For those with an autistic child, it is a parent’s nightmare to face a tantrum with no way to calm them down. That is why it is important to have a calming room or area set aside for your child that helps ease distress before a tantrum starts, or to send them to in order to ease the distress. Here are three versions of a calming room you can create to help when your child is about to have a tantrum.
The HUG room
The hug room is popular for calming any child down, especially one on the spectrum. The hug room needs to have calming items that provide a sense of security and warmth, and a cocoon-like hug. In this room, provide a weighted blanket or snug embracing vest (in case your child won’t lay down). Both of these are like bear hugs, which can be comforting and calming for children with autism. Another great item to have in this space is a crash pad (used by many therapists and parents in combination with a weighted blanket), or a large or stuffed animal or pillow that the child can hold on to or hug. You want to make sure the animal or pillow does not have parts that can be ripped off and chewed on or cause damage in another way. You’ll also want all other items to be soft and safe to throw to protect the room or others in case your child does have a full-blown tantrum.
The SOOTHING SOUNDS & SCENTS room
One thing that can work very well for some children, especially with tantrums brought on by overstimulation, is a room with soothing sensory experiences. In this room, block or mute outside sounds–TVs, stereos, and people walking or talking near the room so it’s as quiet as possible. Once your child is in the soothing sounds room, you’ll need to have a place for them to relax or lay down. You can use a bed, a crash mat, or something else they can fall asleep on or even just sit on with their eyes closed. Silence or a soft gentle background ‘hum’ or soothing sound helps, such as from meditation CDs, music or birds or flowing water.
You can also try products like the Twilight Turtle which has soothing sounds and even includes a light show of constellations (also perfect for the 3rd room, below). Noise blocking earmuffs and headphones make great additions for this room if your child needs to be removed from all noises. These also provide a kind if ‘hug.’ You can combine them with a scent or scented toy or stuffed animals to calm your child. Think about little pillows stuffed with lavender flowers, or an air freshener they like.
The VISUALLY CALMING room
For a visually calming room, remove overly bright colors and small points like those from a static night-light that plugs into the wall. Instead, find something like the Tranquil Turtle above or even liquid motion lamps or light projectors with calming colors and patterns. You can also try adding black out curtains on the windows to block bright sunlight–the point is to make light easy on their eyes. Darkness may help the lights do a better job.
The most important thing when creating a calming room is to make sure it meets the needs of your child. Include features that are most effective for him or her. Don’t forget to exclude or remove anything that is easily thrown or could hurt your child or others or cause damage to your house.
Addendum: I’ve seen these other things used to calm people to prevent overstimulation or anxiety. The first two were in a psychiatric unit for calming mental patients.
A bubbling aquarium, or a digital aquarium on a computer monitor
A video image of a burning log in a fireplace or the rippling surface of water
A small motion toy powered by a solar cell
A pendulum clock
Have you discovered something that works for your child? Please share.
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You need peace and calm in your household, and you can provide the touch that supports all other approaches: Therapy; disciplined meditation and yoga, anti-anxiety medications (don’t be afraid to use them), but they’re not the best long-term solution. There are proven techniques for calming yourself, your stormy child, and all other family members.
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.
3. Give your child a calm place to go.
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
Calm your emotional self first and think Zen. If you can take 5 minutes during a day, even a stressful day, sit quietly and breathe, and consciously work at eliminating all thoughts, ALL THOUGHTS, you would calm down. Not thinking anything is the hard part of meditation, yet it is the skill that makes it work, and there’s proof.
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.
1. Do not communicate strong emotions in your voice. What you say absolutely does not matter as much as how you say it! Negative tone of voice is the only thing an upset child or teen will hear. Yes I know, this is hard to control when you are excited or under stress! (Later on, after the incident, apologize for how you said something, but don’t apologize for an appropriate direction or request you made.) Practice vocal neutrality. Take a deep breath and an extra 2 seconds to squash the urge. Which is better: “Will you please let the cat out?” versus “Will you PULLEEEEZ let the cat OUT!!!
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.“