50 Self-Regulation Activities to Empower Your Child to Calm

Because Self-Regulation Comes Before Emotional Regulation

Self-regulation. Emotional regulation. You want to help your child get to an emotionally calm place when conflict happens. But it is so discouraging when, instead, the conflict spirals out of control. 

Have you ever wished you had a go-to list of calming activities for moments of family mayhem? Whether you have a toddler or a teen, try out a few of the activities below.  You won’t regret prioritizing self-regulation with your kids.

There’s a lot of helpful information in this article. Feel free to skip around with the table of contents.

What is self-regulation? How is it different from emotional regulation?

Self-regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to monitor and manage your “arousal state” or energy level. More specifically, it means being aware of your energy level (and basic emotions) that result from either external experiences and/or your internal thoughts. The next step is choosing strategies to adjust your energy level for the most effective response. 

Energy self-awareness + healthy coping strategies = SELF-REGULATION

As an adult, this might look like, “I am losin’ it!! I’m going to go take a walk and cool down!” As you take a brisk walk, you use up the fight/flight chemistry that had started to flood your system with the strong, rhythmical, calming muscle-joint input of walking. This helps your brain decide “the danger is over” and your frontal lobe begins to function again. 

That’s self-regulation, and it preps you for the next step: emotional regulation. 

Leaving the room is self-regulation.
Energy self-awareness + healthy coping strategies = SELF-REGULATION

Emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is when you understand, evaluate and even problem-solve what you were feeling. Sometimes self-regulation and emotional regulation get mixed up in pop terminology. 

Emotional regulation involves the skills to answer these questions:

  • What am I feeling? 
  • What thoughts or beliefs are driving those feelings? 
  • What is a wise course of action? (i.e. let it go or ideas to solve the problem)

In our example, emotional regulation might be, “Ok, that anger was actually about feeling overwhelmed and out of control. And I’m worried about what’s going to happen with my intense oldest. Although things aren’t really as bad as they seemed at the time, it would still be good to look for a time to problem-solve this issue with her when we’re both relaxed.” 

Energy self-awareness + healthy coping strategies + emotional insight = EMOTIONAL REGULATION

This kind of emotional insight is a complicated and often slow process. The brain will shut the process of emotional regulation down in fight-or-flight mode because it (emotional regulation) gets in the way of quick, self protective, fight-or-flight reactions.

So if you want to work through the frustrations of family life, remember this: self-awareness → calming strategy → emotional insight is a vital sequence for both parents and kids.  

Reflecting on why you felt a certain way is emotional regulation.
Energy self-awareness + healthy coping strategies + emotional insight = EMOTIONAL REGULATION

Adults often regulate themselves and don’t realize it

Most of us have a go-to strategy when we need to calm down. Those are really important skills to have as a parent, especially when they keep us from “losin’ it” with our kids! Deep breaths.

  • A few minutes in a quiet room away from the chaos.
  • A phone call to a friend.
  • A cup of tea.
  • A funny TV show.

These are self-regulation activities, and you probably know which self-regulation activities help you. Often (thanks to a lifetime of experience) we do these things without even realizing they are helping us calm down! 

But for our kids’ unstable, developing brains, it’s another story… 

What happens in fight-or-flight mode and how your child’s five senses can help

A tantrum is a sign of flight-or-fight mode.

When your child is having a tantrum their fight-or-flight system has “hijacked” their brain and they have lost control. This does not ignore the role of choice, responsibility and sin in a child’s (or adult’s) outburst. But for all of us, when needs and stress are high and skills are low, it’s very difficult to make a wise choice. Dysregulation is a brain problem. Because of that, you can think of your child’s outburst as primarily a brain issue, not a character issue. 

In your child’s outburst, the blood flows out of the frontal lobe (where emotions are processed) and into the motor cortex and big muscles to prepare him/her for physical self-protection. Even if there’s no physical danger, it’s the same system

When a person is in true danger, they cannot stop and consider “Hmmm, what am I feeling right now?” That would slow down quick self-defense reactions, so emotional insight shuts down in fight-or-flight mode.

For a child to grow in emotional regulation and emotional intelligence, they need to calm down enough to get their frontal lobe “back online” and ready to process emotions. 

