Every kid is going to have his moments. From their early days, our little ones display their not-so-little personalities in a variety of ways. Some children, however, have an exceedingly difficult time calming down and regulating their emotions. Whether this manifests as trouble staying in their seat during class, settling down to go to sleep at the end of the day, or being quick to anger, plenty of children struggle with managing stress, focusing, getting overstimulated, and learning how to serenely manage the trials and tribulations of daily life. These struggles can also be stressful for parents, who may fear their child will get pigeon-holed for "bad" behavior or are concerned that their child is worrying too much at such as young age. These 10 tricks are tried-and-true ways to help your kiddo mellow out and simultaneously learn valuable skills that will benefit her throughout her life. As any adult knows, life doesn't typically get any easier as you get older, so starting kids off early with a toolbox of methods and habits that can be established and then revisited as they grow is a (mostly free) gift that keeps on giving. If some of these suggestions are new to you, you can even adopt them yourselves. Hopefully, you'll find your whole family is more chill and calm as a result.
1. Introduce guided meditation.
For several years when my oldest was in bed, but not quite ready for sleep, he would ask for a guided meditation. Although the theme varied wildly from the fantastical (a visit to a candy factory where everything from the floor to the fixtures was made from some type of sweet) to a plausible scenario (going on a school field trip), I would take him through the steps of his make-believe day from his wake-up to snoozeville. If thinking up your own meditation isn’t something your interested in, there are plenty available online or as apps that were specifically designed with kids in mind. Whoever is doing the talking, there’s something soothing about drifting off while listening to the even, calm tone of a storyteller.
2. Find calming books to help them concentrate.
Books in general are a great way to help kids focus and settle down. For really active kids, getting them to act out the book may be an effective way to keep them engaged in the story. Simply choose a topic that interests them and borrow or buy books that address that theme. Meditation books and books about mindfulness often offer profound life lessons in a subtle or understated fashion, but any book that helps your child relax is great. Even for children who are proficient readers, having a parent or family read to them can be calming and allows for a little brain break.
3. Namaste together.
We’re firm believers that a little yoga can go a long way and love practicing yoga with our kiddos. The movements are soothing, introspective, and yet are still a good way to get active. Yoga movements also encourage self-control and self-discipline, which are skills that can be applied off the mat as well during their days. And yes, some kids simply need to get rid of that last burst of energy before bedtime. While some activities (like jumping jacks or a loud dance party) may get kids revved up, relaxing stretches could help your little ones wind down and encourage their bodies to relax. Have them end in shavasana on their bed. This calming position is the perfect transition to sleep, as anyone who has ever conked out at the end of yoga class can tell you.
4. Experiment with sensory activities.
Making a calm down jar, playing with sand, going outside and swinging, listening to calming music: all of these activities can be helpful for a child who needs to settle down. Since every kid is going to respond differently to varied stimuli, observe your child closely while she is at play. What are some of her favorite, relaxing things to do and can they be included in that challenging part of the day in some way?
5. Establish a routine.
Having a consistent routine at home has helped many a kid. Children generally thrive on routine and knowing what’s going to happen next, which is one reason why your child who is an angel at school or daycare becomes unpredictable and tantrum-y while out and about with the family. Consistently getting up, going to bed, having an afternoon outdoor play period, and eating at the same times primes their little bodies and strengthens their circadian rhythms. Most little ones can’t vocalize, “I feel like my blood sugar level is dropping, and I need to have something to eat,” so knowing when a snack will take place is comforting for both body and mind. Maintaining a routine also includes having favorite things such as beloved stuffed animals nearby and bringing comforting essentials such as nightlights when out of town.
6. Determine the trouble-causing times and help what is contributing to them.
Maybe your child gets stressed before school. Maybe he comes home from school and can’t settle down before homework. Maybe bedtime is when the cumulative effects of the day overwhelm him. Again, observation is key: are there times of the day when he frequently has a meltdown? What are the activities that are happening around that time? Some things, such as swapping screen time to earlier in the day so that it doesn’t become a bedtime battle or nixing any type of caffeine or refined sugar at night, are easy fixes. Others may take some trial-and-error before you find a sweet spot. For kids who have been at school all day, getting them to sit down and do homework right when they arrive home may be impossible. Try encouraging active play for a period as well as a healthy snack to fight off a mid-afternoon energy slump. Sitting down and refocusing is a lot easier with a clear mind and a satisfied belly.
7. Teach finger breathing and use stress balls for a release.
Mindfulness is an actual scheduled activity for the lucky kids at my children’s school. One trick they both love to use is finger breathing. Here’s how it works: sit comfortably and tent your fingers so that fingertips are touching. When taking a breath in, fingers stay connected but make a round shape like a balloon expanding; when breathing out, they flatten their fingers and palms together. Simple and suitable for the car, in class, or anywhere a meltdown might happen (i.e. everywhere). Using stress balls can also be therapeutic, and in lieu of those, kids can knead play-doh or even pizza dough.
8. Allow for the appropriate time to react and digest stressful information.
Part and parcel with having a routine is the importance of understanding expectations and anticipating events. While some kids inherit the “easy-going” gene, others simply do not — and any deviation from the schedule can wreak havoc on their sensibilities. We as parents have to figure out how and when to inform them of these changes. After having cavities filled at the age of two, my son developed a fear of going to the dentist. I knew if I told him about an upcoming appointment too far in advance, he would agonize about it and worry for days (or weeks). I also knew that if I waited until the day of the appointment, he might freak out and overreact since he didn’t have time to mentally prepare. So for the past few years we have taken to telling him the day before his appointment: he has time to ask questions and for me to remind him that his subsequent visits have been fine and to reassure him that even if he has a cavity it will not be filled at that particular appointment.
9. Incorporate massage and therapeutic touch.
Most children enjoy simply being in physical contact with their parents or loved ones when they are upset or sad. Just like rocking a newborn, a gentle repetitive movement can be extremely soothing. My daughter loves getting massages and gentle back scratches, especially when she is tired. The slow, circular movements bring awareness to the body as well as act as a tension-reduction method.
10. Offer recognition for progress.
Feeling out of control is an unpleasant emotion, even for little kids. Most kids want to behave well, but the world is an interesting place, and learning how to navigate it as well as block out distracting stimuli is a life-long learning experience. It might be unrealistic to expect your child to go from basically inhaling her dinner while standing up before rushing off to play — to sitting placidly for a long meal and expertly using utensils. If she can make it five minutes before fidgeting, that’s a start and you should let your child know you recognize his/her efforts and progress. By the time she can sit for 20 minutes, perhaps you can offer to take her out to a restaurant for dinner. This same type of positive recognition can be applied when a child lasts for a few songs at a concert you or your partner are interested in, is able to wait in the never-ending line at the post office, or hands over a toy to his brother or sister without much of a fuss. Kids love getting gold stars, even virtual ones, and as the behaviors will become ingrained, the kids will gain self-confidence and feel proud of their ability to manage and express themselves calmly.