How to Help Children Calm Down


April 09, 2020
by: Chad Welch, Community Impact Coordinator – Education

Making Parents & Child Feel Better

crying-toddlerIt’s going on a month or more of being quarantined. Your kids are bored, stressed out not being able to go to friends’ houses or gather in the park. As parents, we too are feeling the stress and strain of this pandemic. The last thing any of us wants is a tantrum! Here are some techniques for helping kids regulate their emotions and avoid explosive behavior and consequently, explosive reactions from the adults.

Children have difficulty regulating their emotions. Tantrums, outbursts, whining, defiance, fighting: all behaviors you see when kids experience powerful feelings they cannot control. While some kids have learned to act out because it gets them what they want, other kids have trouble staying calm because they are unusually sensitive. Add to this, stress of a new and hard to understand pandemic-it’s important to know strategies to help our children and ourselves find relief. The good news is that learning to calm down instead of acting out is a skill that can be taught.

Before we get in too deep-there are a few things we, as adults, need to remember about children. The first is dysregulation. What in the world is that?

Dysregulation most simply put is that “some kid’s reactions are just bigger than their peers or their siblings or their cousin,” explains Lindsey Giller, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “Not only do they feel things more intensely and quickly, they’re often slower to return to being calm.” Sometimes, intense feelings can also make a child more apt to impulsive behaviors.


When kids are overwhelmed by feelings, the emotional side of the brain isn’t communicating with the rational side, which normally regulates emotions and plans the best way to deal with a situation. It’s kind of like a short circuit. Here is where we can fall into a “parent trap” says Dr. Giller. This state is called dysregulated and it’s not effective to try to reason with a child who is dysregulated. To discuss what happened, you need to wait until a child’s rational abilities are back “online.”


How Can Parents Help Rethink Emotions?

First, we can help our children understand how their emotions work. Kids don’t go from calm to sobbing on the floor in a fetal position in an instant. That kind of raw emotion built over time, like a wave. Kids can learn control by noticing and labeling their feelings before the wave gets too big to handle.


Some kids don’t want to acknowledge negative emotions. “A lot of kids are growing up thinking anxiety, anger, sadness are bad emotions,” says Stephanie Samar, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. It’s important for us as parents to help our children name and accept such emotions. It’s how children will learn to manage them.

As parents, we want the best for our children, so we may minimize their negative feelings because we want our kids to be happy. The problem here is that kids need to learn that we all have a range of feelings. It’s ok, it’s normal. The last thing we want to do is teach them that only happy is good.


Be a Role Model for Difficult Feelings

For younger children, describing your own feelings and modeling how you manage them is important. Children hear you strategizing about your own feelings, when you’re nervous or frustrated, and how you’re going to deal with such feelings. They can then learn to use those words too.

For kids that feel like these big emotions sneak up on them, you can help them practice recognizing their feelings and model doing it yourself. Try assigning a number value to the intensity of your emotions from 1-10, with 1 being pretty calm and 10 being furious. If you forget something that you wanted to bring to grandma’s, you could acknowledge that you are feeling frustrated and say that you’re at a 4. It might feel silly, but it teaches kids to stop and recognize what they are feeling.


If you see them starting to get upset about something, ask them what they are feeling and how upset they are. Are they at a 6? For some of the younger kids, a visual aid like a feelings thermometer might help.


In my next post, we will discuss how to validate our child’s feelings, and techniques to help them learn to control their feelings.


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