My child is really upset…How can I help to calm her down?

My child is really upset…How can I help to calm her down?

I was going to write this week about strategies to use when children seem very anxious. Then I realized that at KITS, we use the same strategies whenever children having a hard time controlling their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It doesn’t matter whether they are anxious, angry, or scared. These techniques are things that you can do whenever your child needs help to calm down.

After all, you aren’t really going to know in the moment why a child is having trouble with his feelings, especially since for young children, anxiety and anger can look very similar–they can both overwhelm a child. You can think (and talk) about the whys later. At that moment, you just need to help him to take back control.

Here are some suggestions to help children when they need to calm down. Keep in mind that some techniques may work better than others with your child. And, remember, these are ways to prevent a child from fully losing control. If a child is already completely overwhelmed by his feelings, both of you are likely to need other strategies.

  1. Breathing Exercises
  • 4-7-8 breathing

Sit up straight. Take a deep breath in through your nose while counting to 4. You are trying to breath with your diaphragm so imagine a balloon under your rib cage that is being filled up. Hold the breath while counting to 7. Exhale the breath through your mouth while counting to 8 (sl-o-o-o-w-ly). Here is an animated video of this technique.

  • Blowing Out Candles (4-7-8 breathing for younger children)

The parent should hold up several fingers and tell the child to pretend that they are birthday candles. The child should then take a deep breath and blow each one out.

  • Dragon Breath

This is fun because the child gets to be a dragon. Sit up straight. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth forcefully like a dragon breathing fire. Children can also make “dragons” using paper cups or tubes so that they can see the dragon’s tongue move. See directions here.

  1. Mindfulness

This helps ground the child in the here and now instead of worrying or focusing on things that might be upsetting. Tell the child to take 3 slow breaths and then ask them:

What are three things you can hear? (clock on the wall, car going by, your breath)

What are three things you can see? (this table, that sign, that person walking by)

What are three things you can feel? (the chair under you, the floor under your feet, phone in your pocket)

If you child isn’t answering you but seems to be paying attention and calming down, you can quietly tell him what you see, hear, and feel. That will also help him focus on the present.

  1. Physical Activities
  • Shake It Off

The child starts by letting her arms hang down at her sides and relaxing her shoulders. Tell her to start to shake her hands, then the rest of her arms, like she is shaking her troubles off. She can move her head back and forth and wiggle the rest of her body as well. This is a good way to both loosen up tensed muscles and get some energy out.

  • Squeezy Balls

Give your child a Nerf ball or other soft foam ball that fits easily in his hand. If he feels upset, he can squeeze and let go, and squeeze and let go until the he feels calmer. This is a great tool that the child can keep in his pocket.

  • Take a Walk

Sometimes just getting out of a situation to take a walk (maybe to get a drink of water from the kitchen or to wash hands in the bathroom) can help a child to distance herself from what is making her upset. It also sets the child up for a “do over”. She can walk back into the room and try to have a more successful conversation, do the homework problem again, or re-imagine something that was scary as not so bad.

These strategies take a little practice; they may work better over time as you and your child get used to them. So don’t give up! If something doesn’t work the first time–try it again a couple of times. If a strategy seems like a good fit for you and your child, be sure to practice it sometime when your child is not upset. That way, she will be more likely to use it when she is having a hard time.

Finally, remember that one of the best ways to help your child handle his feelings without losing control is to model behaviors. So you could say to your child, “You know how I don’t like it when there is a lot of traffic in my way on the road? Well, when that happens, I take deep breaths” and show him how.

All of these techniques are great for grown-ups, too!

Katherine Pears
Dr. Katherine Pears is a senior scientist at Oregon Social Learning Center (OSLC). She earned her Ph.D in clinical psychology and has worked with OSLC since 1998. Katherine is the principal investigator and co-developer of the Kids In Transition to Schools (KITS) program. Currently, she oversees all the clinical and research activities for KITS. When she’s not in her office, you’ll find Katherine in the kitchen whipping up her latest creation or outdoors hiking a scenic trail.


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