20 simple calm down strategies for kids to use anywhere
So we are well and truly into December now. The month where there are lots of extra social engagements. Extra sensory input to deal with. Kids who are out of routine and low on sleep. And excitement and expectations are huge.
Which means so is disappointment when those expectations are not met! It’s a time when emotions are heightened and meltdowns are more common. And this can leave parents scratching their heads, wondering what on earth happened and how they can help their distressed child calm down.
But to understand how to help kids calm down, we first need to understand what happens in their bodies and brains when they are NOT calm. There are lots of different things that might trigger a meltdown in your child. But the brain reacts the same regardless of the trigger.
The fight or flight response
First of all, the brain perceives a threat. Your child experiences fear, or anxiety, or disappointment or shame, or a whole range of different emotions. And a reaction begins. The brain sends hormones and chemicals through the body that are designed to help it deal wth the threat. The area of the brain responsible for thinking is temporarily disabled. Now is not a time for thinking. It’s a time for doing.
Adrenaline is sent through the body. Heart rate and respiration rate speeds up, as the body prepares to fight or flee the threat. Blood flows to the limbs. Digestion slows down. Sweating increases. And your child is unable to think clearly or rationally. In this moment, the brain is focused on survival and is simply trying to remain safe.
What you see on the outside, is a meltdown. Aggression, yelling, lashing out, crying, hiding, hitting. What you can’t see, is an immature, still developing brain being flooded with emotion. A brain desperately trying to cope with huge, overwhelming emotions that feel scary. You are seeing a brain that, because of those emotions and stress hormones, is literally unable to think rationally, or control its reactions. You are seeing a brain that is trying to protect itself from danger. And a child who needs help to feel safe.
So what can you do to help? Here are 20 simple calm down strategies for kids that will help them switch the stress response off and feel calm and in control again. And of course, I’m writing this in December because I know December can be especially tricky when it comes to self regulation. But these strategies can be used anywhere, and at at any time of the year!
20 simple calm down strategies for your kids to try:
1. Ask for a hug
A big tight hug from someone you love does two things. It helps your child feel supported and connected to you, and it provides proprioceptive input. Both help your child feel safe and secure and calm an overwhelmed nervous system.
2. Take 3 deep breaths
Mindful Breathing is a quick and effective way to switch off the stress response and reset the nervous system. Try this: hold a finger out in front of your child. Ask them to imagine they are smelling a beautiful flower as they take a deep breath in through their nose. Then they blow out through their mouth, as they imagine they are blowing out a birthday candle. Repeat 3 times. You’ll find more fun mindful breathing exercises you can use on the go in my Mindful Little Breathing Cards.
3. Count as high as you can go
Counting requires your child to use the prefrontal cortex, otherwise known as the “thinking brain”. Activating the thinking brain helps calm the highly aroused “emotional brain”, switching off the stress response, so they feel calmer and more in control again.
4. Have a cold drink
Having a cold drink 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. Drinking cold water can stimulate the vagus nerve, thereby slowing down respiration and heart rate and helping us feel calmer!
5. Back Rub
Soothing, gentle touch can trigger positive brain chemicals like serotonin, which calm the nervous system. Use the palm of your hand to gently but firmly rub your child’s upper back (between the neck and the shoulder blades) in a back and forth or circular motion.
6. Clench and release your fists
This is another simple mindfulness activity that teaches your child body awareness and helps them feel relaxed. It helps your child notice areas of tension in their body before actively relaxing and releasing that tension. This helps to lower the heart rate and brings about a sense of calm.
5. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
This grounding technique is especially helpful if your child is prone to worry. It is a simple mindfulness strategy to help your child engage their senses so they can feel more connected to the present moment. It can help them shift their focus from the worries inside their head to what is happening around them right now. To complete the activity they simply look around, and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste. Find more mindfulness activities like this in my mindfulness activity book for kids.
8. Repeat an affirmation
Affirmations are a great way to deal with the negative mental chatter that happens in our heads when we feel stressed and overwhelmed. Repeating a positive affirmation can help your child remember that they are capable and strong and that the negative thoughts in their head are simply thoughts, not facts! If you need some help coming up with helpful affirmations, you can see our range of affirmation cards for kids here.
