Page header image

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. In adults, these skill are called coping skills or anger control skills. 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 direct confrontations that are unpleasant for both parent and child and usually accomplish nothing beneficial.

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

  1. Don't nag. Eliminate lecturing, threatening, and warnings as much as possible - preferably eliminate them completely.
  2. Provide your child with a great deal of time-in. Time-in is brief, nonverbal, physical contact. This is not meant to be a reward. Rather, it is meant to let your child know nonverbally that you love him. Whether your child is 3 months, 3 years, or 13 years old, touch them for 2 to 3 seconds while they are behaving in any way that is acceptable to you. You can nonverbally let your child know that he is loved when the child is playing a game, watching TV, coloring, building with blocks, or just looking out the window. Time-in is touching, not talking. Talking to children when they are doing something often distracts them enough that they never complete the task.

    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.

    At first this will not be easy for you to do. Think of the situation like a broken vending machine. When a vending machine does not work properly, many people's first reaction is to push, hit, or kick the machine. As you know, the machine does not respond. It ignores you. Soon, you walk away. Eventually, your child will give up and calm down, too. Contrast this example with slot machines. Slot machines may go periods without paying off, but then unexpectedly pay off. For this reason, people will stand for hours putting money into a slot machine because they are occasionally rewarded for their efforts. If you sometimes give your child attention when he is whining or throwing a tantrum, he will keep doing it every time for that occasional payoff of attention. You are encouraged to be a vending machine to your child when he is trying to calm down. 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.
Written by D. Robert Ward and Edward Christophersen. From "Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts A Lifetime."
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-10-10
Last reviewed: 2006-07-31
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 healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
Page footer image