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Staying Regulated: Helping Children Calm Strong Emotional Reactions

It is understandable that many children and adults are experiencing higher levels of anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness during this time. If it seems it takes much less for you to become upset or to upset your child, it probably does. Many families have been quarantining for months and made it through online school just to try to figure out summer plans and keep children safe and productively occupied while managing work, health concerns, persistent financial loss or mental health challenges. In addition, social injustices and racism are a painful experience for many individuals with profound effects on functioning and this reality is becoming clearer to more people and more openly talked about and addressed in protests and social media. People are hurting, uncertainty remains, and there is a considerable emotional toll generally.  It is no wonder that it might be harder for children or parents to stay calm and manage strong emotions.  

How do you help your child stay regulated and constructively express his or her emotions during this time? 

  • Calm yourself first
  • Learn and Practice relaxation strategies alone and with your child
  • Identify and talk about emotions
  • Problem solve and discuss behavior choices
  • Focus on building a positive relationship with your child

Parents can support their children by first and most importantly learning how to regulate themselves, and then by directly teaching coping strategies to children and taking time to problem solve and discuss appropriate behavior choices. 

1) CALM YOURSELF FIRST

Focus on regulating yourself FIRST. Parents model how to express feelings and react under distress. Children are always watching. They are far more likely to do what you do than what you say. 

Take responsibility for monitoring and regulating your own emotions. Emotions are contagious. People naturally match the pace and emotional tone of others. Choose to calm down before interacting with an upset child

Try to stay calm when emotions are escalating. This is difficult and takes practice. You are consciously slowing down, to help your child de-escalate. Do a body scan for tension. Notice your heart rate and muscle tightness. 

Breathe. Stretch. Take a few minutes to calm yourself. Practice slow, deep breathing (in through the nose and out through the mouth, with a longer exhale). This is scientifically proven method to calm and reduce the fight-flight-freeze response.

This is particularly important when your child or teen is upset or behaving in a way that is challenging. (See www.parentsupportduringcovid19.com for parent handouts of research supported relaxation strategies: diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery). 

Relax your face, body, and tone. It is impossible to feel angry and relaxed at the same time. If your child is anxious, relaxing your face and body will help him or her relax. This takes a lot of self-awareness; you can affect your child’s emotions and response. 

Work to actually relax your body, not just be quiet or emotionally detach.

Ask yourself: Am I tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Is this an emergency? 

The goal is to stay close and calm and say very little. Once a child becomes very upset (emotionally dysregulated) teaching and trying to reason will not work. The fight or flight response has kicked in.

Limit what you say if your child is already yelling, crying, melting down or having a tantrum. Don’t try to convince your child, negotiate, or make him or her use a calming strategy. Do make sure child is safe. 

Try to take his or her perspective with compassion. Remember your child is not trying to make you mad; he or she is overwhelmed and lacks the skills to manage strong emotions. 

If you are becoming too upset, gently say you need to walk away and will return. Speak slowly. Ground yourself (5-4-3-2-1 5 Senses exercise*) and try to remain present. You can provide reassurance of your love and say you’re there to comfort when ready. 

2) TEACH AND PRACTICE RELAXATION & RE-SETTING TECHNIQUES WITH YOUR CHILD

Emotion regulation is a skill that needs practice. Practice relaxation strategies DAILY when already calm. 

Help children manage their stress response with activities that help build self- regulation (breathing, exercise, mindfulness). See handouts on www.parentsupportduringcovid19.com for information about specific breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation tools, mindfulness activities, and guided imagery. 

Try out different options and practice a variety of calming techniques to know what works best (but include breathing-slow deep breathing is always a first go-to). These must be practiced often and when calm. Set aside time. Do it together. Make it fun. 

Getting active is also important. In addition to daily 30 minutes of exercise for overall stress reduction, there are quick active techniques that children can learn to expressive strong negative feelings: wall pushups, jumping jacks, time on a scooter or bike, stress press, tight self-hugs. Patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity: walking, running, dancing, singing, repetitive meditative breathing – helps regulate (See Dr Bruce Perry’s work). (See also The kids guide to staying awesome and in control: simple stuff to help children regulate their emotions and senses for more tools and activities https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20978895-the-kids-guide-to-staying-awesome-and-in-control )

3) PROBLEM SOLVE AND DISCUSS BEHAVIOR CHOICES

At a later time, when everyone is truly calm talk, about what happened. Discuss other possible choices to make when angry or frustrated. Use a calm and non-critical tone. Figure out why your child became upset to try to identify underlying feelings. 

Discuss or review family rules and safe options: it is ok to feel angry/frustrated/anxious but NO hurting yourself, hurting someone else or destroying property. 

Emphasize that we all have a choice in our action or behavior. Talk through consequences and come up with a plan. Practice or role play plan when calm. 

Share examples of how you managed your reactions when you became frustrated/stressed/angry. Share consequences if you did not make a good choice and identify the other options you could have made. 

Encourage Helpful Thoughts and Self-Talk. Write out calming statements. Practice and post statements (“I can handle this”, “I can take a breath”).

4) FINALLY, REFLECT & RECONNECT

Once you and your child are calm positively connect. PRIORITIZE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR CHILD.

Notice, identify, accept, and allow feelings.  

Listen and let your child express emotions. Acknowledge and validate feelings. This helps you connect and shows understanding. 

Describe face and body cues. This helps to bring awareness of sensations (how his or her body feels) when experiencing different emotions. Noticing sensations and identifying early warning signs is essential (before escalation is the only time you can effectively help children use calming skills). 

Label your own emotions and say how you are feeling. This builds self-awareness. Talking about feelings generally builds an emotional vocabulary and increases an understanding about one’s own feelings and those of others. Observe and comment on your child’s emotional state (“you look calm”, “you look like you are starting to get frustrated”). 

Helping everyone in the family manage reactions and develop better emotion regulation skills is enhanced by having compassion for each other, creating predictable routines, building connection, focusing on relationships, practicing relaxation skills, and learning how to actively re-set. Keep expectations reasonable and appropriate. Make sure there are no unmet needs for you or your child (hungry, tired, sick). Use humor to diffuse tense situations when possible. 


Please reach out if you are having difficulty and want support for yourself or your child during this time. 

Additional Resources: 

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pulling-through/202004/the-pandemic-toolkit-parents-need

Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids Workbook by Dr Laura Markham (2018) https://www.amazon.com/%20Peaceful-Parent-Happy-Kids-Connecting/dp/0399160280

https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-calm.html?ref=search

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