1. Calming yourself in the tension-filled moment
Become consciously aware of your tension and ask: What are my options for coping with my tension right now? Brainstorm options ahead of time and create a list because you won’t be able to process in the moment. For example: take a very deep breath, then silently count to 10 backwards. Another idea: eliminate distractions. Turn off the cell phone, send others out of the room, pull the car over, turn off the music… You must strategically choose your response to a common situation.
Ways to calm your child in the moment
Note: the techniques are different for each child depending on their disorder and its characteristics. Experiment to find out what works with your child’s typical patterns at home, in school, with others, and in other situations that are stressful for them.
In a steady voice, give them directions or requests to calm down. You will need to repeat yourself periodically as they struggle with their inner storm. If you ask them to move to another space or use their own calming, skills, use your body language to initiate the act. If you ask them to take a deep breath, do it yourself. If it helps them to punch a pillow, punch it yourself and hand it over.
2. Be your own cheerleader.
Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control;” “I am the calm upon the face of troubled waters…” Have fun with it.
There’s nothing like a kid cave, or a blanket fort, a special garden spot, or other time-out space, even the car. My personal favorite is a tree house.
4. Give them extra time to “change channels”
An anxious child or teen is stuck in a fear loop, and has great difficulty moving from one environment to another–something called “transitioning.” Some typical transition problems occur when: coming home from school; getting out of the car after a long ride; going to bed after a stimulating activity; and waking up in the morning. Plan extra time for transitions. If they are too wound up but not hurting anything, wait them out.
5. Redirect their focus to physical action.
Draw attention to something to distract them in the moment (this is a useful kind of channel-changing). A young child could be directed to a physical activity (draw, grapple with clay, throw a Nerf ball against the wall), a teen can be allowed to play their favorite music (if you hate it, have them use headphones, or you use earplugs, seriously.); shoot baskets; or take the dog for a walk.
6. Other supports
Animals heal, but strategically pick the best animals. See “Animals that make the best therapy pets.” Think of a calm smiling dog, a calm affectionate cat, or a little mellow animal like a hamster or turtle, and you’ve got pet therapists. Energetic or barking dogs or scratchy kitties probably won’t work.
A big squeeze. People and many kinds of animals are comforted with enveloping physical pressure, like a full hug. I’ve completely wrapped anxious children and teens in a blanket or coat, and they quickly calmed down. Teach your child the self hug… and hug yourself often, too!
You may be able to stop things before they start. Once a situation has passed, ask yourself what happened just prior to your child’s episode. Was there a trigger? Did they just transition from one kind of place to another? Do you have options for removing the trigger? Triggering events can be so small or elusive that you miss it. The child’s sibling could have sniffed or rolled their eyes without you noticing. An object your child or teen reached for (like a remote control) could have just been unintentionally grabbed by someone else. If you can identify the little frustrations that send them to the stratosphere and address them immediately, it will reduce the length of distress.
Calming your home for the long term
Maintain bodily calm with the big three: exercise, sleep, and healthy diet. I know you’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s good reason and proof. If you can’t simultaneously maintain all three habits in your family, take one at time and you will still see benefits.
Calm the sensations that exist in your home environment. Reduce noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, and the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV and other screen time, etc. Create a place for quiet time in your home where anyone can go that’s contemplative, where people agree to behave as if they’re in a library, or a place of worship, or a safe zone. Or create a time period for settling in, such as right after school, or right before dinner.
Did you know that psychiatric hospital units are designed to keep patients calm? I’ve toured a number of psychiatric hospitals, and the best ones I saw had these elements.
- Soothing visual environment: they had windows and lots of light, plants, beautiful aquariums with gorgeous fish and lots of bubbles, and a TV screen with a film or a burning log. All great for relaxation and brain-calming.
- Soothing sound environment: besides the bubbling aquarium, there was low-energy music of various styles.
- Soothing physical environment: soft furniture, a large table where people could gather in the comfort and buzz of a group, and nooks where people could remove themselves from the group buzz to avoid over-stimulation or listen to music on headphones.
Add these to your home too, or create a special calming room: Calming room ideas to prevent tantrums for kids with autism or other disorders.
Two things to avoid
2. Don’t pressure the child to calm down when they’re not ready—it takes time for anyone to unwind. Wait patiently while a child or teen works through ugly emotions and finishes spewing their ugly stuff. Let them have their catharsis. We all need to release our stuff, and we all need others to patiently listen and endure.
In my support group, I’ve observed that very stressed parents need at least one solid hour to vent and cry before they’re calm enough to benefit from other parents’ supportive words and sympathy. They start out with ugly or devastating emotions–things they might not say to anyone outside the safety of the group–and eventually calm down and come to peace with their situation. That’s when they are able to listen to the support and advice from other members.
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ABSTRACT – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
Britta K. Hölzelab, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Gardab, Sara W. Lazara
Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43 (30 January 2011)
Summary in plain English: Meditation causes structural changes in the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress, according to new research. Researchers examined MRI scans of participants over a period of 8 weeks. Daily meditation sessions of 30 minutes produced measurable changes in subjects with no previous meditation history. The anxiety and stress region of the brain, the amygdala, produced less gray matter. In a non-meditating control group, these positive changes did not take place.
“Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.“