A couple of weeks ago, I let my five-year-old son stay up late to watch a big game on TV with the family. Sometime around 8pm, the mixture of excitement and exhaustion overwhelmed his system. He lost it.
Often, he can dial down these emotional storms without much help. This was not one of those times, so I took him to the stairs for a time in. As he sat shaking on my lap, his breathing sounded like panicked panting.
“Can you breathe with me?” I asked. “It’s too hard!” he wailed. In stops and starts, we inhaled and exhaled, using belly breathing techniques we’ve practiced together during calmer moments.
As I wrote in an earlier post, teaching kids basic principles of mindfulness has been found to have a lot of benefits, including improvements in flexible thinking, emotional management, attention and academic performance.
Mindfulness tools won’t prevent emotional storms. Sometimes, that’s just what it means to be a kid (and an adult!). Yet being aware of our thoughts, our emotions, our surroundings and our breathing can help us remain anchored while we wait for the clouds to pass.
Settle the Glitter
All children have times when they become overwhelmed, overloaded or overstimulated. In her new book Under Pressure, psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour shares the helpful phrase, “Let’s settle your glitter.” Imagine a bottle filled with water and glitter. Now shake it vigorously: that’s a child’s brain during an emotional meltdown.
When kids are overwhelmed by emotions, they don’t respond too well to reasoning. In the height of a tantrum in a grocery store, our words — however warm and wise — get lost in their neurological glitter storm. But as Damour told me recently, “You have to wait it out. These storms do pass.” The emotional meltdown will subside. The glitter will settle.
After talking with Damour, I pulled out a sensory glitter jar that my kids like to play with. “Remember last week when you got really mad and sad during the football game?” I asked my five-year-old. “Remember how you said it was hard to breathe slowly? Let’s pretend this bottle is your body. When you got upset, it looked kind of like this.” I shook up the jar. “It’s so busy and stormy in there!”
We watched as the glitter begin to drift back to the bottom. “And remember how we snuggled on the stairs and breathed together,” I said, “and then you bounced on your little trampoline for a while. Those strategies helped your glitter calm down.”
“And then I felt better!” he announced.
This is a helpful mental model for parents. Sometimes, we need to patiently wait for the height of the storm to pass (while keeping kids from hurting themselves and others, of course, as some little ones are prone to do when their bodies feel overwhelmed!). When children are a bit calmer, we can continue to work on strategies that will — with time and practice — strengthen their emotional self-regulation.
Take a Deep Breath
My favorite technique — with preschools and adults — is mindful breathing. When we are anxious or upset, our breathing often becomes rapid and shallow. It’s a normal biological response to stress. When we take deep breaths, we send a message back to the brain: It’s okay to calm down.
In moments of peace, teach your kids to notice their breathing and to take deep breaths. This can be as simple as pretending your fingers are birthday candles and blowing them out one by one. Or maybe your child will respond to a “breathing buddy”: Lay on your back, put a favorite stuffed animal on your tummy, and watch that animal slowly move up and down as you inhale and exhale. You could also watch this episode of Daniel Tiger together, and then use the strategy song, “When you feel so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four.”
Model Mindful Responses
Dr. Sharon Saline, child psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew recently told me that one of the most important things parents can do for kids is to model self-control. A core message kids have for parents — even if they can’t put it into words — is this, said Saline: “The first thing I need you to do is manage yourself the best you can in face of my eruption and distress so you can assist me. If you are upset by my upset, there is no hope for me to learn self-control.”
Some days this will be easier than others. Lately, I have tried to talk out loud how I work through my feelings, so that my kids can hear the self-talk in my head.
Here are a few things I have found myself saying:
- I am feeling a little frustrated. I am going to take a walk around the block because fresh air and exercise always help me feel good inside.
- I am tired right now and that makes it harder to be patient. Do you ever get upset when you feel tired? I think I will go to bed a little earlier tonight.
- Looks like everyone’s a little upset. Maybe we need a snack. Sometimes a healthy snack helps me feel better.
- When I was driving in the snowstorm, I was nervous. I started breathing fast — just like you do when you are upset! So I did some belly breathing to help me stay calm.
Like so many moments in this parenting journey, when I work to help my kids, I am also helping myself. I am becoming more mindful how I respond to daily stressors and how I can respond with a little more courage, patience and self-compassion.