Equipping Kids to Calm

Practical ways to build your child’s self-regulation skills

Parents want to be able to help their kids calm down when conflict happens. So it can be quite discouraging when conflicts spiral out of control. If screaming matches are normal at your house, or even if they are infrequent but still troublesome, here are three developmental stages to consider. Whether you have a toddler or a teen, we’ll offer practical tips to help you teach your kids to calm down so they can solve problems well.

  1. Other-regulation” is the first stage, when kids are dependent on their caregiver in order to calm when upset during the first few years of life. Parents soothe their irritable, crying kiddos through loving sensory input, such as hugging, rocking, providing a pacifier, singing, swaddling, or gentle bouncing. The child regulates, and bonding and trust are developed between child and parent.
  2. As the child grows, she can begin to “co-regulate” with the parent as they participate together in calming activities, such as reading a book before bedtime, taking deep breaths together when upset, sharing a deep squeeze hug, etc. More bonding and trust are developed in this phase.
  3. Parents can guide their kids to begin to “self-regulate” by encouraging independent self-calming strategies and activities. By around age six, typically functioning kids can be taught to notice when their emotional/energy level rises and independently use a strategy for calming.

The younger you can start with your children the better, but this approach has proven to help older kids as well to calm down and think their way through conflict.   

Here are examples and practical ideas in each of these stages from different parents we’ve coached:

  • Other-regulation: Andrea calmed her tantruming pre-schooler by empathizing and then offering a hug, which empowered her daughter to calm down quickly.  
  • Co-regulation:
    • Joline modeled “dragon breaths” (deep inhale through the nose, blowing a long “fiery” exhale out through the mouth) for her 4-year-old son Ty, and he soon began to join her. He also began to notice times when his mom could benefit from a little deep breathing.   🙂
    • When Kelly’s daughter got upset, they often went for a run to discuss the conflict, because it was calming and much more productive.
  • Self-regulation: Marilyn guided her intense 5-year-old son toward self-regulation by offering choices of calming activities:
    • “If Max gets on a roll, hardly anything stops him, but if I intervene immediately when he’s getting wound up, he responds well – I can guide him to do some calm down time in his hammock with music, or do some big muscle/heavy lifting activities. He has improved in his reactions, and I relate to him so much more calmly.”

These moms were able to help each child at different stages on the road to learning self-regulation. They used various calming/self-regulating activities, which strengthened bonding/trust in the relationship, as they avoided sending their kids to their room

For many of you, the information about developmental stages will get you started. Ask yourself, does your child need to do calming activities with you, or are they ready to calm down independently?

In either case, when your child’s behavior starts escalating, calmly offer help within a few seconds, before your kiddo’s brain is flooded with fight/flight chemicals.

Try phrases like these:

  • Hey Buddy, you’re really upset! I can help you.
  • What do you need right now? What will help you calm down so we can figure this out?
  • What will help your body feel better so your thinking brain can work its best?
  • You can calm down here with us, or go to a private space to help you feel better. Which do you want to do?  

If you want more specifics about calming activities, read on! 

Prepare ahead of time

  • Ask your child to select a “comfy spot” to calm down when upset. You can even stock it with a few favorite (non-screen) items just for that purpose.
  • For younger kids, prepare picture choices by taking photos of your child practicing calming activities and print them. Then during misbehavior/conflict, show your child a couple of options, and let them choose.

When your child is upset, provide options for calming sensory activities

  • Mouth:
    • Deep breathing/dragon breaths
    • Cold water in a bottle with a long curly straw
    • Gum (or a popsicle) can be a powerful brain calmer. Let kids know ahead of time that if they fake arguments to get the calming item, this will no longer be an option 😉
  • Skin:
    • Offer a hug
    • “Squish sandwich” with pillows or couch cushions as child lays face down on the floor. You can even start to talk about the problem in this position. (Included along with other deep pressure activities in our sensory input techniques video.)
    • Weighted blanket
  • Muscle activity:
    • Do pushups together
    • Ride a bike around the block/shoot some hoops/play catch for a few minutes
    • Swing on a swingset  
  • Visual:
    • Calm down jar
    • Color independently or together with your child. This may help less verbal kids identify feelings and wants in their picture.
    • Avoid screens as a calming activity because the transition off will be stressful.  
  • Auditory:
    • Listen to favorite music
    • Sit outside to listen to birds/breeze
    • Hum/sing
    • Grab a couple of kazoos for both humor and calming sensory input, and pretend to “talk out your conflict”.    

Give it a try:

  • When all is calm, ask your child, “Would you like to try some other ideas to calm down when you’re upset, so you don’t have to take a break in your room?”
  • Offer a few of the ideas you think your child would enjoy; practice or make pictures if needed.
  • When it gets tense, quickly offer a couple of calming activities in a light-hearted, encouraging way.

This process can be challenging and require some perseverance, but it is so helpful to prepare our kids self-regulate well in the inevitable stresses and challenges of life.


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