Using the body for self-calming sensory activities

Swinging for self-regulation

Using the body for self-calming sensory activities does two important things: 

  1. It uses up the big muscle fight-or-flight chemistry so that it doesn’t feed an ongoing anxious state. 
  2. It taps into the miracle of our sensory systems to signal an “all-clear.” Life is calm and pleasant, so the danger must be over. 

By helping your kids learn self-regulation skills their frontal lobes can resume functioning. Only then can they figure out what’s going on in them and what to do about it. 

Self-regulation needs instruction and practice

For a small percentage of kids, self-regulation comes naturally. For most others, they need a lot of instruction and practice. So don’t be discouraged that your children aren’t emotional regulation masters! 

You’ve probably experienced trying to get your kids to talk about why they got upset and made a poor choice. But… their brains were still in fight-or-flight mode. What happened?

They mostly likely either shut down or got even more upset. The conversation was anything but a wisdom-building, emotionally regulating discussion! 

That’s why I’m so passionate about equipping you to help your children learn how to self-regulate.

emotional regulation activities to help your child learn to calm down

Why is teaching self-regulation important?

Self-regulation is a stepping stone to emotional intelligence. These two skills will impact your kids’ ability to make and maintain lifelong relationships.

This may seem a bit scary if you’ve got a child that loses their cool easily, blames everyone else, and has little awareness about what was going on in them. But there’s plenty of hope!

Emotional regulation is part of emotional intelligence.
Self-regulation makes lasting relationships possible.

We now understand that all intelligence, both emotional and cognitive, are malleable. In fact, when caregivers teach kids that kindness is not an innate quality, but can be learned, bullying decreases! Considering all this, it only makes sense that you give your kids the best support in developing their emotional intelligence. 

When big emotions sweep over your child, you can help your child learn to calm their body and even name the feeling. It’s a valuable opportunity to help your child develop into an emotionally aware and intelligent person who can forge meaningful friendships.

What do researchers say about self-regulation?

In his classic book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, researcher John Gottman, PhD states: 

“…science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships. For parents, this quality of ‘emotional intelligence’ – as many now call it – means being aware of your children’s feelings, and being able to empathize, soothe, and guide them.” 

Gottman notes that children “learn most lessons about emotion from their parents.” 

In Emotional Intelligence psychologist Daniel Goleman writes:

 “This emotional schooling operates not just through the things parents say and do directly to children, but also in the models they offer for handling their own feelings…” 

When your kids are most upset, that’s when they need you the most. These challenging situations present a tremendous opportunity to help and equip them to process what’s going on inside themselves. Your effort prepares them for successful relationships both now and in the future. 

3 stages to consider when your child is unable to control their emotions

There are three developmental stages to consider when teaching your child self-regulation skills:

STAGE 1: Other-regulation

Other regulation is first stage of learning self regulation
Rocking a fussy baby is an example of “other regulation.”

For the first few years, babies and toddlers depend on their caregiver in order to become calm when upset. Parents soothe their fussy, crying infants and toddlers by providing loving sensory input, such as hugging, rocking, providing a pacifier, singing, swaddling, or gentle bouncing. The child regulates, and bonding and trust increase.

STAGE 2: Co-regulation

Co-regulation comes before self-regulation.
Coloring together to calm down is an example of co-regulation.

As the child grows, they begin to “co-regulate” with parents. You and the child participate together in calming activities, and your child absorbs some of your calmness. This might include reading a book before bedtime, taking deep breaths together when upset, or sharing a deep squeeze hug. These activities also develop bonding and trust.

STAGE 3: Self-regulation 

Listening to music for emotional regulation

Parents can guide their kids 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 energy or emotional level rises and independently use a strategy for calming.

The younger you start with your children the better. However, teaching self-regulation helps older kids as well.

3 examples of parents equipping their kids to calm

Other-regulation: 

Harvey Karp suggests  five classic strategies in his book and video Happiest Baby on the Block. These are other-regulation activities, where the parents are completely responsible for the input:

  • Swaddling
  • Side/stomach position
  • Shushing
  • Swinging
  • Sucking.

But older kids can benefit from other-regulation also, especially if trauma or sensory processing disorder are factors

Jenna was able to help provide regulation for her 11-year-old daughter who joined their family through adoption by rocking her in a rocking chair. At first her daughter resisted, thinking she was too big or too old. Even though she was almost too big to fit on her mom’s lap, she was able to calm with the gentle rocking of the chair and her mom’s soothing voice. Once she was calm she was better able to articulate her needs.

