I'll never forget when my oldest son was about 4 years old. We went to a large Early Learning Centre in Milton Keynes shopping centre and they had a huge Brio train track all set out and he loved it! I must have stood there for 15 minutes watching him chug the trains around, and playing happily with the swing bridges, junctions and turntables. It was lovely.
Right up until we had to leave.
I was a young mum back then and he was usually such a cheerful, amenable little boy that when he stuck his heels in and refused to move I didn't know what to do. I cajoled, I whispered fierce threats and eventually I grabbed him and dragged him out of the shop, through the shopping centre and back to the car. And then I shouted at him. He was wailing the whole time, and I wanted to too. I was mortified by his behaviour and by my own feelings of embarrassment and helplessness. I still feel mortified by my own reaction now and he's 28!
How I wish I knew back then what I do now.
What I didn't understand back then was that my little 4-year-old had big feelings that he simply couldn't control.
Once he realised he had to leave this amazing train set his emotions overpowered him and cut off the thinking part of his brain. No matter how much I may have begged him to 'calm down' and 'be good' he simply couldn't process those words and he certainly couldn't do anything about it. No matter how much he loves ice-creams or helium balloons (which I almost certainly tried to bribe him with), he was beyond the point of being able to calmly walk away.
So, what would I do differently now?
Stay Calm! This is the most important thing. I let his emotions affect mine and joined in his tantrum with him. Neither of us were regulated, and if I can't keep calm, how can I expect him to? I needed to stay calm to stop us both from spiralling out of control, but also to be a good example of how to act when things go wrong.
Watch for the small signs - as soon as I noticed he wasn't on my wavelength I should have used distraction and humour. "Hey, look, Sam! I think I can see the balloon selling man!" or pull a funny face or do something daft like grab a teddy and make it talk to him instead of me doing the talking. If you can distract or refocus then you can nip it in the bud
Use Calming Tools (See below) - if I could catch him before his emotions completely took over I could help him use calming tools that we had practised when he was calm, such as breathing or mindfulness techniques.
Name the emotion- I didn't even think about how he might have felt, I was just thinking about when the parking ticket would run out and how bored I was getting! He was having so much fun and suddenly he had to leave. It's wasn't fair! I should have bent down to him and said, "I think you're feeling upset and angry that we have to leave the trains." This would have taught him about the emotion he was feeling, and by naming emotions is calms down the part of the brain that they originate from - we can 'name it to tame it'. It also opens up the lines of communication through words rather than emotions.
Empathise - think about how he's feeling and how that would make you feel. Perhaps share that with him: "I hate having to leave things that I enjoy too. It makes me sad". This would validate his feelings, and also help me to see his point of view. This doesn't mean I give in to it, or believe he's right in having a tantrum, but it does help me understand him.
Be with him in the emotion - If he still is overcome by emotion and has a meltdown, I should have just held him quietly. I could have done that on the spot, or carried him somewhere quiet, but just holding him and being with him and his feelings would teach him that all emotions are ok, and that he could feel them and still be loved.
Talk about possible solutions - Once he's calm, I should have sat down with him and talked to him about possible solutions. I should have asked him if he could come up with any ideas on what we both could have done instead.
Teaching your child calming tools is a great way to help them to help themselves, but it's no good showing them once and expecting them to be able to just remember to use it when they're upset. As soon as big emotions pop up their heads, the thinking part of the brain shuts down so these tools need to be practised regularly when the child is calm so they can access them when feeling angry or anxious or upset.
Breathing exercises -
Any breathing is good but it should be slow, have a longer out-breath than in-breath and preferably in through the nose and out through the mouth.
I love Hot Chocolate Breathing- hold your hands in front of you as if it were a cup of hot chocolate. Breathe in through your nose to smell the hot chocolate, blow out through your mouth to cool it. Perhaps even practise with real hot chocolate to start with, or use whatever yummy smelling food or drink they love.
4-4 breathing - breathe in for the count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4. Repeat at least 4 times
Minecraft breathing - A visual prompt can often help - print out a Minecraft square and trace around it with your finger, breathing in along the top side, hold your breath down the side, breathe out along the bottom, hold along the final side. There are lots of different shape breathing techniques online you can print out.
Rectangle breathing - look for a rectangle in the room (window, table...there are loads) - trace your eyes along a short side and breathe in, trace along a long side and breathe out. Keep going.
