7 Ways to Calm Down Kids Without Using a Screen

The Behavioral Scientist Says: Be a Mirror

Here’s a technique to keep a little uneasiness from escalating into a full-blown fit. “When your child shares a frustration, paraphrase it back to her,” says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. Suppose she yells, “The math teacher gave us so much homework!” Instead of saying, “Uh-huh” or “Really,” respond with, “Lots of math tonight!” Follow up with a confidence booster, such as, “You’re really good at solving your math problems. And I like the way you try when the problems get a bit hard. I’ll be here to help if you get stuck.” This strategy shows you’ve acknowledged her frustrations, so she won’t have to become even more upset or angry to get your attention, says Dr. Gurwitch.

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The Mom Blogger Says: Play a Brain Game

The next time your child is sobbing so hard that you don’t even think he can hear what you’re saying, catch his attention by doing something unexpected, suggests Amanda Rueter, a former mental-health counselor who blogs at MessyMotherhood.com. “Turn off the lights, jump up and down, or whisper,” she says. Now that he’s listening, ask him to name five things that are blue or three things he can touch right now. “It’ll help him shift from using the emotional part of his brain to the logical area, and he’ll start to calm down,” Rueter explains.

The Yoga Instructor Says: Send Positive Vibes

When you notice your baby’s lip start to quiver, chanting “om” can help head off the tears, says Shakta Khalsa, founder of Radiant Child Yoga. Do it as you make eye contact and rock him back and forth. Alternatively, you can hold his hands and make gentle circles with his arms. The strategy works for older kids when you teach them to chant with you. Chanting is based on the idea that every sound we make carries a vibration affecting a particular area of the body, and “om” resonates in the heart, evoking peaceful feelings, says Khalsa. Scans have shown that the chant also causes areas of the brain associated with emotion to become less active.

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The Therapist Says: Give Her a New Way to Hug

Hugs from Mom and Dad are the best. But if your child starts feeling sad or anxious when you’re not with her—whether she’s at preschool or it’s the middle of the night—she might be able to self-soothe with a “butterfly” hug, says Sonja Kromroy, a licensed therapist specializing in anxiety and trauma at Wild Tree Wellness, in St. Paul. Ask your child to pretend she’s blowing out candles several times. Then have her cross her arms in front of her chest as if she’s giving herself a hug, with her fingertips resting just under her collarbones and pointing up toward her neck. Help her interlock her thumbs to make the body of the butterfly. Then have her close her eyes and flutter her fingers—slowly tapping, alternating right to left six to eight times—while taking slow breaths. She can repeat the process until she feels better. “The slow right-left stimulation helps strengthen networks in the brain that reduce emotional distress,” explains Kromroy. While the technique originated more than 30 years ago, this newer variation has been used to calm children who were traumatized by a hurricane.

The Yoga Instructor Also Says: Breathe With the Belly

When you see that your child is frustrated, you might tell her to take a deep breath. But does she really know what that means? Teach her one of the methods for “belly breathing” and you can remind her to do it when she’s feeling emotional—and, hopefully, it’ll become second nature. If you have a toddler, hold up one finger and ask her to imagine that she’s taking a deep breath and blowing bubbles. When she’s a little older, tell her to pretend her belly is a balloon and she needs to breathe through her nose to fill it with air. You’ll know she’s doing it right if you can see her belly expand. If this doesn’t work, have her raise her arms to make a big circle over her head, as if she’s the balloon, and she needs to breathe in until it’s “full.” Then she can “pop” it by clapping to let the air out.

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Taking deep breaths triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces calm. “When your child exhales, she’s releasing carbon dioxide, and emotionally can let go of whatever is upsetting her too,” Khalsa says.

The Acupuncturist Says: Press Your Baby’s Calm Spot

If he’s still fussy after you pick him up, soothe him with an acupressure technique used in the neonatal intensive-care unit and emergency department, suggests Alyssa Johnson, who has treated patients at Primary Children’s Hospital, in Salt Lake City. Follow the curve around the top of your baby’s ear with your finger until you feel an indention. Then gently rub that spot (a pressure point) in small, circular motions for five to ten seconds. Next, go to the inner crease of his elbow and slide your finger to the edge closest to his body. Gently rub that pressure point for ten to 15 seconds. Alternate between ear and elbow on both sides until he settles down. Johnson notes that this is thought to clear blockages in “energy channels” and release feel-good endorphins.

The Psychologist Says: Cool Her Off

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A gentle splash of water may help your baby or toddler keep her cool, says Ilana Luft, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. Dr. Luft suggests applying a cold, wet washcloth or dipping your fingers in cold water and gently touching her face. Cooling her body’s temp a bit can slow down her heart rate and help calm her breathing.

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