Co-regulation:

Julie modeled “dragon breaths” (deep inhale through the nose, blowing a long “fiery” exhale out through the mouth) for her 4-year-old son Ty. Soon, he began to join her. He also began to notice there were times when his mom could benefit from a little deep breathing!   🙂

Tom would sit quietly with his son outside his preschool for a few minutes before dropping him off, which solved the problem of regular anxious outbursts.

When Kelly’s teen daughter got upset, they often went for a run together 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 am able to relate to him more calmly.”

All the parents mentioned here 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 escalating outbursts or sending their kids to their room

What is your child’s self-regulation readiness? 

Child learning emotional regulation from mom
  • Does your child respond best to direct soothing input from you? (“other regulation”)
  • Does your child do well when you do calming activities together?  (“co-regulation”)
  • Is your child motivated to avoid outbursts and learn to calm down independently? (“self-regulation”)

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

Try calming phrases like these:

  • “I can see this is bugging you. Let’s talk about it while we do something fun (or have a snack).” 
  • “Hey Buddy, you’re really upset! I can help you.”
  • “What do you need right now? Is there something that can help you feel better so we can figure this out?”
  • “What will help your body so your thinking brain can work its best?”
  • “You can try to become calm here with us, or go to a private space to help you feel better. Which do you want to do?”  
A calming conversation with mom

What if my child resists calming suggestions?

You may be thinking, if I suggest anything when my child is ramping up into an outburst, no way! They’ll flat out refuse and get even madder! 

You know your child, and you’re probably right. 

Anything that comes off to your child as, “You’re getting upset so you need to do ‘x,y or z’ to calm down” will almost certainly add fuel to the fire. Your child will feel criticized and controlled and perceive you as a threat, not a helper.

The message that kids who are upset often get from parents is, ‘You’re mad and I don’t really care what you’re feeling, I just want peace and quiet.” (Ouch. Does that sound familiar?) And who would ever cooperate with that when they’re hoppin’ mad, right? 

No matter what the issue is, an almost sure-fire set up for failure is to try to get kids to do a behavior when they have no motivation and feel manipulated or forced

One dad’s story of not overreacting

One dad told us this story of how his son is learning to self-regulate, by coaching him and not overreacting when he is upset: 

“We talk to Gabe about what he wants when he is upset (‘do you want a snuggle?’) and do not overreact when he is very angry. When we don’t over-respond to his outbursts, we can guide him to a quiet place (his room or our bed) where he can look at books, hang out with the cat, or snuggle his stuffed animals until he feels better. Sometimes rubbing his back helps to work out unhappy feelings.”

So here’s the secret… BUILD MOTIVATION FIRST! 

Modeling is the best motivation builder

If you want to maximize children’s learning (and cooperation) model this: use sensory activities first with a sincere goal to calm yourself.

Model emotional regulation to your kids.
Model self-regulation with calming activities.

Do this on numerous occasions. Let kids know what you’re doing and why. Then self-affirm by stating how helpful it was for you.

Don’t invite your kids to join you until they’ve noticed a difference in you! Then when you invite your kids to participate they are much more likely to follow suit, and you can affirm them for their wise choices. 

Stated more succinctly, this looks like: 

  • Model, model, model; invite, affirm… 
  • Model, model, model; invite, affirm. 

And continue to repeat. 

Create pleasant experiences with the activities 

Straws for calming down

Be proactive with trying some of the activities when everyone is calm. Find out what your kids enjoy.

In order for sensory activities to be calming, they must be pleasant and enjoyable. You can use the term “body treats” when you talk about these activities.

(Side note: Consider letting your kids know ahead of time that if they fake conflict or anger to get a calming toy, snack, or activity, it will no longer be an option. 😉 And although activities should be pleasant, avoid screens as a calming activity because the transition off will be stressful.)

Gradually you can begin to offer activities when your kids are slightly angsty. You might start before a situation (i.e. a transition to the car) or time of day (i.e. late afternoon before dinner) that often escalates into an outburst.

Prepare places and supplies ahead of time

Ask your child to select a “comfy spot” to calm down when upset. You can even use a pop-up tent and stock it with pillows, stuffed animals and a few other favorite (non-screen) items just for that purpose.

Create an emotional regulation location

For younger kids, prepare picture choices by taking photos of your child practicing calming activities and print them. Then during misbehavior or conflict, show your child a couple of options, and let them choose. The less words you use with an upset child, the better. 

