Helping your child handle big feelings: Part 3: Regulation strategies
Updated: May 2, 2022
I have now posted a lot about what big feelings look like in young kids. In part 1, I talked about supporting children through their big feelings by offering comfort and labeling their emotions, but not necessarily jumping in to fix the problem for them. I also mentioned a few calming strategies. I want to discuss these in more depth here.
Most of us know about taking slow deep breaths to calm down. This is a powerful tool and fairly easy to learn. There are so many little games to try to teach this to young kids. A classic is “birthday cake breathing.” Tell your child to “take a deep breath in to smell the birthday cake,” and “blow out your breath slowly to blow out the candles.” Young children might also get into the game of pretending to mix and bake an imaginary birthday cake first. There is also balloon breathing (inhale like you’re filling up a balloon, exhale like you’re letting the air out of it); snake breathing (hiss like a snake as you breathe in and out); tumble dryer breathing; five finger breathing, and more! Here’s a list with several good ideas.
Progressive muscle relaxation can be great for kids, though many young kids struggle to focus with this. Progressive muscle relaxation is especially good for kids age seven and up who realize that they don’t like how it feels when they get upset and are interested in learning how to feel better. Young kids can do simple muscle relaxation if you make a game out of it: tense up like a robot, then go floppy like a noodle. Or squeeze a lemon and let it go. Here are more ideas for progressive muscle relaxation for younger and older kids:
Here is a lovely grounding exercise for a child to take a break from his thoughts and focus on the present moment.
Sensory activities are great for helping kids (and adults) calm down. Fidget toys are actually a brilliant invention for mental health! Squeezing a stress ball or popping a pop-it are good for helping kids to stay calm in general, or calm down quickly in the moment. Many kids will voluntarily choose the option to squeeze something. Playing with water, sand, rice or lentils can also be very calming if this is an easy option. Chewing gum, sucking a mint, or smelling something nice can also quickly soothe a child. Even taking a drink of water or splashing water on her face can help.
Movement is very helpful when children are angry, frustrated, or anxious. Taking a walk can feel good to an older child – you can offer your company if they would like. A child may also be more willing to talk about what is bothering her while walking. Some children would rather do jumping jacks, pushups, (or push hard against a wall), or march or run.
For other children, a mindful, calming activity, like coloring, or a mindful game, is most helpful. (Mindfulness, in a very brief nutshell, means bringing your attention to the present moment, which then takes your attention away from the thing you are upset about. See my earlier blog post on the topic).
Most of these strategies will be most helpful if you and your child choose one or two to practice in advance and make part of your daily routine. Many children, though not all, will resist the suggestion to use a calming activity in the moment. (Though they may be more receptive if you first allow them to cry and yell – but not hit or kick – and validate their feelings, then make the suggestion as they are beginning to calm down). It can be very helpful to have a family routine to do a breathing exercise together first thing in the morning or before bed. If breathing, or any other calming strategy, becomes an instinctive habit, your child is more likely to use it on her own when she needs to calm down.