When I talk to kids at school about calming down, I talk to them about the difference between their ‘feelings brain’ and their ‘thinking brain’.
When you are feeling angry, upset, overwhelmed, confused, or over-excited, your feelings brain is highly activated.
In this state, your thinking brain shuts down.
You can’t think straight, you can’t talk about what the problem is, and you can’t make good decisions. It is not possible, because the only options available to you are governed by the flight, fight, or freeze response to stress.
To get your thinking brain back into action, you need to calm down.
Yogi’s in India were talking about the importance of breath 5,000 years ago. The Buddha was talking about it 2,500 years ago. And now neuroscience has proven that deep breathing is the best way to calm down.
I have taught the following techniques to children as young as four years of age.
Tune in to your body
The first thing you need to do is stop, and tune in to how your body feels.
Because your thinking brain isn’t working, all you have available to you is feeling. Stress is held in the body and everyone feels it in different parts of the body. Some people feel butterflies in the tummy, pounding head, closed fists or shaking hands, fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, jelly legs, and so on. Your body is the first cue to how you are feeling.
In order to remember to stop, some children may need some kind of hand signal to remind them.
Name that feeling
The next step is to acknowledge how you are feeling.
You say, “I am feeling…”
frustrated, anger, scared, over-excited, sad, upset, overwhelmed, confused, or any of the many emotions you could be feeling.
Deep belly breathing
After naming the emotion, you do deep belly breathing.
Take a slow breath in through the nose, and fill your lungs deep down into the belly. I teach children to do this breath to a count of four seconds.
Hold the breath for 2 seconds.
Breathe slowly out through the nose for 4 seconds.
Hold for 2 seconds.
A lot of folks say to breathe out through the mouth, but breathing out through the nose slows the breath down and triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which is the system that helps to calm you down.
Deep belly breathing is the first strategy to use to calm down. It’s mandatory. Nothing else is as effective as breathing.
After the child has done some breathing, there are three other strategies that he or she can use to calm down. As everyone is different, one or two strategies may be preferred over the others.
These strategies are:
- Talk to yourself
- Think calming thoughts
- Count backwards
When you talk to yourself, you tell your self positive statements such as…” I can calm down”, “I’ve got this”, “I can work this out”, and so on. It must be positive.
Thinking calming thoughts is also known as ‘going to your happy place’. You think of anything that makes you feel good – a hug from grandma, a waterfall, swimming, hearing the waves of the beach, etc.
Counting backwards can be from any number. Young children count backwards from 4. Older children choose to count back from 10 or 50, whatever works for them. Some children are creative and count back from 100 by 3’s, or other combinations. We count backwards because there is an end point – zero. Most people don’t count ‘minus 1, minus 2″.
These calming down strategies are not taught in the heat of the moment. You must teach them to children when they are calm, so you can support them to use the strategies when they are upset.
You must be calm yourself, to support your child to use the strategies. If you are not calm, your child’s mirror neurons will sense your tension and this will make it difficult for him/her to calm down. The really good thing is that adults can use the same calming strategies as children.
There are lots of ways of calming down, but the above strategies are the best. You want your child to learn to calm down in the situation, because that is a good life skill to have. When you are having a blue with the boss, you can’t take yourself to time-out, or go and play some music. Playing music, going for a walk, playing sport, etc, are all great self-care skills that children and adults can do to integrate mind and body.
Children tend to learn these calming skills rather quickly. They may not always remember to use them though, so you may need to support them or prompt them.
Now that the child is calm, he or she can move into Problem Solving.
Download the “How to Calm Down” poster poster-how-to-calm-down