9. Find a colour
Another activity that works by activating the thinking area of the brain and helping to calm the emotion brain. Choose a colour, and then ask your child to look around wherever they are and name all the things they can see that are that colour.
10. Sing out loud
Singing is another way to activate the vagus nerve and regulate the nervous system. Plus, music has the ability to trigger happy memories and help us feel good! Encourage your child to sing a song they love, or that reminds them of something or someone special.
11. Use a worry stone
Worry stones are a great calming sensory tool. Small enough to fit into a pocket, your child can simply reach in and stroke the stone when they are feeling anxious. The stone is designed to help them feel grounded in the present moment rather than getting lost in anxious thinking about the past or future. You can check out our worry stones here.
12. Splash your face with cold water
Another way to stimulate the vagus nerve and calm the nervous system is by submerging the face in cold water. If you are unable to submerge the whole face, splashing the face liberally with cold water will also help soothe an overwhelmed child.
13. Hum a tune
Humming works to stimulate the vagus nerve and bring about a sense of calm in much the same way as singing. However, it’s a little more subtle than singing, so may be a more effective strategy if your child is in a crowded place or feeling self conscious.
14. Push your hands together
Another take on progressive muscle relaxation, this strategy involves pushing your hands together (in a prayer position) as hard as you can and noticing the tension in your arms, chest and shoulders. This act of mindful awareness helps bring your child into the present moment, but also helps them notice the sensation of relaxation so they can calm their body.
15. Do some jumping jacks
The stress response triggers the release of adrenaline – the body needs it to fight or run from danger. But when fighting or fleeing is not an option, this adrenaline starts to build up in the body and can worsen feelings of nervousness and anxiety. Doing something physical like jumping jacks helps to expel the adrenaline from the body and sends a message to the brain that the threat is gone. And so, your child feels calmer.
16. Visualise your happy place
Research tells us that the same areas of the brain are activated whether we do something, or simply think about doing it. So if we imagine we are on a beautiful, sunny beach feeling calm, we will actually feel calmer. And if our kids remember a happy, comforting memory, they will feel happy and safe!
17. Count backwards from 100
A slightly more difficult version of our earlier strategy. Counting backwards requires an increased level of concentration and mental alertness, which means it’s great at activating the thinking brain and switching off the stress response.
18. Hang upside down
Now this one is highly effective for some kids, provided you have the space to do it of course! It’s great to do at the park on the monkey bars or on a bench, or could even be done on someone’s couch. Hanging upside down activates the vestibular system – the sensory system responsible for balance and spatial orientation. If your child is feeling overwhelmed by sensory input or has had a sensory meltdown, this is a great strategy to help regulate and calm the nervous system.
19. Gargle some water
Gargling water in the back of the throat once again, is a strategy for stimulating the vagus nerve. It lowers the heart rate, returning respiration rate to normal and switching off the stress response.
20. Give yourself a bear hug
Some children prefer not to be touched by others when they are feeling overwhelmed, or they might find themselves without a trusting adult to ask for a hug. In that case, they can simply hug themselves! Have them cross their arms tightly over their chest, and reach around to their backs. They may even like to cross their legs over each other also. As well as providing calming sensory input via touch, your child will “cross the midline” when they do this. Research suggests that crossing the midline encourages the two hemispheres of the brain to work together better, allowing for more effective self regulation and integration of the “thinking” and “feeling” brains. This means calmer, happier kids.
Calm Down Cards
Want to keep your list of kids calm down strategies handy? Grab a free printable list of all the Calm Down strategies from the blog down below. Keep it on the fridge, pop it into your bag, or screen shot it and keep it on your phone for easy access.
Want even more? Sign up to our email list below to receive a FREE set of illustrated Kids Calm Down Cards. I recommend you laminate them and add them to a binder ring so you have your own set of portable calming strategies that fit into your bag. With these cards you’ll never be left scratching your head and wondering what to do ever again!