7 Ways to Calm Down Kids Without Using a Screen

You may be tempted to turn on Baby Shark in the middle of a temper tantrum, but these mind-body tricks work better than distractions.

When my son was 6 years old, he kept a comfort box under his bed. He filled it with all sorts of treasures to help him work through his feelings—a tiny blanket, a ball, even a sequined bottle with yellow-tinted water. The strangest things can be calming!

To find methods to soothe your little one that you haven't tried, we asked different kinds of health pros for their most under-the-radar strategies. Why not give their ideas a whirl?

The Behavioral Scientist Says: Be a Mirror

Here's a technique to keep a little uneasiness from escalating into a full-blown fit. "When your child shares a frustration, paraphrase it back to her," says Robin Gurwitch, Ph.D., a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. Suppose they yell, "The math teacher gave us so much homework!" Instead of saying, "Uh-huh" or "Really," respond with, "Lots of math tonight!" Follow up with a confidence booster, such as, "You're really good at solving your math problems. And I like the way you try when the problems get a bit hard. I'll be here to help if you get stuck." This strategy shows you've acknowledged your child's frustrations, so they won't have to become even more upset or angry to get your attention, says Dr. Gurwitch.

The Mom Blogger Says: Play a Brain Game

The next time your child is sobbing so hard that you don't even think they can hear what you're saying, catch their attention by doing something unexpected, suggests Amanda Rueter, a former mental-health counselor who blogs at MessyMotherhood.com. "Turn off the lights, jump up and down, or whisper," she says. Now that your kiddo is listening ask them to name five things that are blue or three things they can touch right now. "It'll help him shift from using the emotional part of his brain to the logical area, and he'll start to calm down," Rueter explains.

The Yoga Instructor Says: Send Positive Vibes

When you notice your baby's lip start to quiver, chanting "om" can help head off the tears, says Shakta Khalsa, founder of Radiant Child Yoga. Do it as you make eye contact and rock your baby back and forth. Alternatively, you can hold their hands and make gentle circles with their arms. The strategy works for older kids when you teach them to chant with you. Chanting is based on the idea that every sound we make carries a vibration affecting a particular area of the body, and "om" resonates in the heart, evoking peaceful feelings, says Khalsa. Scans have shown that the chant also causes areas of the brain associated with emotion to become less active.

The Therapist Says: Give Them a New Way to Hug

Hugs from parents are the best. But if your child starts feeling sad or anxious when you're not with them—whether they're at preschool or it's the middle of the night—they might be able to self-soothe with a "butterfly" hug, says Sonja Kromroy, a licensed therapist specializing in anxiety and trauma at Wild Tree Wellness, in St. Paul. Ask your child to pretend they are blowing out candles several times. Then have them cross their arms in front of their chest as if they're giving themselves a hug, with their fingertips resting just under their collarbones and pointing up toward their neck. Help them interlock their thumbs to make the body of the butterfly. Then have them close their eyes and flutter their fingers—slowly tapping, alternating right to left six to eight times—while taking slow breaths. Your child can repeat the process until they feel better. "The slow right-left stimulation helps strengthen networks in the brain that reduce emotional distress," explains Kromroy. While the technique originated more than 30 years ago, this newer variation has been used to calm children who were traumatized by a hurricane.

The Yoga Instructor Also Says: Breathe With the Belly

When you see that your child is frustrated, you might tell them to take a deep breath. But do they really know what that means? Teach your child one of the methods for "belly breathing," and you can remind them to do it when they are feeling emotional—and, hopefully, it'll become second nature. If you have a toddler, hold up one finger and ask them to imagine that they're taking a deep breath and blowing bubbles. When they are a little older, tell them to pretend their belly is a balloon and they need to breathe through their nose to fill it with air. You'll know your child is doing it right if you can see their belly expand. If this doesn't work, have them raise their arms to make a big circle over their head as if they're the balloon, and they need to breathe in until it's "full." Then they can "pop" it by clapping to let the air out.

Taking deep breaths triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which induces calm. "When your child exhales, she's releasing carbon dioxide, and emotionally can let go of whatever is upsetting her too," Khalsa says.

The Acupuncturist Says: Press Your Baby's Calm Spot

If your child is still fussy after you pick them up, soothe them with an acupressure technique used in the neonatal intensive-care unit and emergency department, suggests Alyssa Johnson, who has treated patients at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. Follow the curve around the top of your baby's ear with your finger until you feel an indention. Then gently rub that spot (a pressure point) in small, circular motions for five to ten seconds. Next, go to the inner crease of their elbow and slide your finger to the edge closest to their body. Gently rub that pressure point for 10 to 15 seconds. Alternate between ear and elbow on both sides until they settle down. Johnson notes that this is thought to clear blockages in "energy channels" and release feel-good endorphins.

The Psychologist Says: Cool Them Off

A gentle splash of water may help your baby or toddler keep their cool, says Ilana Luft, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Dr. Luft suggests applying a cold, wet washcloth or dipping your fingers in cold water and gently touching their face. Cooling their body's temp a bit can slow down their heart rate and help calm their breathing.

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