I was recently asked by a parent of a “fiery” 5-year-old whose emotional intensity levels frequently overshadow her burgeoning self-regulatory skills, for some effective self-soothing techniques to teach her. Here’s my response:
Emotional regulation is a learned skill and there are many things you can do to teach your child effective self-soothing techniques.  Emotional responses can occur on three different levels- neurophysiological, behavioral, and cognitive. Here are some tools to help with each:

Techniques to help calm children’s autonomic nervous systems in fun ways:
  • Teach the tummy elevator game, which involves placing a stuffed animal on a child’s stomach and seeing how far their breath intake can push the animal up the “elevator.” (Try telling a child to “take a deep, slow breath” and watch that child glaze over or resist. But make a game out of it and all of a sudden it becomes appealing.)
  • Use the volcano breath. Have your child take a deep breath in while pressing her hands together in front of her heart. Then exhale deeply while bringing her folded hands up over her head and out to her sides like an erupting volcano. Click here to see a youtube video of the technique.
  • Blow up real or imaginary balloons.
  • Use chewable jewelry for oral-motor input.
  • Use a straw to blow a ping-pong ball or smooth cylindrical magic marker across the table.
  • Inhale calming essential oils or use them for a foot massage.
  • Create a “chill-out corner” or a safe space for calming down.
Strategies for safely discharging anger from the body or releasing tension:
  • Use play-dough for squeezing.
  • Provide paper for tearing and scrunching.
  • Supply small plastic bubble wrap for squeezing and large bubble wrap for stomping on.
  • Explore various hand fidgets like the Tangle Jr. or Panic Pete (pictured above).
  • Fill balloons with flour for squeezing.
  • Provide Kinetic sand, beeswax or clay for squeezing and molding.
  • Use a Hoberman Sphere for dispersing tension.
Cognitive approaches to emotional self-regulation:
(Use these when your child is calm and in a state where learning can take place; not in the heat of the moment.)
  • To increase emotional literacy and provide suggestions for how to work non-destructively with strong feelings, I highly recommend the wonderful series of children’s books, “When I Feel…” written by child therapist Cornelia Maude Spelman. She writes clearly and in a way that’s very appealing to children, using animal families as her stories’ main characters.
  • Provide as much consistency and stability as possible for your child. Environmental stress, unpredictability, and instability can exacerbate emotional dysregulation.
  • Create a mood meter to help your child label and identify her emotions.
  • Validate your child’s feelings. Teach her that different people may have different feelings about the same event, and that’s okay.
  • Since children often model your example, share how you are feeling with your child and model ways you stay calm. For example, if you’re feeling frustrated with a computer problem you are having, (okay, perhaps I’m projecting here) say something like, “I’m feeling frustrated. I’m going to take a break and calm down before I work on this some more.”
  • Teach your child to think about different ways of responding to situations that trigger emotional outbursts. Role play and encourage multiple solutions. Discuss what the consequences may be for each response.
  • Use tools like The Incredible 5 Point Scale, developed by Kari Dunn Buron, to help children bring awareness to the stages of emotional dysregulation and control their emotional responses. See a sample scale here. Creating individualized scales is a beautiful way to break down a child’s response to specific situations or feelings.  Labeling what the behavior feels like, looks like, and what tools can be used each step of the way can prevent your child from escalating from a 1 to a 5.
  • Teach positive self-talk by having her quietly say something like, “I can stay calm” or “I can do this.”
  • Praise your child’s efforts to regulate her emotions in order to reinforce positive behaviors. Your praise can help her develop a  positive self-image regarding emotional control.

About Skills 4 Life:

Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy offers a broad range of pediatric occupational therapy services to help your child master age-appropriate developmental skills, become more independent, increase academic success & develop confidence. The experts at Skills 4 Life specialize in handwriting, keyboarding & executive function coaching, but also work with children on social & emotional learning, motor skills, self-regulation strategies & activities of daily living. Skills 4 Life Pediatric Occupational Therapy offers your child a safe, compassionate environment to learn the critical skills they need to be successful. Learn more about our team & services at www.skills4lifeot.com, or you can contact our office by email at karina@skills4lifeot.com or by phone at 303.351.1828 for a free consultation.

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