Emotions...they can be overwhelming and scary for children. Those big feelings are abstract and hard for little people to understand; and not acknowledging and learning how to process those emotions in a constructive and positive way can lead to impulsive actions and misbehavior. That's why it's so important for us adults to nurture our kids' emotional health and teach them how to self–regulate those feelings.
Emotional health is all about how we think, feel, and behave. It’s NOT about being "happy" all the time, but about being mindful of our emotions (both positive and negative) and learning how to manage and express them. The state of our children's emotional health affects how they process feelings and defeat challenges. Read more about Nurturing Your Child's Emotional Health here.
Think about the last time you experienced some sort of negative emotion. What helped you cool off? Was it a walk in the fresh air? Perhaps calming music and a favorite book? Or maybe a workout at the gym? Just like adults, children react differently to overwhelming emotions: some seek comfort and connection with a simple hug; others need some space to calm their over-stimulated nerves; while others need to relieve stress by playing hard or being silly!
One of the biggest challenges for our kiddos is learning how to self-regulate emotions—that means one of our biggest challenges as parents (or teachers) is teaching them that life skill. It doesn't come naturally, it must be taught...and caught! A few important pointers for adults to keep in mind when helping kids conquer their emotions:
1. Share your own experiences with them. You can name your own emotions ("I’m sad we can’t go to the pool today"), and also take the opportunity to use your child’s favorite shows to talk about emotions ("How do you think this character is feeling?")
2. Help your child identify and name the emotion they are experiencing and how it is making them feel. Is it anger? Fear? Worry? Loneliness?
3. Validate their emotions: refrain from saying, "It's no big deal", or "Don't get so upset." Be empathetic and let them know you understand. Feeling seen and accepted by adults can help children learn to express their emotions in a stable, healthy way.
4. Help them learn how to express their emotions in a socially–appropriate manner. They should know that it’s okay (and normal) to feel any emotion, but they have choices in how they respond to those uncomfortable feelings, and not all reactions or responses are healthy.
An easy, practical way you can help your child learn to self-regulate is by creating a calm down corner in your home or classroom.
What is a Calm Down Corner?
- A comforting and calming place for children to retreat to when they need some space to process those big feelings welling up inside their small bodies.
- A positive time-in alternative to the traditional time–out (which is a more punitive strategy) that helps children regulate their emotions BEFORE they resort to misbehavior.
- A structured, safe space in your home for your child to go to if they're upset or over-excited and need to regain their emotional and physical control.
Donna Housman, clinical psychologist at the Housman Institute, defines a calm down space as "an area where a child who is experiencing heightened emotions may go to engage their minds, calm their bodies, and release strong emotions in a safe and controlled manner…when used effectively, a calm-down corner can fulfill your kiddo’s need to have some time away while providing and promoting a sense of independence, responsibility, and achievement."
What are the Benefits of a Calm Down Corner?
1. It builds emotional intelligence by helping children learn to recognize their own and others' feelings (empathy), and to use that knowledge to guide how they think and behave. The calm down corner gives them time to reflect on how their reactions to their emotions can make others feel. If they’ve resorted to disobedient behavior triggered by an extreme emotion, encourage them to make things right once they’ve calmed down.
2. It teaches them that unpleasant emotions are normal. Kids don’t need to be ashamed of their emotions, or feel like they’re being punished for feeling a certain way. It’s also a great way to teach them that while all feelings are valid, not all reactions to those negative feelings are acceptable (such as throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store if Mom doesn’t succumb to the pressure of adding a candy bar to the cart).
3. It helps them learn from their mistakes. Kids should know that everyone makes mistakes—and we all learn from those mistakes. Acknowledge the negative emotion, recognize any misbehavior resulting from that feeling, and try, try again!
How To Create a Calm Down Corner:
1. You don’t need a big space: a quiet, safe, private corner in a playroom or classroom is all it takes.
2. Add a soft rug, plush animal pillow, or comfortable bean bag chair
3. If your space will allow, use indoor tents, sensory swings or hugglepods as comforting places for kids to process their emotions.
4. Fill the space with your child's favorite stuffed animals or quiet toys, books about emotions, sensory play objects like blocks, and art & journaling activities.
5. Add soothing artwork such as nature and landscape posters or happy family photos.
6. Some children find that calming music is helpful in regaining control of their emotions.
7. If you don't have the physical space for a calm-down corner, try a basket filled with sensory play objects, books and blankets, and favorite calming toys.
When Should You Use the Calm Down Corner?
- Before things escalate. The goal is for children to eventually be able to identify the signs that their body is giving them letting them know it's time for a cool–off (clenched jaws, tight fists, yelling) BEFORE it gets out of control.
- For overstimulation, NOT willful disobedience. While there are still consequences to blatant disrespect and breaking rules, being overstimulated and overwhelmed by emotions is NOT the time to employ discipline.
- When your child decides it's time. Over time, your child's confidence and self–insight will improve, and they will quickly begin to recognize on their own when they need to visit their calm down space.
As the beloved Mr. Rogers said, "When our children see us expressing our emotions, they can learn that their own feelings are natural and permissible, can be expressed, and can be talked about. That's an important thing for our children to learn." So–learn about and experience emotions together with your kids, set up your calm down corner, and give them the gift of learning how to work through feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, worry...and come out on the other side stronger!
Got an idea for the HearthSong family? Share your calm down corners #hearthsong.