10 ways parents can calm down in the moment
One of the most frequent challenges parents tell me about is their inability to calm down in the moment. In the moment when your child is melting down over the colour of their cup. In the moment when they are yelling and flailing around on the floor. In the moment when they are screaming, “I hate you, go away!”. In the moment when you ask them to do something for the millionth time and they ignore you.
It’s hard to stay calm in those moments.
But you know you need to, right? You know that if you want to help your child learn how to effectively manage their emotions, then you need to learn how to manage your own first. And you’re frustrated and feeling like a failure because you just. can’t. Sound familiar?
Calm Begets Calm
The problem of course, is that when we meet our child’s big emotions with our own big emotions, the situation tends to escalate. But when we are able to remain calm ourselves, we are able to hold space for our child’s emotions. We are able to hear them, contain them, and reflect their feelings back to our kids in a way that helps them feel understood.
Most importantly, when we are able to stay calm and regulated in the midst of our children’s distress, we help them feel SAFE. And a nervous system that feels safe is a calm nervous system.
So the first step in helping our kids learn to self regulate, is to learn how to self regulate ourselves. If we can remain calm, and not fly off the handle, yell, lash out or use harsh tones with our kids when they are distressed, then we are able to soothe their distress and de-escalate the situation.
But HOW do you actually do that?
Well, the key is to get in early. When you are tuned into your own early warning signs you can put strategies in place to manage your emotions before they get out of hand. So, next time you start to feel your stress levels rising, try one of these strategies to calm down in the moment. They will help you calm down quickly so that you can respond to your child with intention, and help them feel calm too.
How to calm down in the moment:
1. Name it to Tame it
Research has shown that the simple act of labelling emotions can help you feel calmer. Labelling your emotions activates the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) and reduces the activity in the amygdala (the feeling brain). Which means naming emotions decreases your emotional reactivity. It puts the “brakes” on your big emotional reactions and helps you feel calmer. So next time you feel your emotions escalating, simply stop what you’re doing and say, “I’m feeling _______”.
2. Take 3 Deep Breaths
The breath is a powerful tool for managing emotions and is the fastest way to calm down in the moment. Taking slow, deep breaths sends a message to the brain that you are safe. It lowers your heart rate and respiration rate, switches off the stress response and brings your thinking brain back online. Next time you feel overwhelmed by big emotions, try taking a few deep breaths. Try counting to 3 on each inhale 3 on each exhale to really slow your breathing down.
3. Use Mindful Mantras
Mantras or affirmations are a great way to pause and shift your perspective. Pairing a mantra with deep breathing is a particularly powerful way to create space between the situation and your reaction to it. This space will allow you to respond rather than react in challenging circumstances. My favourite mantras are, “This is not an emergency”, “My child is having a hard time, not giving me a hard time”, and “I can choose how to respond”. You can create your own mantras or check out my Mindful Mama Mantra Cards. They include a selection of 24 beautifully illustrated mantra cards that are lovely enough to display proudly in your home.
4. Give yourself a Time Out
Sometimes some physical distance from a situation can be enough to bring your logical brain back online and calm your stressed out nervous system. While I never advocate giving your child a time out, a mummy time out may be exactly what YOU need! Try stepping outside for some fresh air or going into your bedroom to take a few deep, calming breaths. And don’t come out until you feel calmer!
5. Pretend you’re being watched
Have you ever noticed how you find it so much easier to respond calmly when you’re in public? Or while other people are nearby? This is no coincidence! Knowing other people can see or hear us can really help us keep our reactions in check. Next time you feel yourself becoming stressed or overwhelmed by your child’s behaviour, try to imagine other people watching, or recording your response. After all, someone is watching – the most important someone of all – your child!
6. Move your body!
When you become stressed, your brain releases adrenaline in order to inspire fast action in the face of imminent danger. The problem is of course, that these days, we are often not in imminent danger. So what do you do with adrenaline coursing through our veins? You move. Getting active is a great way to use up the adrenaline in your system It convinces your brain that you are no longer in danger, so the stress response becomes deactivated. You could try doing star jumps, jogging on the spot, or going for a brisk walk around the block.
7. Use your senses
A quick grounding technique that uses all of the senses is a simple but effective mindfulness strategy that will help you calm down in the moment and help you feel more connected to the present. When you are struggling to remain calm in a situation, it is often because you have been triggered by something in the past, or are worried about something in the future. Mindfulness helps you to stay focused on how you need to respond right now. Try this 1 minute exercise next time you feel yourself losing control. Simply look around you and and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch or feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
8. Splash your face with cold water
Splashing your face with cold water can activate the vagus nerve. This is a long nerve that travels from the brain to almost every organ in the body. One of the things this nerve is responsible for is the parasypathetic nervous system – the nervous system responsible for switching off the stress response and keeping us calm. Submerging or splashing your face with cold water can activate the vagus nerve, slow down respiration and heart rate and quickly help you feel calmer.
9. Close your eyes and think of a happy memory
When you become triggered by a difficult situation, it can be hard to really SEE your child. In those tough moments, your child becomes a threat that you need to defend yourself from. Not really conducive to connection right? So try shifting your perspective by remembering happier times with your child. Close your eyes and conjure up a favourite memory, or keep a picture of yourself and your child in your pocket. This can really help to remind you of just how small and vulnerable your child is, and can rewire your brain to focus on the positives instead of on the negatives.
10. Hug someone
Warm physical touch with someone you love releases oxytocin – the love hormone. It helps the brain feel safe and secure, which switches off the stress response and helps you feel calm and contained. So next time you feel overwhelmed, try asking for a hug from your spouse, child or other loved one – even a pet will do the job!
Need more help to calm down in the moment?
I’ll be running a FREE 5 day challenge designed to help you better regulate your emotions and stay calm in those difficult moments with your kids. I’ll be going live inside of my Facebook Group every day starting on February 15th to give you a short video and worksheet that will help you apply the 5 step framework right away. It’s all about breaking the stress cycle and giving you simple, practical strategies so you can show up and BE the calm your child needs. Sign up below if you’d like to stop yelling and start responding with intention!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.