Watch for the times when your child naturally self-regulates. Affirm. 

For example: “I noticed you were having a lot of arguments when playing with Legos, and you decided to go for a bike ride. It seemed like that really helped you feel better. You paid attention to what your body needed! When you came back the two of you had a great time together.”

Affirmation is powerful! When you encourage kids with their small successes, they are usually eager to do more.

You could share Proverbs 15:18, “A hot-tempered person starts fights; a cool-tempered person stops them.” Then encourage your child in how they are learning to be a cool-tempered person. You  can talk about how that’s a blessing to others, and why it’s important. 

Are you ready to hear some practical ideas you can start using today?

50 calming activities using each of the senses

If you feel out of ideas when life gets messy, don’t worry. We’ve compiled a list of calming activities you can keep in your back pocket. These self-regulation activities help kids use their bodies to calm their brains. They help your child start the emotional regulation process.

PRINTABLE VERSION AVAILABLE HERE

Many of the activities on this list involve motion. A favorite phrase to use that kids can remember is: Motion changes emotion. Feeling sluggish? Get your body moving! Feeling anxious and fidgety? Try some slow deep pressure. How your child uses motion to change emotion can help them learn to self-regulate in a healthy way.

Mouth / oral activities

Blowing bubbles mimics deep breathing for self regulation.
Blowing bubbles mimics deep breathing.

1. Deep breathing, AKA dragon breaths
2. Cold water in a bottle with a long curly straw
3. Gum (or a popsicle) can be a powerful brain calmer
4. Offer frozen or dried mango slices
5. Fruit smoothie through a straw (suck is calming)
6. Blow on a pinwheel or blow bubbles with a bubble wand (mimics deep breathing)
7. Put a few drops of soap in a bowl and blow bubbles through a straw, or herd “sheep” (cotton balls) with a straw.
8. Blow on a party blower or kazoo (the vibration is calming)
9. Pretend your finger is a candle and practice blowing it out
10. For older kids – “Let’s grab some chips and salsa, and we’ll talk this through.”

A coaching client reported:

“DJ was crying and he specifically asked for the vacuum cleaner activity (an activity in the sensory input video) and said, ‘It helps me feel better and not so sad.’  After I did it he was so much better and moved on easily. It’s fun to see our kids utilizing the Connected Families tools.  When one of our kids gets upset, their siblings often try to help them get unstuck by recommending they read a book, take deep breaths, or walk around, telling them ‘motion changes emotion.'”

Skin / touch activities 

(Many of these activities are included in our sensory input techniques video.)

Dogs give calming sensory input
Playing with a family pet can providing calming sensory input.

11. Offer a hug
12. “Squish sandwich” – put pillows or couch cushions under and on top of your child, as they lay face down on the floor and apply pressure. You can even start to talk about whatever is troubling them while they are in this position.
13. Try a weighted blanket
14. Some kids love it when you lay or sit on top of them (of course be careful to regulate your pressure).
15. Rub lotion on each others’ hands/skin (or use coconut oil if child dislikes lotions)
16. Make a “calming basket” with fidgets, squishy toys, or calming stuffed animals, and let your child choose things from it. Try searching the internet for “weighted/warmable stuffed animals” meant specifically for self-regulation.
17. Play with the family pet or take a cat/dog cuddle break
18. Back scratches or back rubs before bed
19. Paint each other’s nails
20. Finger painting
21. Braiding or playing with each other’s hair
22. Play dough
23. A tub or shower
24. Roll child up in a blanket, then pull gently to unroll

Movement-based (vestibular/proprioceptive) activities

The trampoline provides calming, rhythmic movement.
The rhythmic jumping of the trampoline can help with self-regulation.

25. Do push-ups, relays together by doing a bear walk (on hands and feet, face down), or crab walk (on hands and feet, belly up)
26. Jump on a trampoline
27. Ride a bike around the block
28. Shoot some hoops/play catch/nerf frisbee
29. Play balloon “volleyball”
30. Swing on a swing set
31. Work out on a treadmill/elliptical, etc, if you have one, and talk about how you feel better. Then invite your child to try it. (Please follow safety guidelines if your child is on a piece of your fitness equipment.)
32. Go to the park and do some climbing
33. Turn on kids’ favorite music and have a dance party
34. Run up and down the stairs (how fast can kids find the object you hid downstairs?)
35. Make an obstacle course including a collapsible tunnel
36. Bounce on an inflatable exercise ball (or kids hop ball)
37. Bungee “pogo” jumper
38. Make a big pile of pillows and have kids jump onto them from a step stool or couch

