So, how do you calm a child? I’ve been developing self-regulation strategies for children for the last ten years together with my own son, parents, psychologists and teachers. The results are clear, a frustrated “calm down” or ”take a deep breath” simply won’t work. Fortunately, there are ways to help children calm down right on-the-spot.
Here’s what you’ll learn from this article:
- The science of why children lose control
- What circumstances cause children to lose control
- How to prepare for when they lose control
- How to use the “Grrr” list and the “Grrreat” list
- The most common triggers for kids
- The five steps to help your children calm down when they do lose control
- Importance of pre-taught regulation strategies
- Our favourite pre-taught science-based calming strategy
This article will help you understand how you can help a child calm down from intense emotional states and how to prepare for it.
NOTE: You can get this article as an ebook by clicking here.
Teaching children how to calm down, self-regulate, focus, and relax has been a game changer for many educators and parents, including our family.
The best part is that learning self-regulation as a child is a skill you will have for the rest of your life.
My son has used our self-regulation techniques since he was a year old and continues to do so now that he is eight. In fact, my son has used a specific pre-taught calming strategy to:
- Focus better at school when nervous
- Act despite and to overcome fears
- Deal with bullies
- Maintain focus during sports to improve performance
- Stop feeding at night by the age of two (true story!)
- Flush his nose repeatedly when he was only one, despite being afraid for his life
- Be courageous and successful despite his self-doubts
- Fall asleep when it was hard to do so
- Calm down when in a state of panic
And the list goes on :) Most importantly it’s not just me and my son who can do it! I get a lot of positive feedback from my readers and students who apply our simple methods.
Why do children lose control?
A long time ago when wild animals hunted us, our brains helped us survive by reacting automatically and instantly to danger. This ancient part of our brains, called the amygdala, still sounds the alarm whenever it believes we are in imminent danger.
The amygdala acts like a smoke detector, telling the body to prepare for danger. And when the alarm goes off our bodies prepare to FIGHT, FLEE OR FREEZE, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body.
Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our bodies. Our palms are sweaty and our hearts are racing. Our breathing shallows and speeds up, preparing us to flee if necessary. Our faces become hot, throats tighten, jaws lock, and voices quiver as a result of the flood of stress hormones.
These unpleasant sensations are designed to compel us to act immediately.
The amygdala also shuts down the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is probably best known for executive function. As a result, we lose contact with some of our higher brain functions, such as self-regulation, memory, and mental flexibility—known as executive function (1, 2).
As a result, we have difficulty focusing, learning, remembering instructions such as conflict resolution skills, controlling impulses, and making good decisions.
The tricky part is that the alarm goes off simply because we are feeling strong emotions like fear, anger, or sadness—even if we are not in any real danger.
Like for example:
When someone says something unkind to you, you get all upset and the amygdala, the ancient part of your brain, believes you are in danger. The amygdala impairs your memory, mental flexibility, and self-regulation abilities. Complex decision-making and access to multiple perspectives are no longer available to you. You then react before thinking.
As your focus narrows, you become trapped in the one viewpoint that gives you the most security. Despite the fact that you normally see more perspectives, you become trapped in the one that gives you the most security. “I’m right, and you’re wrong!” As a result, you may say or do something unkind.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you experienced this with children? I bet, and it’s okay.
The same exact thing might happen when you tell a child something they don’t want to hear.
Here’s a short story to demonstrate this …
Back when my son was three and he had a wart on his thumb we talked about how we should show his hand to the doctor, unless it heals soon.
When we talked about it he started to grow uncomfortable and finally he began to grunt. Just like Daniel Tiger from the children’s television show! It was adorable, but I knew it was his childish way of expressing acute stress.
The subject matter triggered his fight flight freeze reflex and he wouldn’t listen to reason and he ran away to hide behind his bed. He had lost control due to strong emotions. His brain simply made the decision he was in acute danger. It was imperative for him to flee.
I didn’t understand why this was happening or how I could help the child calm down back then. To be honest, I didn’t see the big deal…
This is so important to understand, it’s a strong primal emotional and physical state.
