Simmer Down: Teaching Children to Self-Calm

Written by Hanna Doil, Thrive Parent Educator

Emotional regulation is the ability to provide adequate control over emotional responses. As adults, we have learned how to effectively support and manage our emotions in a way that works for us as individuals. Going to the gym, calling a friend to vent, or going to hot yoga may all be methods in which we work through our emotions. Our children don’t necessarily have the opportunity to hit up the local yoga studio when feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, nor do they yet know how to notify us that they may need a break. This is where you as their parent can help.

Emotional Regulation begins with emotion coaching. In case you missed last month’s Montana Parent article on emotion coaching, here is a short excerpt: “Emotion coaches are parents and adults who pay attention to children’s feelings and view emotions as an opportunity to connect and educate. Coaching starts with naming children’s emotions from the time that they are born and gradually becomes more complex as a child grows. Labeling feelings during the moment that children are experiencing them helps to create a link between the feeling word and the actual feeling. Once children develop an emotion vocabulary, they will be able to recognize their feelings and then share those feelings with others.”

Once children are able to express and recognize their own feelings, parents and caregivers can begin to teach self-calming strategies to manage and support those feelings. These self-calming strategies directly relate to the ability to recognize and regulate emotions.

Self-calming strategies are best taught and practiced when a child is in a calm state. You can explore various breathing exercises, visual aids, puppets, reading books, etc.  As with emotion coaching, it is important for adults to model self-control and similar calm down strategies. After all, we can’t ask our children to calm down if we can’t calm ourselves.

Keep in mind that it is age appropriate for toddlers to have difficulty regulating their emotions. They don’t yet have the developmental capability to do it on their own. Preschool age (3-5 years) is a more appropriate age for children to learn about self-regulation. That doesn’t mean you can’t start practicing with your toddler (emotion coaching and labeling). Parents can help toddlers manage strong emotions through soothing techniques, physical comfort, and understanding. After supporting your toddler’s strong emotions, it may be helpful to redirect them to a new activity.

Here are a few ideas to support self-calming strategies and the healthy regulation of emotions:

  • Breathing Exercises- Blow up the balloon, squish the balloon. Stop to smell a “flower”: Breath in through your nose, out through your mouth. Pretend to be a bunny: Quick breaths in through your nose followed by one long breath out through your mouth.
  • Take a Break- Try setting up a safe, comfortable area in one corner of your child’s room. Label and describe this area as a place to take a break to calm down. Provide favorite pillows and stuffed animals. You may also try putting up some calming pictures. Practice some soothing activities in this area such as taking deep breaths, stretching, or closing eyes and lying down.
  • Puppets and Problem Solving- Identify typical situations that result in emotional explosions (difficult transitions or times of day) and work through those ahead of time with puppet play.
  • Reading Books- There are several books available which are not only entertaining for children to listen to, but have an underlying idea related to emotional regulation. To name a few: How Do Dinosaurs say I’M MAD!, Angry Octopus: A Relaxation Story, and The Grouchies.
  • Games- “Red Light, Green Light” and “The Freeze Game” are both supportive of practicing emotional regulation and self-control.

In the end, never underestimate the power of just being with your child as they work through a strong emotion. Show them you care no matter what they are feeling.