We all know the importance of teaching our kids their ABCs. But how about teaching them about 54321? This mindfulness technique with an easy-to-remember name is a simple strategy that can help ground kids in the present moment to reduce anxiety and promote calm.
To get you started using the practice at home, here’s an expert-backed primer on the 54321 grounding technique, why it works, and how to use it.
What Is the 54321 Grounding Technique?
This technique involves identifying sensory experiences in the present moment: The challenge is to find five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and something you can taste — or some other variation that works for your family and the situation at hand.
“Grounding methods are exercises designed to bring you back into the present moment and your current surroundings,” explains Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner and founder of Take Root Therapy, a group psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles.
How Does 54321 Work?
Lurie explains that this technique can be a powerful anxiety reducer because it anchors us in the present moment, whereas, “anxiety often takes us into the future, (feeling distressed about what could possibly happen) or the past (ruminating over what has already happened).”
Indeed the driving principle behind the 54321 practice is that anxiety, angst, depression, and other negative emotions generally stem from being preoccupied with being somewhere else in place and time: Getting trapped in the future leads to anxiety while getting trapped in the past can cause depression.
“The present however is usually neutral, neither good nor bad,” explains psychotherapist, Austin Hunter. “Try it right now sitting where you are, in this moment, reading the paragraph. The majority of our passing moments are calm if we aren’t distracted by thoughts of what is ahead or behind.”
Lurie notes this approach can be especially useful during the pandemic, which has caused massive disruption to all of our lives and led to mental health challenges for all ages. “It’s especially difficult to cope with the uncertainty of when things will be back to normal again, and possibly other strong emotions, like anger, grief, or loneliness,” she says. Focusing on the present helps manage those past- and future-based feelings.
It’s Perfectly OK to Modify the 54321 Technique for Kids
The goal of the approach is to help kids anchor themselves to the present moment; it’s not about some rigid adherence to rules. So encourage kids to adapt as necessary to make the practice feel just right for them.
“What is important here is the mechanism of its effectiveness,” Hunter says. Identifying sensory perceptions, in any combination, “forces the brain to concentrate on the present,” he says, and that’s what matters because it really works. So if a kid prefers to swap a taste out for a positive affirmation? Go for it!
Dr. Amy Nasamran, licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, suggests that kids might even prefer to draw or write out their list, an approach that can “also be powerful for kids who do better expressing themselves through drawing instead of verbalizing,” she says.
Hunter explains why any adapted version of the strategy works equally well. “For children, the constant shifting attention of a brain learning to adapt to every environment can be a source of continuous stress,” he says. “The key to turning off the red alert is to inform the brain that the current situation is safe, that it is not under threat, and that past traumas are not currently happening.”
When kids instead occupy their brains with thoughts of what is happening right now, “this engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which is how we calm ourselves and disengages the limbic system, which is what keeps us on alert,” Hunter explains. “What is amazing is that both of these systems cannot be active at the same time: Engaging one turns off the other.”
Tips for Doing the 54321 Technique With Kids
To help kids practice the technique, try doing it with them. “Kids have less developed parasympathetic systems and therefore model their behavior on what they see. If a parent, guardian, or therapist engages their parasympathetic system with 54321, the child may have an easier time modeling this behavior and calming down,” Hunter says.
Nasamran agrees that parent modeling will be the key to kids’ success with 54321. “Kids learn from observing what the trusted adults in their lives do,” she says. “Model the skill and talk out loud as you’re doing it to help kids develop their own inner language.”
Licensed therapist and researcher Kaela Farrise notes that younger kids may benefit from an extra boost from mom or dad that can help direct their mindful thoughts. “It can be helpful for an adult to do it with them by taking turns naming things or asking more targeted questions like pointing to a particular area and asking, ‘What do you see over there?’ Or [try] asking follow up questions like, ‘How does the chair feel against your legs?’”
Lurie also suggests that parents can help kids practice the 54321 technique together as a “sort of game when they’re not feeling anxious,” she says. “That way, it might be easier to access when they are needing some extra grounding.”
You can download and print your own 54321 technique chart for kids to stick on your little one’s wall to remind them about the technique when they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed.