If your child has received a formal anxiety disorder diagnosis, struggles with self-regulation due to a developmental delay like autism or sensory processing disorder, is overly sensitive, and/or seems to feel emotions on a much deeper level than most, arming yourself and your child with age-appropriate calming strategies for kids and creating a calm down kit filled with anxiety-fighting tools can make a HUGE difference in helping to keep big emotions at bay.
Of course, every child is different. The things that calm one child may not calm another, and finding the best strategies and tools to include in your calm down kit will probably require a bit of trial and error. But I promise you it will be worth it! Finding ways to help your child recognize feelings of anxiety so she can proactively keep them manageable, and equipping her with tangible items she can use to help her calm her body in the face of overwhelming, anxious thoughts can be life-changing, and we’re sharing 23 tips and tools you can start implementing TODAY to help your child manage her anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
While it’s completely normal to feel anxious from time to time, anxiety disorders cause more intense reactions. The feelings last longer than they should and oftentimes begin to interfere with a person’s daily functioning. Anxiety can cause physical responses that have no medical causes, like headaches or stomachaches; it can trigger emotional responses like crying or getting overly upset over something relatively minor; it can cloud one’s thought responses and make them worry excessively over something for no apparent reason; and it can cause behavioral responses beyond what would be expected in certain situations. Individuals with developmental delays like autism who also suffer from anxiety can exhibit additional symptoms, like agitation, aggression, rigidity, and obsessiveness when feeling anxious.
6 Calming Strategies for Kids
While you can’t take your child’s worries away, there are certain calming strategies for kids you can teach her to help her maintain perspective and quell anxious thoughts. Here are 6 of our favorites.
Take deep breaths
When we feel anxious, our breathing patterns change. We start taking short, shallow, fast breaths, which does nothing but intensify our anxiety. Mindful breathing – taking in a slow breath through the nose, holding it for a few seconds, and then exhaling slowly through the mouth – is one of the best calming strategies for kids as it helps a child focus on something other than her anxious thoughts, and once her breathing slows down, she will naturally start to feel more calm. Mindful breathing is a quick and effective anxiety tool that benefits people of all ages, and when we learn how to recognize the early warning signs of our anxiety and remember to practice mindful breathing, we can proactively keep our emotions under control. CLICK HERE for tips and techniques to teach your child how to use mindful breathing to manage her worries.
Talk it through…
When your child is feeling anxious, encourage her to talk about it and be careful not to dismiss her feelings. Get down on her level and really engage with her. Listen to what she has to say and help her work through her feelings. Kids often lack the ability to assess which of their problems are big and which ones are small, and helping your child make the distinction will help her learn how to objectively evaluate her worries over time. Remember that your child’s worries are very real to her and that anxiety can be very isolating. Acknowledging your child’s fears in a supportive way, and providing reassurance when needed will go a long way in ensuring she keeps an open dialogue about her anxiety rather than keeping her feelings bottled up.
…but don’t talk about it too much!
While you want to encourage your child to talk about the things that cause her anxiety, setting limits on the amount of time you engage in discussions about her worries can help ensure she doesn’t get ‘stuck’ on the topic. Therapists often suggest a ‘one and done’ approach whereby you engage in a discussion about a particular worry your child is having for a minute or so, and then you’re not ‘allowed’ to talk about it again for the rest of the day. The idea is to allow the child to get her feelings out, and then redirect her thoughts to something else so she will stop focusing on the things that cause her to feel anxious. I like the premise behind this calming strategy for kids, but I prefer a ‘one and later’ approach as I feel taking away the ability to discuss a fear or worry for the rest of the day can be too overwhelming for some kids.
Physical activity has long been known as an effective calming strategy for kids, and while it’s not always possible to hit the park the moment your child’s starts to feel anxious, a simple walk around the neighborhood, up and down the hallways at school, up and down the stairs at home, or even a 5-minute jump on a portable trampoline will offer a distraction when big emotions threaten to take over. Physical activity also helps encourage proper breathing and helps your child’s body produce feel-good endorphins.
Get in touch with your senses
Another one of my favorite calming strategies for kids is to do a sensory check-in. When your child is feeling stressed and anxious, have her sit quietly and ask her to talk about her surroundings using her senses. What does she see? What does she hear? What does she smell? You can keep this serious, or make it funny – the point is to teach your child to focus on the sensory input she’s receiving from the world around her as a way of distracting her mind from the invasive, anxious thoughts that are plaguing her.
Put your head between your knees
Another tip you can teach your child to use when she is feeling overwhelmed by big emotions is to position her head such that it is at the same level, or below, her heart. When we feel anxious, our heart tends to beat faster, and when we ‘invert’ our bodies, we allow oxygenated blood to flow more easily to our brains rather than pooling in our appendages. You can do this by sitting your child on a chair, asking her to lean forward, and then help her rest her head between her knees. Alternatively, if she’s having a panic attack and you worry she may pass out, you can lie your child on her back with her legs propped up.
What is a Calm Down Kit?
A calm down kit is a special box or portable bag filled with a collection of tools that help regulate emotions and promote a sense of calm and relaxation when anxiety threatens to take hold. The contents of your child’s calm down kit will be specific to her as no two individuals with anxiety are the same and each respond to different strategies and techniques. The trick is to find out what works best for your child.
Remember that a calm down kit doesn’t need to be anything elaborate, and that you can have different tools to use in different settings. While you may have bigger anti-anxiety props available to your child to use at home, like a weighted blanket or a mini trampoline, keeping smaller objects in your car, purse, and your child’s school bag will ensure she has something tangible at her disposal to help her cope when life feels overwhelming.
