Does a calm down corner teach kids to hide emotions?
Earlier this week one of my lovely Mindful Little Mama members brought a post about calming tools and calm down corners to my attention. The post suggested that using calming tools for kids was teaching them to shut down their emotions. That using a calm down corner with kids sends them the message that we do not want to hear about their big, “negative” emotions. And that placing too much emphasis on calming down is simply another way of distracting children from emotions and teaching them to hide them from us.
And I didn’t entirely disagree with the post.
Now at this stage you might be thinking, WHAT?! You sell products that are designed to help kids calm down – how could you possibly agree with this?
Well, honestly, there were some valid points made in the post. And I’m not one to shy away from healthy debate. The points made are worth discussing. Because the truth is, calm down corners and calm down tools are sometimes used to quiet kids. To prevent tantrums. To squash feelings. And I absolutely, positively, do not want you to use yours in that way.
So let’s take a look at the main points raised in the post, and why I do – and do not – agree with each of them.
1.Co-regulation builds self regulation skills
The original post argued that co-regulation is all that is needed to develop self regulation skills. That remaining calm, and modelling how to regulate is enough for children to learn this skill themselves. And this is partially true.
Consistent co-regulation with a responsive caregiver is necessary for the development of self regulation.
Humans develop the capacity for self regulation through the process of co-regulation. Co-regulation is the process of supporting your child through big emotions while remaining regulated yourself. This can be done in a number of ways, such as through comforting physical touch, using soothing words, or remaining in close proximity to your child while they are distressed. Which is why I always recommend that parents use a calm down corner together with their child.
Why? Because co regulation creates a sense of safety for children. This felt safety allows the nervous system to switch off the stress response and return to baseline. Regulation cannot occur without felt safety. So children cannot learn to self regulate until they have experienced multiple instances of co regulation.
Co-regulation alone is not enough. Self regulation skills still need to be explicitly taught.
Research tells us that children need to be explicitly taught self regulation skills. Modelling regulation skills for our children is important. Children should witness us using regulation skills ourselves and managing emotions in healthy ways. But modelling alone is not enough, because regulation is an internal process.
What is self regulation?
Regulation is the process of recognising internal stress and then implementing strategies to alleviate that stress in order to return to baseline. It is about managing stress in order to maintain balance. The problem with relying on modelling alone, is that children cannot see the internal stimuli we are responding to when we regulate ourselves.
In order to effectively regulate, children need to learn what stress, or dysregulation feels like in their body. And what it feels like for them may not be what it feels like for me, because we all have different nervous systems and different sensory systems (you can read more about the sensory systems and their role in calming the nervous system here).
Children need to learn how to notice stress in their bodies. They need to practice implementing a range of strategies in response to that stress until they find out what works for their unique nervous system. Children cannot learn this only by observing us. It also requires explicit teaching, plenty of feedback, and repeated opportunities for reflection with a trusted adult. And then – practice. Lots and lots of practice.
2. Self regulation is developmental
The second point made in the post was that self regulation is a developmental process that cannot be rushed. The original poster argued that since the area of the brain responsible for logic and reason is still developing in children, there is no point teaching kids to self regulate prior to that.
Self regulation is developmental. Very young children and infants do not have the capacity to self regulate.
And the area of the brain responsible for logic and reason does not fully develop until we are in our mid twenties. Which means that prior to the age of around 25, humans do tend to be more emotionally reactive and impulsive.
There are many steps along the way to mastery.
ALL of the skills children learn can only be mastered when they are developmentally ready to do so! Walking. Reading. Speaking, Toileting. But they don’t acquire these skills overnight simply because they reach a certain age and have watched us doing it. There are many steps along the way to these milestones, and many of them require explicit teaching, and lots of practice too! Developmental readiness is the last step in a long process, that often takes many years. To master a complex skill, we actually need learn a series of smaller skills first. And we learn them in a particular order, because each one builds on the one before it.
Self regulation is a complex skill
Like any other complex skill, it has multiple steps. First, children learn what it feels like to feel safe and to be soothed. They watch us regulating ourselves. They learn the names of emotions and how to identify emotions in others. They learn what different emotions feel like in their bodies. They learn what the physical signs of dysregulation feel like in their bodies. And then, when they are developmentally ready, they are able to independently implement strategies to manage that stress and express their emotions in a healthy and safe way. Just because they cannot immediately master the final skill, does not mean we don’t build awareness, provide scaffolding, and teach them the foundational skills they need along the way.
Sure, we cannot expect a 2 year old child to independently self regulate, but we can validate her big feelings so she understands that it is safe to feel them. We can begin to teach her how to label emotions. We can teach her that emotions are finite and that they come and go. We can help her understand that emotions occur in response to different stimuli. And we can begin to teach her body and breath awareness so that she becomes familiar with the internal sensations associated with emotions, as well as with the feeling of calm. And teaching her all of these skills will eventually lead her to mastery – when she is developmentally ready!
3. Children need space to express their feelings
The final argument of the original poster is that children should be allowed to express their emotions freely. That children do not need to be encouraged to calm down when they are distressed. They need comfort. They need release. They need to know that their feelings are valid. And they need to be allowed to feel their feelings until they are done.
They absolutely do. I wholeheartedly agree with this point. Children need to understand that all emotions are ok. And they need to feel safe to feel them, talk about them, and release them. It is our job as parents and caregivers to hold space for those emotions and allow our children to express them and move them through their bodies.
That doesn’t mean we can’t teach our children to express their emotions in healthy, safe ways. We can accept and allow emotions while at the same time, placing limits on behaviour. And this is what a calm down space provides – a safe space, and tools that allow for safe expression of a child’s emotions. We do not shut emotions down in a calm down space. We allow them to be felt, for as long (and as hard) as they need to be.
However, I do agree that regulation tools and calm down corners can sometimes be used as a way to distract children from feelings and put an end to tantrums. And that is not what they are intended to be used for at all.
Here is how you shut emotions down in a calm down corner:
1. You jump straight to problem solving
The first thing parents tend to do, is try to rush into problem solving mode or to encourage the use of calm down tools before their child has had a chance to fully express and feel their emotions. The first step should always be to listen to your child. To validate how they feel and respond with empathy to their big emotions. If you are met with resistance from your child when you try to implement calming tools, this is a good sign that they do not feel validated. That they need more time to simply release their emotions – with you as their witness.
2. You try to use calming tools with a dysregulated child
Don’t use calming tools with your child when they are mid meltdown. Remember, regulation is about recognising stress – recognising emotions – and implementing tools and strategies to allow safe expression of that emotion BEFORE your child becomes completely dysregulated. Once your child’s fight or flight response is in high gear, they cannot use calming tools. It is too late.
During a meltdown, the rational brain shuts down. There is no thinking happening at this stage, which means there is also no learning happening. A dysregulated child needs safety. This is not a time for calming tools. This is a time for creating safety through co-regulation. Once your child feels safe again, the stress response will switch off and they will begin to calm down. Once they are calm, then – and only then – can you move onto problem solving and discussion of strategies to use next time.
So should I be using a calm down corner with my child?
Yes! I believe wholeheartedly, that learning regulation skills, and using calming tools within the safety of their loving, responsive relationship with you, is the single best thing you can do for you child. And I also believe wholeheartedly in the power and value of a designated calm down corner that can be used by you and your child together. For more information on setting up a calm down corner, check out this blog post. And for all the printable resources you need to use your calm down corner with your child, see our Mindful Little Calm Down Kit – so you can start responding calmly and confidently to your child’s challenging behaviours and BIG emotions.
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.