By Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., author of the Learning About Me & You, Learning to Get Along®, and Being the Best Me!® series
We live in stressful times. One of the most frequent challenges parents and teachers face is with helping children calm themselves and process strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger. These emotions, while common and understandable, can be potentially debilitating to the child and dangerous to others if left unchecked. Children can learn to recognize these emotions in themselves and harness the energy of their big feelings into positive action. I have outlined 12 tips that may be effective in helping your child process their emotions and become more calm and rational.
1. Be an Example of Calm
When adults are calm, children can take their cues from them. Your calm attitude helps children relax. It allows them to trust you and feel confident in coming to you with their problems.
2. Listen and Show That You Care
Children need to feel loved and protected. Let them know that they aren’t alone and that you are there to give support when they feel out of control. Be willing to listen to what a child is feeling. Acknowledge and help the child name their emotions. This can be done without condoning inappropriate actions. Behavior can be addressed once children are in a calm frame of mind to listen.
3. Be Alert to Children’s Physical Needs
Being hungry, tired, or playing too long in the heat are physical stresses that can affect a child’s disposition. Addressing these needs should be the first priority. Children can also be overstimulated by watching too much media or being in an environment that is loud and chaotic. Changing the environment in simple ways to address the cause of irritation can often affect behavior more easily and positively than addressing the behavior directly.
4. Be Clear and Consistent with Rules and Expectations
Children feel safe when they have boundaries and they know what to expect. More consistency and fewer surprises help them maintain an emotional balance. There is less chance of them being frustrated by unnecessary change and unclear messages. When children are in a kind, calm, predictable environment, they often feel more relaxed and comfortable and are less prone to outbursts of anger and frustration.
5. Let Children Know That They Have Control Over Their Own Thoughts, Actions, and Even Emotions
Even when children are faced with situations beyond their control, they can usually choose how they will respond. The realization that our thoughts control our emotions is very powerful. Help children know that they can often change their emotions by focusing on more positive thoughts or switching to a more relaxing activity.
6. Help Children Find Acceptable Ways to Vent Anger and Frustration
Explain to children that it’s never okay to hurt someone or their feelings and that they can find other ways to express themselves without hurting someone else. There are many ways that children can relax and create space to process negative emotions. Help them make time to understand and de-escalate their emotions through activities such as the following:
- Counting to 10 or taking a big breath
- Giving a hug
- Movement such as dancing, swinging, running, or stretching
- Blowing bubbles
- Playing with clay or blocks
- Talking to a friend
7. Teach Children to Accept What They Can’t Change
Children have little control over much in their lives. Things like what they eat or wear, their schedule, and their activities are often dictated to them by adults. Although these decisions are made with the child’s best interest in mind, children can become frustrated with these limits. They can also become upset with things they can’t do due to their size or level of knowledge and skill. Take time to explain the importance of the rules, why things are the way they are, and your concern for the child. This leads to the next point.
8. Help Them Find Something Else to Focus on So They Can Let Go of Their Frustration
Give them options whenever possible and help steer them to areas where they have a choice. For example, a child may not want to stay with you when grocery shopping. Nevertheless, the child needs to accept this rule, and you may avoid an explosive episode by discussing expectations before going out. While at the store you might divert the child’s attention to something the child can do, such as help you choose an item or load it in the cart.
9. Teach and Reinforce Positive Ways to View a Situation
When children have self-defeating thoughts or anger with something that has happened in the past, they can find comfort when they are able to reframe the situation and look to the future feeling encouraged. Gratitude can be a powerful way to get a fresh perspective and to appreciate the things that are going well. Children will feel more empowered and happy when they find the positive in their situation and consider the possibilities and choices available to them.
10. Notice and Affirm Children’s Efforts to Calm Themselves
It takes time and practice to learn to manage emotions. When you praise children’s efforts to be patient, tolerant, polite, or forgiving, they will likely be encouraged to please you. After a time, they will often notice on their own that they feel much better when they regulate their emotions and react fairly toward others.
11. Teach Children to Reach Out to Others
Help children become aware of others who are struggling in some way. Empathizing with another person’s feelings can help children see their own situations from a new perspective and view their own desires and choices in a new light. As they reach out to someone with kindness, they will undoubtedly feel their own mood lifted.
12. Be an Advocate
Show children that you believe in them and want them to be happy. Trust their ability to make wise choices and to find appropriate ways to express their emotions and work through problems. With your help, children can learn to recognize, defuse, and process their energy in positive ways that can address problems, lead them to understand someone better, and help them feel happier.
What strategies have helped your children calm down?