Blow bubbles or a pinwheel - great for younger kids to help them understand what breathing is
Dragon breath - Take a deep breath in and then roar out like a dragon!
There are lots of great resources for breathing techniques online or on YouTube such as this one from Go Zen which explain for older children the difference a breath can take:
The 5,4,3,2,1 grounding technique:
Bringing yourself back to your senses really helps to take the edge of feelings, and is also great for intrusive thoughts and worry.
5 - Look for 5 things you can see and say them out loud
4 - Feel 4 different textures and really pay attention to what they feel like. Close your eyes if you can
3 - Listen for 3 sounds you can hear. Try listening for 1 as far away as you can hear; 1 close by; and 1 in your own body.
2 - Say 2 things you can smell. If you can't smell anything then imagine 2 favourite smells.
1 - Taste 1 thing - it could be concentrating on the test of your mouth right now, or actually nibbling a biscuit and really concentrating on the taste of it
I Spy Grounding
Similar to the 'I Spy' game - name a colour and get the child to look around them and say everything they can see of that colour. Purple and orange are usually harder to spot. I use this myself if I'm anxious in the car, or having a quick dose of road rage by keeping an eye out for anything purple. It distracts me from the annoyed or intrusive thoughts going round and round my head! You can also ask them to name everything in the room beginning with a particular letter.
Go through the alphabet and try to think of something from a particular category using each letter of the alphabet: Animals: Anteater, Bear, Cougar, Dragonfly...
Sing and dance
Put on some music, nice and loud, and have a sing and a dance.
Shake a Calm Jar
Calm jars are basically just jars with water and glitter in which you swirl and watch the glitter slowly settle. You can find instructions for these all over the internet. My favourite way to make it is:
Fill the jar to the next with cold water (or plastic bottle if you don't trust them with glass!)
Add about half a teaspoon of glycerin to thicken the water so the glitter doesn't just drop to the bottom (from the baking aisle. Lots of recipes use glitter glue but I can never get it to dissolve and you need warm water.)
Add a variety of glitter
Add some food dye to make the glitter show up more. The darker the better.
Screw (and glue) on the cap.
Swirl the jar and watch as the glitter slowly spins and finally settles. You can compare it their emotions which spin wildly but need to settle and calm before they can think.
Use your body
Sometimes getting active can help to get rid of excess adrenaline or cortisol. Anger and anxiety are high energy feelings so using up some of that energy can really help:
Stretch - do some yoga, there's lots of good kids yoga on YouTube such as cosmic kids
Do a headstand or hang upside down - inversions have a very calming effect on the nervous system
Push against a wall for 10 seconds, 3 times. A lot of kids find this a really good way to reset themselves emotionally. They can also do wall press-ups.
Punch a pillow, or a mattress for more resistance
Bounce on a trampoline
Squeeze a stress ball. You can make one by stuffing Play-Doh into a balloon and tying the top
Progressive Muscle Relaxation - or muscle squeezes. Squeeze each muscle group in turn. Start with your feet - squeeze tight for a count of 5 and then let go. Then move to the legs and repeat. Bottom, tummy, arms, fists, shoulders and face. Between each squeeze relax the muscles. This is great for helping you get to sleep at night too!
Close your eyes and hum. Really notice how it feels. Can you make the hum louder and quieter? Does it feel different? Can you feel a vibration in your throat or chest? How long can you hum for before needing a breath?
Eat a crunchy snack - pay attention to the sounds and feelings.
Slowly drink some cold water and feel it going down your throat.
Go for a walk, or a jog or a cycle.
Get or give a bear hug. Or hug yourself.
These are great for if you have a child that worries or have intrusive thoughts:
Count backwards from 50. Or count backwards in 7s or whatever number they can do with a little thought but that won't upset them even more!
Write down what's upsetting you and screw up the paper and throw it away - or rip it up.
Recite the alphabet backwards
Name 5 things that you love
Draw or colour what your feelings look like, or do some mindful colouring.
Visualise a quiet place. Think about the sights and sounds and smells.
Talk to yourself as if you were your best friend. Imagine what they would say to you or what they would suggest
Whichever calming techniques your child would like to learn (and give them the choice as what works for one person may not work for the next) help them to practice them when they are calm - and show them that you use them too!
Children learn by watching you so the most powerful way of them learning anything is by example. Don't be afraid to say to them "I'm feeling a bit stressed right now, so I'm going to go and do some breathing to help me calm down."