You feel like you are under acute threat and your body prepares itself physically to fight flee or hide. You get a dose of stress hormones, your body tenses and rational thinking is simply not available to you.
This is exactly what happened to my son, but I was unaware of what was happening inside him.
Adults have more mature brains and have had more time to learn executive function (EF) skills such as self-regulation and impulse control, whereas children have not. The full range of EF abilities develops and matures throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, but children are not born with the skills.
You’ve probably noticed how telling triggered children to “calm down” doesn’t help. Yelling back at our children, or even just reasoning or trying to give a lecture doesn’t work during fight flight freeze. And it’s neither the child’s nor your fault. The brain has taken control of the steering wheel and the smoke alarm is screaming.
However there are things you can do right then and there… and there are things you can do to be well prepared, like explaining to them how their brains work, mapping out triggers, and using pre-taught calming strategies when you notice their discomfort—preferably before the situation escalates to fight flight flee territory.
Mapping out what triggers your child and yourself
The best way to assist a child is to take preventative measures so that you can help the child calm down before the situation becomes more intense.
You will be better prepared and able to mitigate the situation if you are aware of the potential triggers for your child. So, a great strategy is to map what triggers your child so that you know in advance.
What you can do is make a list of the things that make you go “grrr”.
This is a fantastic learning opportunity for adults as well. We can learn to understand our own and our children’s triggers together. As a result, communication and understanding of each other’s feelings and triggers will improve. And, let’s be honest, it’s often us adults who escalate it when we’re not mindful of the situation.
So, if this idea resonates with you, I recommend making an honest list of things that make you feel uneasy, followed by a list of things that make you feel good to balance the discussion. You’ll both be better prepared to handle life and difficult situations more calmly after discussing the lists.
The GRR list
Here are a couple of examples from our first “Grrr list” from when my son was three:
“The List Of Things That Make You Go Grrr!”
- When dad tells me to hurry up.
- When dad talks to me in a harsh voice.
- When dad tells me no.
- When we’re in a hurry and it takes too much time to put on our clothes.
- When I have to repeat myself so many times.
- When you won’t listen to me.
Can you see how some of the above “Grrr items” overlap? And why it’s important to know what events trigger us and the viewpoints of both sides in a conflict?
You can make a “List Of Things That Make You Feel Grreat!” after you’ve completed this list. Maybe you can use the “Grreat!” list to make things better before things get out of hand?
Most common triggers for ages 3-7
Here’s a list to help you discuss and figure out situations that can be difficult for your children. I compiled this list based on a survey I did with the Blissful Kids community of educators, psychologists and parents.
Top triggers for ages 3-7:
1. Not getting their way
This includes being told no and told what to do.
Change means transitions from one activity to another and changes in routine.
3. Body discomfort
Body discomforts like tiredness, hunger and pain.
Including having to share and others not sharing.
5. Unkind peer actions
When perceived unfairness happens.
6. Failure and problem solving
As in losing in a game or having a task that seems too difficult.
This can be too much noise or simply too much happening around them.
8. Communication failures
When children are not able to express their needs and feelings.
9. Separation anxiety
It could be something as simple as gran leaving too early for home.
10. Lack of attention
As in when children feel like they are not being heard in class or by parents.
11. Having to wait and be patient
Now, doesn’t this list look very relatable, even for us grown-ups? I mean who likes these situations? It’s no wonder these things trigger children.
Understanding common triggers can help a lot. Other tried-and-true preventative measures for keeping children cool include:
- regularly checking in on the feelings of the children
- planning large motor movement activities in the schedule
- practicing sensory awareness activities, such as mindful breathing, before learning tasks that need sustained focus
Now that you know why it all happens and probably also when it might happen it’s time to go through the 5 steps to help your child calm down when it does happen.
How to calm a child in 5 steps
Here are the five steps to help your child calm down from a strong emotional state:
Show empathy by regulating your own emotions first.
Modeling calm behavior is the first step in helping a child calm down. For instance, pause and do three mindful breaths and see how it makes you feel. Alternatively, tell yourself how fortunate you are to have a child, work with the child or what you are grateful for despite feeling uncomfortable with this situation. Or use your inner voice to offer a few kind wishes to your child if you are familiar with loving kindness practice. When you’ve mastered your own emotions, speak in a smooth, soothing tone.
