As a play therapist and an instructor of yoga and meditation I often hear adults ask me (sometimes with desperation or exasperation in their voice) what they can do to help their kids or students calm down when upset or extra active.
Notice I am purposefully steering clear of the oft over-used term "hyper-active." That's because I don't like labeling children and the term "hyper-active" has become one of those descriptive phrases parents and teachers use with a growl or grimace when referring to particular children who are driving them crazy. I like to encourage parents and teachers to seek to understand every child individually and build a set of resources to draw from in supporting and helping children rather than pigeon-holing and dismissing.
This article is written not only about helping children with high levels of energy but also for assisting kids who tend to go zero to sixty in no time on the upset-o-meter.
You can find all sorts of books about the "sensitive child," the "spirited child," the "difficult child," the "gifted child" or the "anxious child." All of these books offer differing and sometimes similar perspectives on how to better understand the child you have in front of you and what to do. I find that most parents and teachers I work with don't have time to wade through a long book so I'm going to offer some abbreviated guidance here.
1. Know thyself and soothe thyself. I know this is not what you want to see at the top of this list of tools and tips but there's no way around it. Here's the bottom line: Kids pick up on your vibe. If you're off kilter, they sense it. If you're reacting angrily, they absorb it. If you know your triggers and can learn how to find calm yourself in the midst of chaos you have discovered the golden ticket. You have to take responsibility for your own emotions whether you think they are showing or not. All human beings are emotional beings so denying that you have emotions or that your emotions aren't the issue is a huge speed bump to achieving your goal of helping the child in front of you calm down. So, come to terms with your natural, human reactions, take responsibility, learn how to soothe yourself first.
2. Master the BREATH. The second least popular but most important advice I give out every day of my life to everyone around me everywhere I go is to BREATHE. Of course we breathe automatically thanks to the medulla and the pons in the brain stem. But then there is this conscious breathing taught and practiced in yoga classes all over the world as well as therapy office where relaxation training is provided. You don't have to be a yogi to practice conscious breathing; however, those yogis are onto something everyone can benefit from. Conscious breathing simply means that you are intentionally controlling the depth, length and speed of your breath for the purpose of calming the nervous system in your body. Conscious breath (as opposed to that automatic breath your brain does without you having to think about it) is a BRIDGE between your mind and your body. If you can master the breath you can help kids to master their breath and everyone is going to find calm.
Here are two powerful breath exercises you can teach children:
a) Inhale through the nose deep and long to the slow count of five. Have kids lift a finger for every count. This should fill the lungs with air and the belly should rise out and away from the spine as the lungs fill.
b) Hold the breath in for count of two.
c) Exhale through the nose to the slow count of five, emptying the lungs completely.
d) Hold the breath out for count of two.
e) Repeat four more times with eyes closed.
Birthday Cake Breath:
a) Have your child engage her imagination and describe a pretend birthday cake right out in front of her. What kind of cake is it? What flavor? How is it decorated?
b) Together place the pretend candles on the cake and light the candles.
c) Smell that delicious cake taking in a really big, deep breath!
d) Blow out all those candles until your lungs are all out of air!
e) Ooops! There are still some candles lit. Do it again!
3) Be spaghetti. Demonstrate this for your child by having both some cooked noodles on hand and some uncooked noodles on hand. Let them feel the cooked noodles and the dry noodles. What's the difference? Now, let's be spaghetti.
a) Stand tall. Stand stiff. Be DRY, UNCOOKED spaghetti! Tighten every muscle in your body from the tip of your toes to the top of your head. Tight, tight, tight, stiff, stiff, stiff! Don't move!
b) Now relax every part of your body and turn into a wiggly, squishy, loose, relaxed WET, COOKED spaghetti noodle! Completely relaxed like that cooked noodle.
4) Phone book recycling. Get an old phone book and keep it on hand. When a child is really worked up and needs to release some of that steam this is a way for them to get it out without hurting anyone. Give them the phone book and tell them to tear out as many pages as they need to and rip up the pages into tiny bits over a designated trash can and envision sending all those upset feelings down into the trash and out of their body. Be sure once they are calm to provide guidance that we don't tear up other books - only the designated phone book when needed.
5) Play clay. Any brand of play clay will do or you can make your own. Keep it nearby and accessible. Squeezing, rolling, pounding, pinching, flattening play clay is a soothing activity I use with children and adults in my office on a regular basis. The familiar smell of the play clay, the cool feel on your hands, the texture all work to provide a calming experience and can also be a means for redirecting some of that high energy or upset emotion.
6) Pipe in the tunes. "Music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," wrote William Congreve. Consider creating a soothing play list to have on the ready. Visit your favorite online, digital music store and seek out spa-like tunes. Download to your device or create cd's to have on hand.
7) Lower the lights. I have a theory about fluorescent lighting. I have no scientific evidence for this but from my observations over years of working in preschool classrooms I've noticed there is something about those fluorescent lights that cause irritation in the nervous system for a lot of children. I have seen a dramatic decline in aggressive behavior and emotional outbursts in classrooms when teachers have employed soft lighting and forgone those overhead fluorescents. I even recommend for parents try (safely guarded) candlelight for soothing environs.
8) Go to the garden (or the beach). This is a visualization exercise you will need to do with your child when he is calm and in a happy space first. Have him lie down in a quiet place and close his eyes and guide him to imagine a special garden in his own mind. Have him picture what kinds of plants and animals are there that help him to feel happy and relaxed. As many details you can get him to imagine such as scents, soft blanket, picnic food, fluffy clouds, warm sunshine the better. Then when it's time to help him find calm you can help him return to the garden he created in his own mind and guide him to remember all those details he described previously.
8) Practice, practice, practice. It's important for children and adults to practice relaxation exercises such as the breathing, the progressive muscle relaxation of the spaghetti exercise and the visualization on a regular basis when everyone is in a calm and happy place. Just before bed is a great time to create a nightly ritual of practicing these techniques. Then, when needed it will be much more effective to employ these tools. Just like a muscle, regular exercise builds strength and creates memory for how to utilize it when needed.
Finally, remember that there is a reason for all behavior. If you can be more curious about what is under and behind your child's behavior rather than automatically angry or irritated you'll have a better shot at assisting your child in soothing and finding way to calm.