Calm It Down…(Tips for helping your kids relax)

Even on the very best days, the ones where the kids get along beautifully and we get lots of exercise and eat well, I can usually count on things to go awry during the final hour of the day.  Sean recently sent me a text during this hour to get a grocery list.  I hit back, “milk, fruit, and maybe a lobotomy”.  He immediately hit back, “what happened?”  Nothing happened.  It was 6pm.  The bedtime routine starts at 6pm sharp.  If I am even one minute behind schedule, it’s mayhem.  They start playing “chase”.  Sometimes they move on to “hide the toy” (a favorite of Riley’s in particular).  Often they make non-riding toys into riding toys and zoom around the family room, just barely missing countertops and walls.  It always starts with high-pitched laughter and ends with tears.  During the final countdown (as I refer to it in my head) they are tired, silly, and not as inclined to listen.  If I can get them upstairs and send them to their respective rooms to choose their pajamas right at 6pm, we’re good.  If I’m still furiously finishing the dishes and time escapes me, the fast paced games begin!  I can always count on Sean to be home (provided that he’s not on tour) on Sunday nights, and sometimes Saturdays, but the rest of the time it’s a one-woman show around here.  I’m a well-oiled machine when it comes to the bedtime routine, but there are still nights when the kids attempt to run wild or start picking on each other.  These are the nights when I fall back on my training to calm things down a bit.  If there’s one thing I do well, it’s help kids learn to relax.  Sean once came home early to find us engaged in one of our favorite calm down strategies.  He watched in amazement as the tone of the room went from tears to complete calm in less than two minutes.  Kids get tired at the end of the day.  Tired looks different on every child.  Riley tends to cry more when she’s tired, while Liam starts to laugh uncontrollably at every little thing that happens.  When it gets to that point, it can be hard for kids to calm themselves down.  When Riley is really tired and upset she will say, “I’m having trouble calming myself down right now”.  She recognizes that she doesn’t feel calm, but she doesn’t know how to get there.  I’ve found that a few well-timed strategies can really help her (and Liam) settle down when they start to feel out of control.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones relax:

1. Feelings Chart: I know, I’ve mentioned this before.  I’ll keep it short this time.  Kids cycle through countless emotions during the day.  It’s hard to keep up.  Often times they’re not sure what they are feeling.  When they learn how to identify their feelings they can start to ask for help.  Check for a “Feelings Chart” and use is daily to help your kids attach faces to feelings.  Click the “Strategies in Action!” tab to see a picture of Liam using our chart.

2. Balloon Blowing: This is our favorite family strategy for calming things down a bit.  I came up with it one night when Sean was on tour and the kids were really missing him and struggling.  It worked immediately and continues to work well every time we use it.  When things start to go awry I stop them and ask, “what kind of balloon do you want to make?” This gives them a chance to refocus on something else while they come up with all sorts of complicated designs.  Then we all take a deep breath in as we hold our hands to our mouths (as if blowing up a balloon), and slowly exhale as we blow up our fancy balloons. Liam is so into it that he added the feature of tying a string around it.  Then we look up and watch them float to the ceiling. Clearly the premise of this strategy is teaching them relaxation breathing (using big, slow breaths helps release pent up tension, both emotionally and physically).  With the added visual, the kids are really able to participate and enjoy the process.  **You can download a video of this in the “Strategies in Action!” tab.

3. Coloring Feelings: Another way to help kids learn to identify feelings is to attach a color to each feeling.  You should let your kids choose, but often red = angry, blue = sad, yellow = happy, green = calm, etc.  This is a strategy to practice at various times, not just when they’re completely frustrated.  Take some time in a calm moment to help them choose the colors to attach to their feelings.  Give them a blank piece of white paper and ask them to color how they feel today.  You will probably get a lot of yellow pages if you only do this during calm moments, but if your child is having a hard day it might help them to release those feelings a little by coloring some blue, black, brown, etc.

4. Color Breathing: This is another variation of relaxation breathing.  Once your child has learned to associate colors with feelings you can help them use those colors in times of frustration.  Cue your child to slowly take in a long yellow breath and release the red while they exhale.  Prompt them to fill their bodies with yellow air in order to get the red, angry air out.

5. Cognitive Restructuring: I know these are big words for little kids, but it’s actually fairly simple.  Often something as small as a picture not coming out as planned can send a little one into a tailspin.  Riley spends quite a bit of time mapping out her “projects” before she gets to work, and she gets upset if Liam accidentally causes her to make a mark that she didn’t intend to make.  When you strip away the psychological explanation, the basic principle of cognitive restructuring is replacing a negative thought with a positive (recall Jack Handy from SNL).  When Riley starts to get upset and yell, “it’s ruined”, I will sometimes cue her by saying, “who always loves your art work?”  “Mommy and Daddy always love my art work.”  She doesn’t always say it enthusiastically, but it does sink in.  Similarly, when she gets frustrated because she can’t accomplish something quickly and starts to yell, “I just can’t do it” I will remind her to flip it and say “I can do it if I calm down and try again”.  This strategy is not always appropriate and can be hard to grasp.  Sometimes little ones just have bad days and need their parents to help out.  But it can help with small frustrations.

6. Relaxing Story Walk: Riley and I end every day with what we now call a “relaxing story walk”.  This is a variation of guided imagery, which works very well with young kids.  Each night as she settles into bed I ask her to pick a location for our walk.  We start the story by taking two deep breaths as I say, “tonight Mommy and Riley are walking to…”  We stop for deep breaths regularly along the way.  We often go through a garden, rainforest, or to the beach, although we’ve been as far as China, through Candyland, and to Daddy’s studio.  We stop to smell flowers, collect pretty shells and stones, and eat a snack.  She keeps her eyes closed during the story and gets to describe the colors she sees and objects she collects along the way.  **Note:  As Sean learned the hard way, the adult has to remain in charge of the story!  If you give them too many opportunities, they will get excited and take over the story.

7. Squeeze Ball and Stretching: Preschoolers love to learn about how their bodies work.  Many adults have trouble recognizing the physical symptoms of frustration and thus miss the cues to slow down or use a different strategy.  We can teach preschoolers the physical signs of stress and frustration by teaching them about their muscles.  A squeeze ball (which you can find at Target) can be used to teach kids to tighten and relax their arm and hand muscles.  When we are under stress, we often tighten our muscles but forget to relax them.  Using a squeeze ball helps them practice this and shows them how it feels to release the stress in their muscles.  Stretching out our legs can also help relieve stress stored up in our leg muscles, and teaching them to gently stretch their necks from side to side can relieve pressure in that area.  There’s a lot to be said for yoga, and many kids love to do it.  Look into classes or grab a mommy and me yoga DVD and start stretching!

8. Books: “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss is a great book for helping kids attach colors to feelings.  “Ready, Set, Relax” by Jeffry Allen, M.Ed. and Roger Klein, Psy.D is a great tool for teaching progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.  It is intended for elementary aged kids, but I have used it with teens and also with younger kids by shortening some of the scripts.  Teaching your kids how to use their muscles to relax their bodies is invaluable.


Helping kids learn to calm themselves down is a process.  Some days they will head off to their rooms to look at books and play with toys and calm themselves down independently, while other days they might need extra hugs and kisses.  Be patient and try to introduce them to a few new strategies to help them learn to help themselves.

How do you help your kids relax?

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)