Like grownups, kids experience moments of acute stress: Anxiety is a normal part of life at any age. But unlike their parents, kids have fewer tools to manage their emotions — and they often express their nerves in a tantrum or other outburst.
Telling kids to simply “relax” or “calm down” hardly works for anyone involved. But you can introduce kids to a range of techniques that can help them find peace in their challenging times.
From pets and painting to music and mediation, here are some effective techniques to help children calm themselves down.
1. Call in the family pet for backup
Research shows that exposure to pets has a calming effect on kids. If your home includes a dog or cat, bring that pet to bond with your kid during stressful moments. This emotional support is proven to reduce cortisol levels and help achieve calm amid an emotional storm. (And if you don’t yet have a family pet? Maybe it’s time to consider adopting one!)
2. Get out the art supplies
While art therapy isn’t as much of a quick fix as some of the others on our list, it’s an effective strategy for managing anxiety over the long term.
When kids are engaged in art activities — such as drawing or painting — they’re focusing their thoughts on creative expression. It’s a mindfulness practice that helps them calm down physically, and in turn helps quiet the brain and its negative looping thought processes.
3. Teach them some breathing exercises.
When kids are under intense stress, their bodies are in fight-or-flight mode. Fast, shallow breathing only sustains this uncomfortable state. When kids gain awareness of their breath, they can better soothe themselves and feel more in control. So, encourage them to pause for deep, mindful breathing exercises.
You can try teaching younger kids about deep breathing with the help of props like bubbles or feathers to watch or smell as they inhale and exhale. Show them how to keep a hand on their own bellies to feel the rise and fall. They might also visualize blowing out birthday candles or tracing shapes with their long, slow breaths.
4. Engage them in physical exercise
The mental health benefits of cardiovascular exercise are well known for people of all ages, including kids. Taking a break to exercise amid moments of stress may help kids to calm their emotions. This particularly works with exercises requiring significant exertion. Think: pushups, climbing a jungle gym, or pulling a wagon.
5. Hand them a stress ball
Kids tense their bodies when they’re nervous. Taking out some of that tension on another object can help them let it go. It can also help shift kids’ attention onto the squeezing and away from the stressor. Sure, a formal stress ball will do — but so would any ball, a mound of clay, or anything else handy (and durable) in the moment.
6. Meditate with them
Guided meditations are a highly effective relaxation tool for stress at any age, but most kids won’t respond to hour-long meditations created for grownup attention spans. You can also try a progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and releasing various muscles, one by one, to release tension and promote a sense of calm.
Look for meditations designed specifically with kids in mind; for instance, Moshi offers guided meditations for kids that aren’t just relaxing, but downright enchanting, with dreamy and transporting narration. The content mixes soothing audio techniques with evocative characters that conjure kids’ imaginations.
7. Listen to soothing music
Music can have a profoundly calming effect on kids. Science shows just how powerful those results can be: “Listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication, in many circumstances,” according to Stanford researchers.
Expose your kids to different types of calming music, and help them experiment with what works best. Consider classical music, rhythmic tunes, lullabies, or otherwise soothing melodies. Moshi’s library of music includes hours of whimsical musical tracks to help kids relax and sleep.
For more tips on helping little ones cope with their nerves, consider these strategies that can help kids stay calm when their routines are disrupted.