How often have you told a toddler to “calm down”? Or asked a child to “stop crying”?Usually when we get to this point, it is often us that needs to calm down, or us who feels like bursting into tears. What we are requesting from children in these moments of crisis is that they regulate their own emotions.
Emotional regulation is a tricky skill to learn, trickier still at moments of emotional stress. Yet it is in these moments that we normally ask children to practice the skill of shifting between emotional states.
In order to move between emotional states, children need to know what they feel like. If you can support a child to recognise how their body feels when they themselves feel calm, then at least they have a target to aim for when you say “calm down.” Without this, your request can come across as very abstract.
In my work, I support people from a wide range of backgrounds with a wide range of needs. Some of the people I work with are in very stressful jobs, others are recovering addicts. I have supported children with special educational needs and disabilities, and I have supported the staff who care for these children. For everyone, “checking-in” with your body is a really handy way of understanding how you are feeling.
You might think that you know how you are feeling as you are feeling it, but quite often we can become stressed without noticing it, or our mood can drop and we only notice when we get to the point of feeling sad. Checking-in regularly with your physical self, and knowing your own personal warning signs is really helpful.
For you, a check-in could be doing a quick scan of your body and noticing the tension around your neck and shoulders as if a head ache is building, or noticing that you’re moving around a lot but not getting much done. Perhaps you bite your fingernails or fuss with your clothes, maybe you eat more sugary foods? Whatever your warning signs are they will be unique to you. Knowing what they are is key to supporting your own emotional awareness.
If we think about this for young children, we might notice them becoming more clingy, or withdrawing from social contact. They might get frustrated more quickly than usual and throw a toy or reject an activity. Most likely we would notice their facial expressions: children’s expressions are much less guarded than adults so it is easier for us to see what they are feeling, as it is not masked.
To support children in checking-in with their bodies, we can ask them simple questions. Wording these question so that they are about the body will help to direct their attention to their physicality, so for example “is your body feeling cuddly?” “Do your hands feel grabby?” “How does your face feel?” Providing visuals to go with these questions can help children to frame their answers, or simply to be able to point to the visual of something they are not yet able to express in words.
Generally, when we ask a child to emotionally regulate, what we are requesting is calm.
Children know what happy, sad and excited are because these states are frequently labelled for them and reinforced in our language. They know what these feelings are, but what is calm? Calm is just something adults say when children are feeling anything other than calm!
Try working into your routine a regular opportunity for children to feel their bodies in a state of calm. The game of ‘Sleeping Dragons’ is a lot of fun: Ask the children to sit down and pretend they are dragons about to go to sleep. Begin with fingers clawed up and take a deep breath in, as the dragons relax into sleep their claws uncurl, their eyes close, and they blow out all the fire that is left in their bellies. (You want this blowing out to be a long and continuous breath). After a three deep slow breaths in and out, instruct the children to put one hand on their bellies and one hand on their chests to feel the dragon’s breathing as it sleeps.
Make sure you join in as well. Narrate for the children what you feel as your body enters a state of calm, e.g. your shoulders are down, your tummy comes out as you breathe in, your chest goes down as you breathe out. Slow your voice and use its tone to reflect the state you want them to achieve. When everyone is peaceful tell them “You feel calm”.
You can emphasise this, “This is what your body feels like when you feel calm”. If you think the children might be able to provide it you can ask them to describe how their bodies are feeling to you. This will give you their language to use when talking to them about feeling calm in the future. For example a child might say “My arms feel tired” you could then reflect this back to them on another day when things are not going their way and say, “Do you need to feel tired arms again?”
Here is another quick example of a way to teach emotional regulation skills through play. There are a great many more and I am always happy to be contacted by parents and professionals looking for more ideas.
Being excited balloons and calm balloons
Ask the children to pretend that they are balloons being blown up. Have them breathe in, in three short breaths. As they do so they can puff their bodies out and hold out their arms to show that they are full of air. (You can use a real balloon to model this to them). What happens when you let go of a balloon that is full of air? Yes that’s right, have them race around the room making ‘farting’ noises! (We often avoid situations where children are likely to get a bit silly or over excited, providing these opportunities in a managed way is further support to their development of emotional regulation skills). Once all their air is expended they have to fall to the ground in a little heap, just like the balloon.
Tell the children they are going to be balloons again, but this time they will be calm balloons - with tubes in them! If you are using a real balloon to model this to the children make a little tube of cardboard and once the balloon is inflated, insert the tube into its neck so that it blows around the room without making a noise. Have the children copy this by blowing out all their air in one continuous stream and swooshing around the room in the loops that the balloon makes. As before, they can drop to the floor when they have run out of air. Ask the children to describe the difference between how it feels to be an excited balloon and to be a calm balloon. As you do this you are drawing their attention to their own internal emotional states.
About the author
Katie Rose White is a Laughter Facilitator and founder of ‘The Best Medicine’. She works predominantly with carers, teachers and healthcare professionals - teaching playful strategies for boosting mood, strengthening resilience and improving wellbeing. She provides practical workshops, interactive talks and training days - fusing therapeutic laughter techniques, playful games and activities, and mindfulness-based practices. The techniques are not only designed to equip participants with tools for managing their stress, but can also be used and adapted to the needs of the people that they are supporting.