How one dad used movement to help his son self-regulate

“After calming down from an early morning ramp up, I was able to speak to Jared while he was in bed. During our conversation about what happened he said, ‘It was extra hard to try to be normal this morning.’ I asked, ‘When it’s hard to act normal in the morning, what makes it hard?’ He replied, ‘I feel squirmy.’ I immediately asked him if he wanted to run on Daddy’s treadmill, and we were up doing that in the next 30 seconds. He ran a half mile and it was the start of what would be an amazing day!”

Visual activities

Children can self-regulate by looking at pictures.
Some children self-regulate by looking at pictures.
  1. Calm down jar
  2. Color independently or together with your child. This may help less verbal kids identify feelings and wants in their picture.
  3. Art, art, and more art 
  4. Look at books with beautiful pictures/illustrations. You could even buy a book of scenic photography (or look at online photos) and make up stories that could fit the pictures.
  5. Build a fort as a safe space that also limits visual stimuli
  6. Bubbler toy, or a lava lamp in a dark room 

Auditory activities

Use music for self-regulation
Music is very calming to some children.
  1. Listen to favorite music (use earbuds or headphones if it helps)
  2. Sit outside to listen to the birds and the breeze
  3. Hum or sing
  4. Use a couple of kazoos (for both humor and vibration to the inner ear) and pretend to “talk out your conflict” through the kazoo with lots of expressions and gestures. 
  5. Use a white noise machine (on a calming sound) while looking at books
  6. Musical instrument box – kids feel in control of their auditory environment when they make music 

PRINTABLE VERSION AVAILABLE HERE

What to do after your child successfully self-regulates

When your child calms down, it’s important not to just move on (“Glad that’s over!”). Instead, be sure to help your child process their big emotions effectively.

This is the first step of EMOTIONAL REGULATION!

Process emotions to learn emotional regulation

Ann Layne, PhD and licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders  states: 

“Research shows that kids who are sent to their rooms to calm down without then processing what was going on in them, aren’t practicing emotional-regulation, they are practicing emotional suppression. That causes more problems later.”  

Processing big emotions to gain emotional regulation skills

After your child is calm, here’s how it might go as you can discuss the key questions for emotional regulation:

  1. What am I feeling? 
    • Parent/Caregiver: “Would you say you were more mad or hurt when Aidan didn’t let you play the game?”  
      • Child: “MAD! He’s mean! I don’t like him!!” 
  2. What thoughts or beliefs are driving those feelings?
    • Parent/Caregiver: “It’s really hard to feel left out, isn’t it? When that happens to me I don’t feel very important. And it hurts my feelings. “
      • Child: “Yeah. I guess I did feel kind of hurt. He thinks he gets his way just cuz he’s bigger.”
  3. What is a wise course of action? (i.e. let it go or ideas to solve the problem)
    • Parent/Caregiver: “What do you want to do about it?”
      • Child: “I dunno. He should get in trouble.” 
    • Parent/Caregiver: “I think you can solve this. I could go with you and make sure he listens to you this time. You can tell him how you feel about being left out. Then you guys can figure out a solution you both are ok with. What do you think? Are you ready to talk to him?”
      • Child: “Sure. If you go with me?”
    • Parent/Caregiver: “I’d love to help you both figure out a respectful way to talk about this.” 

“Feel and Deal”: How we learn emotional regulation

These kinds of questions above are valuable for equipping a child for a lifetime of productive responses to anger. These aren’t just self-regulation (calming oneself) anymore. Now, you’re getting at the deeper insights of emotional regulation.

The phrase “Feel and Deal” (“What am I feeling and how do I want to deal with that?”) can be a simple prompt to remind both parents and kids about this important process of emotional regulation.

(If you’re looking for more resources, Zones of Regulation, or the 5 Point Scale can also help calm an upset child by helping them assess and describe their level of distress.) 

Self-regulation and emotional regulation require perseverance, but it’s worth it. You are preparing your kids for the inevitable stresses and challenges of life. These are truly skills that can last a lifetime!


For more ideas to connect with your child using movement and play, download our FREE PDF: 60 Ways to Get Kids Moving and Laughing

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