17 Tools to Include in a Calm Down Kit for Kids
Bubbles. Mindful breathing is a very effective calming strategy for kids and adults alike, but learning how to use this technique can be challenging, particularly for small children. A simple way to encourage deep breathing to help your child find her way back to a place of calm is to have her blow bubbles. This will force her to talk deep, calming breaths naturally, and the bubbles will serve as a fabulous secondary distraction. You can buy mini bottles of bubbles, which are a very easy to pack into a small calm down kit for on the go anxiety relief.
Fidget toys. Fidget toys are another favorite item to include in a calm down kit for kids as they are small and portable, and can help calm big emotions without being overly distracting. There are HEAPS of different options available to appeal to various sensory needs and desires, and I suggest buying a package of assorted fidget toys and letting your child explore and decide which one(s) she finds the most calming.
Weighted lap pad. While it’s not always practical to cart your child’s weighted blanket around with you, a small weighted lap pad can help emulate the feelings of comfort it provides her while you’re on the go.
Noise cancelling headphones. If your child struggles with loud noises, a pair of children’s noise cancelling headphones is an absolute must for her calm down kit. They can help block out overwhelming sounds in the grocery store, at the mall, or at sporting events, and can also allow her to shut the world out and relax on the drive home after a long day at school.
Calming apps. There are heaps of great apps you can download to your child’s tablet to help her when she feels anxious. There are breathing apps, music apps, and even calming games. My favorite is ‘Balloon (Breathing Games)’ as it’s designed to help kids prolong the time it takes them to exhale while they breathe, making it a fabulous tool to help regulate their breathing during times of anxiety and stress.
Calming music. If you have a smart phone, you can easily download some of your child’s favorite tunes to listen to when she feels overwhelmed. You can opt for something instrumental and soothing, or find something you can rock out to together to help release nervous energy. It all comes down to personal preference and what works best for your child.
Playdoh. Sensory tools like playdoh are great to include in your child’s calm down kit. Kneading, molding, stretching, and creating with playdoh can be extremely relaxing and calming, and it’s an inexpensive and portable option if your child needs an outlet while on the go.
Essential oils. There are heaps of single oils you can purchase to help support your child with anxiety, and you can combine them together to make your own blends based on your child’s individual needs and struggles. Lavender oil soothes the body and mind; bergamot oil is a powerful relaxant and can reduce nervous tension, anxiety, and stress; roman chamomile oil can reduce mental anxiety, paranoia, and hostility; vetiver oil calms the sensory system and helps to stabilize emotions; and wild orange oil is a great mood booster that relaxes the nervous system, reduces stress, and promotes feelings of happiness. CLICK HERE for a great article on how to use essential oils to help kids with autism, sensory processing disorder, and anxiety.
Chewing gum. Another small but effective tool to keep in your child’s calm down kit is chewing gum. The act of chewing and blowing bubbles can help distract a child from her anxious thoughts. I prefer xylitol-sweetened gum like Epic as it’s naturally sweetened without harmful additives.
Bottle of water. While I’m not a fan of encouraging kids (or ourselves!) to seek comfort in food and drinks in the face of anxious feelings, drinking a glass (or bottle) of water can be soothing in times of distress.
Pinwheel. Pinwheels offer another fun way to teach kids mindful breathing. Keep a couple in your car to help your child regulate her emotions before and after school, and pack them in your bag when going on long family outings for a simple and engaging release when emotions start getting out of hand.
Coloring book and colored pencils. Coloring can be extremely relaxing, and it can double as a fabulous mindful activity as well. Instead of mindlessly coloring, have your child say the steps she uses to color out loud as she completes them – ‘I am coloring’, ‘I’m going to coloring the flower pink’, ‘I’m picking up the pink pencil’, ‘coloring helps me feel calm’. The idea is to train your child to say these things quietly to herself over time to keep her focused on the task she’s completing, and to teach her how to use coloring as a calming tool when she’s feeling anxious or overwhelmed. There are lots of great portable coloring books and colored pencils you can purchase to add to your child’s calm down kit – I like Melissa and Doug’s Color by Numbers sets – and you may even find the exercise relaxing yourself!
Hard candies. I once read somewhere that citrus helps lower levels of cortisol – our stress hormones – and Brach’s Lemon Drops have always had a soothing effect on me when I’m feeling nervous. Put a bag in your child’s calm down kit and keep a few in your purse and the glove compartment of your car for emergencies!
Notebook and pen. Doodling and writing can be very calming and therapeutic for kids and adults alike, and it’s a great portable activity to add to a calm down kit to help your child express herself creatively while on-the-go. These LEGO-inspired notebooks are fun, and a pack of gel pens will help your child express her creativity when she’s feeling fragile.
Kaleidoscope. While kaleidoscopes are typically viewed as a party favor for small children, they can also be extremely calming. I love the mini prism scopes as they are perfect for small hands and fit easily into bags and purses.
Sunglasses. If your child is sensitive to light, equipping her with a pair of sunglass can make all the difference in situations where she’s experiencing sensory overload. You’ll probably have a nice pair she can wear everyday, but consider buying a bulk pack of party-favor sunglasses to keep in her calm down kit to ensure she always has a pair at her disposal when needed.
Pipe cleaners. Pipe cleaners are a great inexpensive fidget for kids of all ages. You can bend and mold them into all kinds of shapes and designs, giving nervous hands something to do in times of emotional turmoil.
C.S. Lewis once said, ‘You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending’. I have found this quote inspirational at so many times throughout my life, and if you’re the parent of a child who struggles with anxiety, and I hope these words will remind you that even if you can’t change the reason your child struggles, you have the power to help make her life easier in spite of it.
I hope these calming strategies and tools help you create an effective calm down kit to help your child cope when faced with big, frightening emotions both at home and while on the go.
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