environment, you can do 5 things they can hear, etc. The point is that they’re engaging all of their senses and grounding themselves in their physical body.
4. Voo Breathing
The vagus nerve is the longest branch of nerves in our body. It goes from our brain to our gut and it touches every major organ system along the way. When we can vibrate our vagus nerve, it presses the brakes on fight, flight, or freeze.
How to do it: Inhale and with your exhale, say the word “Voo” in our lower register, kind of like a foghorn, for 8 seconds. Repeat it a couple times. (Kids love this one because it makes you sound kind of ridiculous!)
5. Color Breathing
How to do it: Choose 2 colors, one that you like and makes you feel good, and another color that you don’t necessarily love. Close your eyes and as you inhale, imagine the color that you love filling your lungs and body with a sense of calm. And as you exhale, imagine breathing out the color you don’t like and taking all the stress and anxiety with it as your breath leaves the body. Repeat as needed.
The Bottom Line
Remember, these exercises work best when they’ve been practiced and modeled, not when they’re presented for the first time during a meltdown or when your child is upset. Be sure to practice them yourself, not only so you can model them for your child, but so you can begin implementing them as calming and grounding strategies to calm yourself!
The ultimate goal of these exercises is establishing a secure connection with your child, even when they’re in a high-emotion state. Ensuring your care and their safety will help them gradually learn to manage these emotions independently (and maybe even use these strategies themselves when they feel the stress fire start to burn!)