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Four Things to Say to Kids Instead of, ‘Calm Down’

Wanting to help kids reach a calm state when they’re having a big emotion is a great goal for a parent. Unfortunately, telling kids (or adults for that matter) to simply calm down, often doesn’t get us much closer to that goal- and that is okay. Having a better understanding of what is happening in the brain and body can be a great first step in knowing how to best support kids when a big emotion is present and can help parents get closer to their goal.

First, kids are not born with fully developed self-regulatory capabilities. What Siegel and Bryson (2001) refer to as the ‘upstairs brain,’ or our executive functioning skills, is the part of the brain responsible for skills such as being able to consider consequences before acting and is heavily involved in the ability to successfully regulate a big emotion. This part of the brain is still under serious construction for kids and studies show brain development in this region doesn’t stop until around our mid-20’s (yikes!) (Siegel, 2012). Second, kids aren’t in a space to be receptive to directives or commands when they’re emotionally dysregulated, so it’s likely that any directive you give them in that moment will land on deaf ears. Third, telling a kiddo to calm down can communicate the message that there is something wrong with being upset, which can create anxiety in the future when a big emotion does start to naturally well up. 

Essentially, struggling to calm down is a deficit of skill, not will, and kids need help from the adults in their life to learn how to effectively regulate their emotions (Greene, 1998). This occurs through a process called co-regulation, which is when an adult is able to repeatedly offer a child an emotionally regulating experience, in real time, as the child is experiencing a big emotion. Through this process, kids are able to ‘borrow,’ or internalize the regulatory capacity of the adult brain, and are one step closer to being able to do this on their own (Siegel, 2012).

Here are 4 strategies to help kids regulate their emotions:

1. Connect before you redirect (Siegel and Bryson, 2001)

First and foremost, try to emotionally connect with the big emotion your child is experiencing. Reflective statements and validation are great ways to achieve this.

This might look like: your kiddo is having a hard time fitting two legos together and it is getting really frustrated. Instead of saying, “calm down,” try saying, “I can see that’s frustrating. Those legos are really hard to put together…” In this scenario the parent reflected their child’s feeling (frustrated) and validated it by saying why that feeling made sense (those legos are hard to put together). 

2. Remind kids that you’re here to help (if they need it)

This might sound like: “I can see that’s frustrating. Those legos are really hard to put together. Let me know if you would like any help. I’m here if you need me.” 

Giving kids the choice of whether or not they want our help (rather than automatically jumping in) communicates our confidence in their abilities, while also reminding them of our support and sends the message that it’s also okay to need help and we are right here if they would like our assistance (Landreth, 2012).

3. Help your kiddo find solutions to their problems

After you’ve reflected and validated your child’s emotions, you might take it a step further and help your kiddo think through the situation that is causing frustration. Going back to the lego example, we might include, “I can see that’s frustrating. Those legos are really hard to put together. I wonder if there’s a different lego piece we can use, or a tool we could use to help us here…”

Framing this statement with, “I wonder…” gives kids permission to accept or reject this feedback and still allows space for them to engage in the problem solving process. It also is less direct than a question, and remember, when kids are dysregulated, they’re not in the cognitive space to be answering questions (Landreth, 2012).

4. Model the skills you want to see

Kids learn a lot by watching and observing those around them. A great way for parents to teach their kids calming skills is through intentionally modeling these skills in front of their kiddos. This might look like a parent saying out loud, “wow this is frustrating. I’m going to take a big deep breath to calm my body.” 

If your kiddo joins along and follows your lead, great. But if not, that’s okay too. Kids will benefit from your increasingly calm state and these experiences help kids’ bodies learn how to calm down, which will become increasingly easier with repeated experiences of successfully co-regulating with you (Siegel, 2012).

References :

Greene, R. W. (1998). The explosive child. Harper Paperbacks.

Landreth, G. (2012). The art of the relationship. Routlege Publishing. (3rd ed).

Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind. The Guilford Press.

Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2001). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Bantam Publishing.

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is a Marriage and Family Therapist Associate based out of Wilsonville. Stephanie has trained in a variety of child and family therapeutic services, including multiple modalities of play therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, child-parent relationship therapy, and collaborative problem-solving. Stephanie has over ten years of experience working with youth and families in various settings and contexts, including public schools, the juvenile justice system, and psychiatric residential facilities. Stephanie owns and operates Seeds of Love Counseling, where she focuses on helping children, teens, and families feel and function their best through building strong attachments and positive mental health habits. Stephanie can be reached at www.seedsoflovecounseling.com.