Big emotions can get the best of all of us. A sudden wave of frustration, anxiety or fear can cause even a usually calm, rational adult to lose her cool. A child overwhelmed by emotion may react so strongly that he feels powerless to calm down. Parents and caregivers can help a child manage strong emotions by teaching him a simple mantra and explaining what is happening in his body when he feels overwhelmed.

Feelings can be so strong that a child may not realize that it is possible to control them. Recognizing and identifying feelings, and how they affect your body, is an important first step in managing strong emotions. The time to work on this with your child is, of course, not while they are upset or overwhelmed, but at a time when everyone is relaxed, and you and your child can reflect on different feelings. Bedtime, while reading a book, when riding in the car or when asking about your child’s day are possible times to explore these concepts.

When a child can identify how his body feels when he is angry, frustrated, anxious, embarrassed, or sad, then it is easier to work on ways to make himself feel better. Explaining to your child that his body—his muscles, his breathing and heart, and his tummy–react to feelings, and that his brain is coordinating the reaction, will help him make sense of the situation. When a person experiences a strong emotion like fear, the part of the brain responsible for keeping us safe—the limbic system—takes over. This is the part of our brain responsible for the fight or flight reflex. It increases blood flow to the muscles as well as speeding up breathing. When the limbic system is in charge, the part of the brain that makes calm, rational decisions goes offline. For children, managing strong emotions is especially challenging because the part of the brain that makes rational decisions, the frontal lobe, is still developing.

Helping your child understand how his body physically reacts to emotion and teaching him a strategy to give his brain time to switch out of fight or flight mode and back into “calmer me” mode can reduce the duration of or even prevent meltdowns.

Ask your child to think about a time when he felt very scared, angry or frustrated. How did your body feel? Your muscles? Did you want to run, kick or hit? Did your heart beat fast? Did your face feel hot? Did you shake? Did your tummy feel funny? All those sensations in your body are your brain trying to protect you from something it thinks is dangerous (whatever caused the emotion). It’s getting your body ready to fight off a tiger or run away.

Then explain to your child that he can tell his brain that it is mistaken. There is no tiger or danger, just a strong feeling. It might take a few minutes for his brain to understand, but he can send that message.

Teach your child a mantra, like the one in 1-2-3 A Calmer Me, that allows his body to calm down. This mantra has 4 parts

  1. Say “1-2-3 A calmer me.” This first step allows the child to step out of the impending meltdown and lets him tell his body and brain that he’s in control, not the emotions.
  2. Say “1-2-3 I hug me.” and give himself a tight hug with both arms. Encourage your child to tighten up, or “lock”, all his muscles during the hug. Tensing all the muscles in the body will ground him in place and it sets the stage for progressive muscle relaxation that comes in the last step. Keep on hugging through step 3.
  3. Say “1-2-3 Relax and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.” Take in a deep breath through the nose, like he is smelling flowers or freshly baked cookies, and then exhale slowly through the mouth, like he is slowly blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Ask him how it feels to have air moving in through his nose, filling up his lungs, and blowing out of his mouth. One breath might not be enough. It’s ok to breathe in and out slowly a few times. By consciously breathing slowly, he is telling his brain that breathing fast so he can fight or run away isn’t necessary.
  4. Say “1-2-3 A calmer me.” and relax his arms and all his muscles from the big hug. Let the hug slide away and feel the muscles loosen so that his whole body feels more relaxed.  Ask him, how do your muscles feel now? Are your shoulders up or down? Are your arms and hands loose like noodles? What about the muscles in your face and mouth? By consciously relaxing his muscles, he is telling his brain that he doesn’t need tense muscles to fight or run away.

By working through the mantra, the child is sending “all clear” messages to the limbic system and giving his brain the time it needs to bring his rational frontal lobe back online.  For some kids or situations, going through the mantra just once won’t be enough to calm down. He can repeat the mantra a few more times until he feels better.

Helping your child understand how his brain is telling his body what to do and that he can override the fight or flight message will empower him to manage strong emotions. Learning and practicing the mantra when your child is feeling fine will let him become familiar with the steps and the process. When you see an emotional overload situation happening, encourage your child to try the mantra–you can even do it with him. And let your child see you use the mantra, too, the next time you think you might blow your stack. It works for grown-ups as well!

Reference List

Adapted from 1-2-3 A Calmer Me: Helping Children Cope When Emotions Get Out of Control by Colleen A. Patterson and Brenda S. Miles

Brenda Miles by Brenda Miles, PhD

This Article's Author

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist who has worked in hospital, rehabilitation, and school settings.

She is an author and co-author of several books for children, including The Moment You Were Born: A Story for You and Your Premature Baby, Stickley Sticks to It!: A Frog’s Guide to Getting Things Done, Chicken or Egg: Who Comes First? and Princess Penelopea Hates Peas: A Tale of Picky Eating and Avoiding Catastropeas, all published by Magination Press.
by Colleen Patterson, MA

This Article's Author

Colleen A. Patterson, MA, is a psychologist who has worked with children of all ages in hospital and school settings. She credits her parents with teaching her the importance of staying calm through challenges and adventures. A lifelong learner, she is always looking for new ways to keep balanced.

Related Books from Magination Press

  • 1-2-3 A Calmer Me: Helping Children Cope When Emotions Get Out of Control

    1-2-3 A Calmer Me introduces children to a simple rhyme they can use to slow down their bodies and stop mad feelings from spinning out of control.

    Includes a “Note to Parents, Teachers, and Other Grown-Ups” with more information about the steps of the “1-2-3” rhyme, and advice for working through the steps with your child.