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How to Develop Self-Calming Skills


Some children misbehave because they do not have the skills to calm themselves when things do not go their way. Children without these skills are often called bad-tempered, strong willed, or difficult.

Many parents try to get their children to behave using lectures, explanations, and reasoning. When this fails, they try to force the child to behave. This often leads to confrontations that are unpleasant for both parent and child and usually do no good.

Here are some ways to help teach your children self-calming skills:

  1. Don't nag. Do not lecture, threaten, or give warnings.
  2. Provide your child with a great deal of time-in. Time-in is positive interaction between a child and the parents when the child is not misbehaving. This is not meant to be a reward. Rather, it is meant to let your child know that you love him. Try to identify situations where your child has a history of bugging you. For example, if your child often bothers you when you are on the phone, give her a lot of brief, nonverbal physical contact while you are on the telephone but before she starts bothering you.
  3. State 3 words in a calm tone of voice. When your child interrupts, say "Interrupting, calm down" or when he is whining say, "Whining, calm down." It is important that you ignore your child until he is quiet or has settled down. During these calming-down periods, do not nag or remind your child of what he did or did not do. Just ignore your child until he has calmed himself down.
  4. Ignore your child during the calm-down period. Do not make eye contact with your child. For a calm-down period to end your child must calm down or gain control of himself for 2 or 3 seconds. Your child can call you a name or have a tantrum on the floor, but until he calms down, he does not exist. Stop paying attention to undesired behavior. Give your child the chance to calm himself down without your help.
  5. Let your child see you when you are ignoring him.

    While you are ignoring, your child needs to:

    • See you.
    • See that you are not upset or frustrated.
    • See what he is missing.

    You can start doing something that he might enjoy such as playing with his favorite toy or nibbling a snack that your child enjoys. After your child calms down, you can share the toy or snack. Remember, you are giving him the chance to learn self-control, a skill he will use throughout his life.

  6. Start time-in again. After your child gains control of himself or calms himself down, wait 2 to 3 seconds, then resume time-in. Do not remind him or discuss with him the reason for the calm-down period.
  7. Keep working at it. Even if it takes your child a month or two to learn how to calm himself down, having this skill can help to make your household a much more pleasant place to live.
  8. Teach healthy ways to calm down. Every child is different, and what works for one child may not work for another. Here are some ideas for other activities your child can do when they start to get upset.
    • Physical: run, swim, ride a bike, dance, pound play dough, do some jumping jacks
    • Verbal: talk to a friend, tell jokes, cry, sing
    • Visual: imagine a “happy place,” watch funny videos, or read a comic book
    • Creative: write, draw, play music, build something
    • Self comforting activities: hug a stuffed animal, take a bubble bath, lie down
  9. Lead by example. Show your child that you can calm yourself down. Share with them what is helpful for you. Let kids know it’s normal to feel frustration and anger when things don’t go our way. But, it’s what we do with those feelings and how we chose to express them that make all the difference.

Written by D. Robert Ward and Edward Christophersen. From "Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts A Lifetime.".
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2008-08-11
Last reviewed: 2010-07-01

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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