Children need to feel their feelings, but too often, they become overwhelmed by them. When they’re visibly upset, that’s when parents tend to swoop in and offer comfort, perhaps with words or hugs (or okay, sometimes goldfish crackers and YouTube Kids). But it’s even more important to teach them how to calm themselves. Psychotherapist Amy Morin, who wrote the new book 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, says that being able to deal with stress, anger, frustration, and anxiety requires a specific set of skills. And that’s where brain training comes in.
“A child’s academic skills or athletic talents will only take them so far in life,” Morin tells me. “A child who can’t control his temper or one who can’t handle feeling frustrated won’t be able to succeed.”
In her book, Morin shares some visualization tactics for regulating big emotions. Here’s how you can teach kids to calm their minds and bodies at every age.
Preschoolers: “Stop and Smell the Pizza”
Slow, deep breaths can relax the body and reduce feelings of anger. When kids are upset, teach them to “stop and smell the pizza” (or if they’re not into pizza for some reason, maybe try hot apple pie, cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, or bacon—mmmm, bacon).
It works like this:
1. Breathe in through your nose, like you’re smelling a piece of pizza.
2. Then breathe out through your mouth like you’re trying to cool the pizza down.
3. Repeat this exercise several times slowly to calm the body and the brain.
Morin says that over time, they’ll learn to do this on their own, with fewer reminders from you. Another alternative is to teach them to take “bubble breaths.” Have them go outside and blow some bubbles. Then ask them to show you how to create the biggest, best and most amazing bubbles—to do so, they’ll likely take in a big, deep breath and blow out slowly. When they’re upset, remind them to take “bubble breaths.” Deep inhale, slow exhale.
In her therapy office, Morin teaches kids an extension of the famed “white bear experiment.” It’s called “change the channel,” and it works like this:
1. Tell your child to think of white bears for thirty seconds. This could include anything from polar bears to stuffed animals.
2. Stay silent and let your child imagine the bears. When time is up, say stop.
3. Then tell your child to think about anything he wants for the next thirty seconds. But tell him that he cannot think about white bears.
4. Wait thirty seconds and ask him how he did. Most kids will say white bears kept creeping into their thoughts. If your child says he managed to avoid thinking about white bears, ask him how he did it.
5. Then give your child a simple task to do for thirty seconds. I hand the child a deck of cards and tell him to sort the deck by number or suit or something along those lines. Whatever task you give your child, make sure it will be something that will require his full attention if he wants to race to accomplish it in thirty seconds.
6. When time is up, tell him to stop. Then ask him how much he thought about white bears during the task. If he’s like most people, he’ll probably say not at all.
“If a child is ruminating about something that upsets him, getting his hands busy could be the key to helping him feel better,” Morin writes. “... Just like a TV, if the station playing in his head isn’t helpful, he needs to turn the channel to something more productive.” Once kids understand the concept, you can just say “change the channel” whenever they need a brain switch.
Morin notes that changing the channel should only be used when kids are feeling stuck or if their emotions are becoming destructive. Sad feelings are not bad feelings. If children want to talk, let them, and listen.
Teens: “Lengthen the Fuse”
Like adults, teens can be irritated and easily set off due to any number of triggers—a bad test score, a crummy day at practice, not getting an invite to a party, not getting enough sleep. Morin suggests having them think of themselves as a fuse:
Teach your teen how to lengthen her fuse. Talking to a friend, listening to her favorite song, or doing some yoga might reduce her stress. Help her identify the things that could help her handle stress in a healthy way. Share the strategies that help you lengthen your fuse on a rough day too.
Discuss how to recognize when she has a short fuse. Perhaps she gets irritable when anyone talks to her. Or maybe she starts tapping her fingers loudly or pacing back and forth. Talk about the warning signs you experience when you have a short fuse.
Then explain how everyone has options when they’re stressed out, tired, or having a bad day. And everyone can take steps to lengthen their fuse.
Morin believes that teaching kids to regulate their emotions can help them grow into adults who only put energy into things they can control. That’s a good goal.