A calm-down corner can not only diffuse tantrums in the making, but a soothing spot designed just for your toddler or preschooler can also help them learn valuable skills for regulating his or her emotions.

By Christin Perry
May 26, 2020
Credit: Illustration by Yeji Kim

We're all well aware that little ones can have really big emotions. But how come they equate to an epic tantrum on so many occasions? One of the biggest reasons kids have meltdowns is because they don't understand what to do with all those big feelings—and unfortunately taking a deep breath isn't yet in their toolkit! That's where the idea of a calm-down corner comes into play, a method of helping kids process emotions that's proven to be much more effective than the time outs you may have sat in as a kid.

Even if we weren't coming out of months of social distancing, setting up a soothing spot at home where your toddler or preschooler can chill out is a great way to manage those days where everything is upsetting. To get you started on the right relaxing foot, here's everything you need to know about creating your very own calm-down corner, including why it works and the best ways to make it as comfy as can be.

So What Exactly Is a Calm-Down Corner?

First things first: it's important to understand that a calm-down corner is not the same thing as putting your child in time out. Instead, it's a place he can go to calm down when he notices his emotions are starting to spiral out of control.

"A calm-down corner is 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," says Donna Housman, Ed.D, clinical child psychologist and founder of the Boston-based Housman Institute.

A calm-down corner might be as simple as a space with a soft mat and a bucket of books, or as elaborate as a fancy fort with colorful art on the walls and baskets full of sensory activities. And of course, it doesn't have to be a corner. The key is to find what helps your child feel calm and balanced again, in a space that's removed from the chaos and noise of the rest of the house.

When Should You Use It?

Maybe you've been using time outs with your children and you'd like to transition to a calming corner. Or perhaps you'd like to incorporate both techniques into your parenting toolkit. How do you know when to use a calm-down corner vs. time out? According to our experts, the following instances are best times to enlist the help of a calm-down corner:

Before things escalate.

A calming corner should be a soothing and inviting space that is left open for the child to enter whenever they are feeling dysregulated, says Dr. Housman. She feels it's important for parents to help children identify the signs their body gives them to let them know they're becoming out of control. Things like a clenched jaw, tight fists, shouting, furrowed brows, and throwing things are all signs your child can come to recognize.

For overstimulation rather than willful disobedience.

If you've used timeouts in the past for things like blatant disrespect or breaking house rules, it may be confusing for kids if you switch to a calm-down corner. To combat this, begin by using it for instances of overstimulation or heightened emotions. You know, before your kiddo is in trouble. And remember—too much excitement can be as out of control as too much anger, says Dr. Housman. Both can lead to those caveman impulses in little ones, so encourage them to hit the calm-down corner to cool off for a bit.

When your child decides it's time.

One of the biggest benefits of using a calm-down corner is that it teaches little ones improved self confidence, independence, and self-insight, says Allie Finkel, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and co-owner of Kind Minds Therapy in New York City. As part of this, your little one will quickly begin to recognize when they need to spend time in the calm-down corner. When this happens, embrace it, and know that she's beginning the life-long process of regulating her emotions.

Setting Up Your Own Calm-Down Corner

If you choose to set up a calm-down corner in your home, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind before you get started. Finkel shares the following tips for success if you're wondering how to set up a calm-down corner:

  • Have your child help with the planning. Listen to his calm-down corner ideas. This is a great way to ensure the space works for your child's individual needs.
  • Teach your child how to use everything you've included. Don't set expectations based on assumptions; instead, set your child up for success in her new space.
  • Be consistent. It'll take some getting used to for both of you, but with consistency and firm but gentle guidance on when it's time to use the calm-down corner, your little one will eventually catch on and begin to use it properly.
  • Work together to create a set of rules for the space. Allowing your child to take part in setting the rules will provide him with a much-needed sense of control.

What to Include in a Calm-Down Corner

Your calm-down corner should consist of a comfortable place to sit or lay down, and several calming activities for your child to engage in. These can be sensory in nature, but that's not a requirement. Finkel recommends the following items if you're looking for calm-down corner ideas.

  • Glitter jar
  • Bubble wrap
  • Stress ball
  • Fidget spinners
  • Pinwheel or visual image for breathing
  • A list of "mindful minute" activities
  • A journal (for older children)
  • Slinky
  • Art materials
  • Bean bag chair
  • Blankets and pillows

Once the calm-down corner has worked its magic, it's important to check in with your child about the feelings that led them to the cozy corner, how they are feeling now and how their behavior made you feel, says Dr. Housman. This helps your little one to understand what happened, sort through the emotions they experienced, and most importantly, learn how to handle similar situations in the future.

Comments (1)

May 28, 2020
I think I might have the most intelligent child in the whole world!! I had never heard of a calm-down corner till just a few minutes ago when I ran across this page. However, my 2 year old has been putting HIMSELF in a time-out corner anytime he starts to get overwhelmed for the past 6 months. His own created "corner" is his bed, surrounded by his 4 favorite toys (his stuffed ducks), drinking from his sippy cup, watching Spongebob Squarepants. We know when he put himself in his bed, he just needs a minute to himself. My husband, my mother-in-law, and me have been making jokes about it since we first saw him do it. We said, "he's like, 'screw y'all I'm out.'" Then when he comes out of his room, we ask him, "did you just need a minute?" We realized it really did help him from having his tantrums so whenever he does that, we keep people from bothering him. That's his time to himself. He doesn't bother anyone, and no one is going to bother him. I get onto anyone who tries to bother him while he's taking his time to himself. I've gotten on to my stepkids, my husband's adopted sister, my stepsister, and even my 1 year old for messing with him while he was trying to take his break from all the chaos. I cannot believe he thought of this all by himself. However, I can testify to the fact that it does work. He comes out of his calm-down corner my happy big boy again. I will start implementing this with my youngest son and my stepbabies too.