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Stopping the Tantrums: Teaching Kids How to Soothe and Calm Themselves

Strategies that Soothe and Calm

Stress hormones triggered by emotions like disappointment and anger shoot through the bloodstream. In order to choose a more appropriate response, it's essential that kids learn what they can do to calm themselves. Initially, I'll describe for you strategies that work for most kids. If you're not certain what might help your child, read on and I'll explain how to let your child actually show you what he needs.

Physical activity

Physical exercise, especially repetitive motions like walking, running, rocking, swinging, or bouncing, produces in the body chemicals that actually soothe and calm. When your child is working on a worksheet and you realize he's starting to get irritated, you can tell him, "When I see you starting to erase, or gritting your teeth, it makes me think you're getting irritated. What helps people to feel better when they're irritated is to stop, take a break, or do something physical." Then invite him to go for a twenty-minute bike ride, run up and down the hallway, play a fast-paced game of basketball, or take a walk. Physical exercise will soothe him and help him to stop reacting. If he doesn't want to move but you know he's an active kid who needs exercise, take him by the hand and walk with him. Afterward talk about how much better his body feels.

Sometimes a child will rock and bang his head when he is upset. If this is true of your child, I suspect he's trying to soothe himself with repetitive physical motion. Due to safety concerns, you'll want to stop this method. But do replace it with a more suitable physical activity, like jumping rope or swinging, since your child needs motion to comfort himself.


When emotions are running high, some people need space to calm themselves. If your child is upset and pulls away from you, but is not hitting at you, simply step back. Tell him you'll stay near him, but don't touch him. If he doesn't want you near, step farther away and offer to check back. If he hits at you, restrict his hand and then let go again. Recognize that when you move into his space, you actually increase his intensity. You can teach him to say respectfully, "I'm getting upset, I need space."

Adam was two and a future med-tech type. He was drawing blood samples with his teeth from any piece of anatomy that came near him: fingers, toes, arms, cheeks. It didn't matter, Adam bit. His child-care provider realized Adam bit when he got frustrated or needed space.

His teachers would tell Adam to stop, then teach him to touch gently by first touching his victim's arm softly with his hand and then gently touching his own body. Most important, they taught him, "Adam, you can say, 'I need space.' You may not bite."

They worked with Adam for several weeks, reminding him over and over to ask for space. Finally, one day they heard Elizabeth scream. Rushing to her side, Elizabeth told the teacher, 'Adam hit me!' The teacher was actually relieved – it was progress that he'd hit, not bitten. She asked Adam, "Are you ready to be gentle with Elizabeth, or do you need space?" He looked at her intensely, deep blue eyes gleaming. Snatching up his blanket, he declared in his little two-year-old voice, "I need space," and he waddled off. He pulled his blanket to a quiet space and proceeded to suck his thumb and play with trucks.

Ten minutes later his teacher asked him if he was ready to be gentle with Elizabeth. He nodded, walked over to Elizabeth, stroked her arm gently, and kissed her cheek. Elizabeth slugged him!

Teaching kids is a process that takes time and patience, but they can and do learn. Even at two Adam did ultimately stop biting and instead learned to say, "I need space," when his intensity rose.

If, in order to give your child space, you have to forcibly keep her in her room, this technique is not a helpful one for her. Remember, you're trying to teach her strategies she can use to soothe herself, whether she's a toddler or an adult. Your child may be one who needs to go for a run when she's upset, or slide into a tub of soothing warm water. When you realize she's starting to lose it, pull her out of the situation, but rather than sending her to her room, help her choose a soothing, calming activity that works better for her.

Deep Breathing

There's a reason women learn deep breathing in childbirth classes. It changes the carbon dioxide levels in the body and soothes and calms. Even young children can learn the benefits of deep breathing. When your child is experiencing a strong emotion, name it, then tell him he can help himself feel better by breathing deeply. Place your child's hand on his belly button and teach him to pull his breaths from there. You can also purchase a bottle of bubbles, the kind with a wand. As your child blows, help him notice that he has to breathe from his belly to blow the best bubbles. Even toddlers can learn to take a deep breath and cool themselves down. Older kids can use this strategy before taking an exam, before going up to bat, or when they're ready to punch an irritating little sister.


Five-year-old Brent was mad. He'd been sent to the director's office after disrupting his classroom. Initially, he simply crawled under the table and sat there, but he was only getting angrier. "This isn't working," the director told him. "Come and play Construx; that always helps you." He did and was soon feeling better. At that point she asked him, "Why didn't sitting under the table help you, but doing Construx did?" "Because when I do Construx," he explained, "I can't think about what made me so angry Offering your child an activity that engages him completely and distracts him from his aggravation can be a very effective way to bring down intensity. It needs to be something that truly engages him so that he's not ruminating, telling himself. When I get out of here, I'm going to... If he has time to ruminate, it's likely that his intensity will simply rise.

Sensory Activities

Opening a window, going outside, taking a warm bath, listening to music, playing with modeling clay or Play-Doh, painting, washing dishes, and playing an instrument are all sensory activities that can soothe and calm a jumpy body. When your child starts to whine, point out to her that she's feeling distressed. Encourage her to ask for a back rub, get out the Play-Doh, take a bath, play the piano, or do something else that feeds her senses. Sensory activities calm us when we need it the most. In case you're feeling skeptical, next time you're talking on the phone and your child starts to fuss or even cry, pull a chair up to the kitchen sink and let her play in warm water while you talk. You'll be amazed!


From the book KIDS, PARENTS, AND POWER STRUGGLES: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, published by HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright 2000 by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. All rights reserved.

Buy the book at www.harpercollins.com.

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