Show positive attention and give them space to handle it if necessary.
The second step in helping a child calm down is to pay positive attention to them. Physical contact, snuggling, and being held can help. Giving them space to deal with it works better in some cases. A change in environment, or simply some physical distance from the situation, such as moving to the next room, can be beneficial too. In addition, in a school setting, a pre-planned calming area away from the group is a great way to help the child to relax and reset.
Acknowledge, identify and name the emotion together
The third step in calming a child is to recognize and identify the emotion. This is a way to re-activate the thinking part of the brain and for the child to understand the state they are in. To build rapport, say phrases like, “I see you/hear you/I understand.” Feeling heard is an important step in any conflict resolution. Understanding your inner state is another key step.
Try saying, “I can see that you’re feeling angry and it’s okay to feel that way,” rather than “You’re angry.” A great way to normalize the situation is to explain how you feel yourself and to explain that you know that the feeling will pass soon.
The fourth step in helping a child calm down is to offer a calming solution, like a pre-taught regulation activity, and support your child while they calm down.
You can, for example, acknowledge that you, too, are feeling uneasy and would like to try one of your favourite calming activities to feel better and more in control of the situation. This is known as co-regulation, or openly regulating your feelings with others. After the next step, I’ll discuss our preferred science-based pre-taught calming activity.
The fifth and final step in calming a child is to address the initial problem together and, if necessary, make amends.
Now, sometimes the first three steps are enough, but more often you want to offer a tangible activity your child can use to concretely work their way out of the state instead of trying to think their way out of anxiety.
This is where pre-taught calming activities help. Especially those that engage the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking brain) and soothe the amygdala (the part that reacts to emotions). If you can engage the senses of the child and include motor activity all the better.
There are a few activities that do just that …
Why you want to use pre-taught regulation strategies to help calm a child
Simply telling children to “calm down” will not work because most do not know how.
The importance of pre-taught calming strategies to help children calm down is twofold. Training these calming strategies builds resilience in the long run and ingrains the technique so that it is readily available when the children most need it, so you can use it when your child is becoming uncomfortable or even triggered. In other words, the more you practice, the easier it will be for your child to use the strategy when needed—and, eventually, on their own.
If you notice your child becoming agitated, you can sometimes use the activity to prevent a meltdown from occurring altogether.
My son learned to do it when he was just one and my students frequently report that two, three and four year old children learn to do it. How wonderful is that?
Our favorite science-based pre-taught calming strategy to help children calm down
I mentioned that my son has been able to use a specific pre-taught calming strategy from when he was one and that he’s still using it at the age of eight. The calming strategy is called slow-paced mindful breathing. And it’s super simple if you teach it the right way.
Slow-paced mindful breathing can help children throughout the day, whether they are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, need to relax or sleep, need to calm their body after exercising, or simply need to pause and reset when they are high energy.
But why does learning mindfulness skills help?
The effect of mindfulness practice on the brain is fascinating
We previously discussed why children lose control and how the brain’s smoke detector, known as the amygdala, tells the body to prepare for danger when children react to emotional states.
Children are more prone to overreacting because their brains are still developing, and most haven’t been taught how and when to self-regulate, and there could be a variety of causes for an overactive amygdala.
However, according to several studies (4) we can practice mindfulness to activate the thinking brain (5) known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the part of the brain that helps memorize and retrieve information called the hippocampus (6), and reduce activation in the emotionally reactive part of the brain called the amygdala (7).
While most studies on the neuroscience of mindfulness have been done on adults, preliminary research suggests that mindfulness might have similar effects for children (8,9,10,11,12).
How cool is that?!
Imagine being able to help children calm down repeatedly while also developing less reactive brains as their brains grow and prune.
Among school-aged children, mindfulness has demonstrated effectiveness to promote executive function (EF) skills (13). Specifically, the EF skills of self-regulation (14 ) attention (15), and social skills (16) have been linked to mindfulness.
