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Babies are easy to soothe, right? Give them something to suck or wrap them up in a tight swaddle, and they melt in your arms. For little kids, a parent’s hug is still probably the most soothing response to their Big Feelings, but Mom and Dad are not always around in times of emotional distress. But if you start teaching your littles to self-soothe now, they will build skills to help regulate their emotions for the rest of their lives.
Why do humans need to soothe ourselves in times of fear, embarrassment, or confusion? Emotional distress causes increased heart rate, muscle tensing, faster breathing, and inability to focus on other subjects. These changes are useful if you’re about to fight a predator, but upsetting when you just want to get on with your day. The purpose of self-soothing is to reverse those physical processes and induce a calmer state for the nervous system and body.
“Self-soothing skills can help provide immediate comfort and help you feel OK again when you are having intense emotions. Who doesn’t have difficult, intense emotions sometimes?” said Robin Raven, author of The Little Book of Self-Soothing. “Self-soothing skills are important for everyone of all ages to develop because we’re all going to experience some negative emotions probably every week of our lives. That’s just the nature of living in this world as a human no matter how young you are.”
Raven helped us pick some of her favorite kid-friendly self-soothing techniques from her new book.
Be a sloth
When your kiddo’s heart and mind are racing, it might help them to slooooooooow doooooown. Like, way down. Tell your kid to make like a sloth and do everything as slowly as possible to redirect their focus and calm the body.
“This one can inspire joy because it helps children use their imagination while also soothing themselves. It’s especially easy to adapt for younger children,” Raven said.
Do a victory dance
This tip works in a few ways. First it refocuses your attention away from what’s distressing you and toward a “win.” Second, moving your body to music in a rhythmic way calms your nervous system (like how rocking soothes a baby).
Create sounds for each emotion
Identifying our emotions is tough for kids and adults, but it’s worth the effort. Being able to name emotions and notice that they come and go can reassure you every Big Feeling isn’t a catastrophe. Help your kid come up with a sound to link with the basic emotions: joy, love, fear, anger, surprise, and sadness. Pairing a sound with the distressing emotion can help a kid voice something they can’t put into words. Then they can use the “happier” sounds to induce calmer feelings.
Touch your toes
Stretching can help muscles relax and redirect attention. Try seated toe-touches or standing toe touches. Raven suggests alternating reaching for one foot with the opposite hand, like a windmill. “Simple physical movements to distract and soothe are easy for kids to do and understand,” she said.
Describe the textures
An essential part of grounding or bringing your mind back to your body in the present moment is identifying sensations like touch. Ask your child to describe how their shirt, the table, the floor, or a beloved stuffie feels. For more grounding, branch out to other senses. Ask your child what they see, hear, smell, and taste.
Hold your heart while humming
It’s as simple as that. Have your child place their hand on their chest and hum as long as feels comfortable. Science says this works: In a 2021 study, researchers found that placing a hand over your own heart reduces cortisol and stress just like receiving a hug from someone else.
“In writing each exercise, I tried to keep things simple and to the point so that they can be most effective when someone needs to calm down quickly, and I think that will be helpful with parents or other caregivers who want to teach them to children,” Raven said.
Make funny faces
What kid isn’t fascinated by their own face in the mirror? Challenge them to pull wilder and wilder faces until they crack themselves up. Laughter is a natural antidote to the grumps.
Experience the sensations of safety
This is a visualization technique. When your child is calm and happy, ask them to describe what “safe” feels like. They can create the ultimate imaginary safe space then return to that “vision” when they are feeling upset.
Keep it creative
Imagination and creativity are important parts of self-soothing, Raven said.
“I think the arts have a powerful impact on one’s emotional health and overall well-being, so the arts should never be underestimated. Some of the self-soothing ideas in this book were inspired by how much the arts helped to soothe me as a child and throughout my entire life,” she said.
Share these ideas with your kid and see which ones seem to suit them. It’s easier to teach self-soothing when your child is in a calm state, and they are better able to pick up skills when they are relaxed. So, practice these techniques with your child when they are relaxed or happy and remind them these activities can help them return to that calm feeling when they get upset, even if Mommy isn’t immediately available for snugs.