Executive function and self-regulation skills provide critical supports for learning and development, and while children are not born with these abilities, they are born with the potential to develop them (17).
The full range of EF abilities develops and matures throughout adolescence and into early adulthood, and we can support and accelerate this development.
Why I recommend slow-paced mindful breathing
Slow-paced mindful breathing is the most useful calming strategy for children, based on what I’ve observed over the last ten years, for four reasons:
1. Slow-paced breathing has an immediate physiological effect, affecting the child’s nervous system and heart, allowing their body and mind to relax.
2. Mindful breathing has a mental effect, giving their brain a new task to focus on instead of the perceived problem. When we concentrate intently on the now instead of our mind chatter, we eliminate a significant amount of stress and worry. We shift away our focus from our thoughts and emotions.
3. You can make practice fun and engaging, even if many don’t know how.
4. Anyone can do it anywhere, and even secretly.
According to a recent Stanford study, even a few slow, deep breaths can reduce children’s physiological arousal. It was pointed out, however, that children require scaffolding and that telling them to “take a deep breath” may not be enough because it is not intuitive for young children, and that children are more successful if they have a visual guide (3).
What this means is that slow-paced mindful breathing itself can significantly alter a young child’s physiological stress response, but if you ask a young child to simply take a deep breath, many don’t know how to slowly pace their inhale and exhale if they haven’t had any training.
Make calming slow-paced mindful breathing fun to learn
Now it’s not necessarily problem free for children to learn the necessary technique, unless you know how to make it easy and fun. Kids rarely want to sit still and those children who don’t love the idea of sitting still will be excluded unless you make the activity tangible, tactile and visual.
This is why I’ve made mindful breathing tangible, tactile, and visual so that it’s actually kid-friendly and fun—and this has been our secret to success. I wish I had known about moving mindful breathing and breathing games when I started out.
Breathing games are probably the simplest method for teaching calming mindful breathing to children of all ages. Our breathing games and stories are heavily discounted today so you might want to check them out right now.
Moving mindful breathing
Moving mindful breathing on the other hand incorporates large motor activity into the mix and is another playful way to help children learn slow-paced mindful breathing. This is ideal for children who dislike sitting still.
The reason these two work so well is that they help:
- Make children interested and keep their attention.
- Provide a simple method for calming high-arousal states.
- Activate children who don’t like to sit still or “meditate”.
- Make practice engaging, memorable, enjoyable and consistent.
You can learn more about our two favourite self-regulation activities; the breathing games and moving mindful breathing here.
Okay, excellent work! Congratulations on making it this far! :-)
I hope I was able to help you in your efforts to help your children—and that this article has helped you understand how to help a child calm down after experiencing intense emotional states, as well as how to prepare for it.
Please share this article if you found it useful.
Empowering children with valuable life skills is how we begin to build a better world, and I am proud to be able to undertake this journey with you.
Thank you for your commitment to supporting and empowering children <3
Founder of Blissful Kids
PS You can download my free ebook “5 Calming Mindful Breathing Activities” to learn more about how you can use mindful breathing to help children calm down and nurture executive function abilities here.
Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, and the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a community of parents, educators, and therapists dedicated to children’s mindfulness and psychology, with over 15 years of experience facilitating meditation and psychological interventions to people of all ages.
Chris is a certified mindfulness facilitator, trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12, and has received psychology and mindfulness training from UPenn, UCLA, UNC, Mindful Schools, and Mindfulness Without Borders.
(1) Executive Function & Self-Regulation. University of Harvard. Retrieved May 10, 2022, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function
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(16) Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21, 99-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J370v21n01_05. Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Lawlor, M. S. (2010). The effects of a mindfulness-based education program on pre-and early adolescents’ well-being and social and emotional competence. Mindfulness, 1(3), 137-151. https://doi.org/10.1007/ s12671-010-0011-8. Viglas, M., & Perlman, M. (2018). Effects of a mindfulness-based program on young children’s self-regulation, prosocial behavior and hyperactivity. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(4), 1150-1161. doi:10.1007/s10826-017-0971-6.
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