We all know that employing age-appropriate resources to help a child learn to manage their big emotions on their own is the most effective path toward developing emotional intelligence. But the truth is that this is often a long process. Having multiple strategies at hand to help calm an anxious or nervous child can make it easier for everyone.
Not every child will respond to such techniques in the same way, and keep in mind that what works today may not work tomorrow. Proposing multiple options for calming down to your child helps strengthen their emotion-regulation skills, because it equips them with the tools and agency to deal with anxious feelings on their own.
Here are 35 surefire tips to help your anxious child get to calm.
Hug it out.
Let’s start with a no-brainer: There is ample scientific evidence that hugs help release hormones that can restore calm and boost your child’s overall well-being.
Chew it out.
Several studies have found that oral sensory activities, such as chewing gum, can relieve stress and help reduce anger. If you decide to go with this option, try sugar-free chewing gum, apples or a “chewy” necklace. The advantage of chewy necklaces is that they reduce the dependence on food as an anxiety-reducing mechanism, and therefore help diminish associated health issues such as obesity.
Jump it out.
Jumping on a trampoline helps distract your child while also releasing stress and anxiety.
Blow a feather across a table.
Visual breathing exercises are known to help calm anxiety in both children and adults. Let your child pick a brightly colored feather of their choice and place it on a flat surface (for example, a table). When they breathe out, the feather should move across the table. Encourage your child to push it as far as possible using just their breath.
Breathe using a pinwheel.
Like feathers, blowing on a pinwheel can calm your child down by helping them to focus their breathing. When your child exhales, their breath should turn the pinwheel.
Create a ‘calm-down jar.’
Calm-down jars or bottles are particularly effective because they enable children to block out all but one of the senses and focus on only that one.
Calm-down jars are very easy to make: Simply fill an empty container (jar, bottle) with liquid (baby oil, vegetable oil, corn syrup and water are all good options) and objects, such as beads, glitter or seashells.
Run around the house (or park or playground).
Running is a great activity for distracting your child from worry and can free them from anxious feelings.
Play the silence game.
The silence game involves saying and doing … nothing. Sit close to your child (you can take them into your arms or on your lap) and give them the opportunity to quietly calm themselves down.
Ride a bike.
Much like running, riding a bike helps distract your child and thereby dispels anxious feelings.
Color a mandala.
According to the available research, drawing and coloring are great ways to combat stress. (Witness the flooded market of coloring books for grown-ups!) Coloring a mandala is excellent art therapy for anxious children. The evenly distributed patterns of these abstract designs restore a feeling of balance and harmony.
Model with playdough.
Kneading is a great activity for reducing stress. Homemade playdough is easy to make and a good alternative to store-bought brands. (Find five foolproof, kid-tested playdough recipes here.)
Sorting Legos into different colors and sizes is not only helpful for developing your child’s cognitive skills, it is a surprisingly effective way to distract from feelings of anxiety.
Assemble an anxiety tool kit.
An anxiety tool kit is a container (for example, a clear storage bin) in which you place objects that can help your child calm down. Anytime they feel anxious, they can go to the tool kit and select an object. An anxiety kit is very simple to make and could include items such as favorite toys, or objects to hold, squeeze or manipulate (such as stress balls, playdough, worry dolls or stones, or a Rubik’s Cube).
Squish and squash a sensory bag.
Squishy sensory bags are a great resource to help children explore their sense of touch and direct attention away from anxiety. The best thing about the bags is that they’re easy to make! Find a great “recipe” for making your own here.
Play with your food.
Playing with different uncooked grains keeps your child’s hands busy and can also help develop cognitive and executive functioning skills. Provide containers (bottles, jars) of different sizes, cups of different sizes and spoons (or something else to scoop with). Your child can sit on a blanket on the floor (makes tidying up easier) and transfer the grains from one bottle to another.
Blowing bubbles calms a child’s anxiety by helping them focus on their breathing. Bubbles delight and distract everyone from their concerns, no matter their age.
Listen to music.
Listening to their favorite music is a surefire way to divert your child from worries.
Head out on a scavenger hunt.
A scavenger hunt is a super-fun way to get a child to focus on something other than their worried thoughts.
Give your child safety scissors and pieces of fabric they can cut and manipulate. This repetitive activity is surprisingly effective in quelling anxiety.
Shred old newspapers or magazines.
Similarly, shredding that messy pile of journals and newspapers is a satisfying way to release stress. Let your child cut or rip the paper any way they want and then have them group images according to colors or themes (e.g., animals, foods, people).
Create a sensory bin.
A sensory bin is a container in which you place a sensory base (e.g., lentils, rice, pasta or Kinetic Sand), objects (Legos, buttons, animal figures, beads or natural materials, such as seashells, acorns, etc.) and scoopers (measuring cups, spoons), and then let your child experiment with excavating — or burying — the different items in the bin.
X marks the calm-down spot.
A calm-down spot is a specific space (it can be a corner in your house or in your child’s room) where your kiddo has assembled a collection of things they enjoy (books, games, toys, stuffies) and where they can retreat if they need the time and space to calm down.
Make a bracelet.
Making a bracelet requires repetitive threading or beading motions that can help distract your child from anxious feelings or thoughts.
Try a matching activity.
Matching activities are not only great for developing your child’s cognitive and executive function skills, they can also help alleviate a case of the worries.
Walk the line.
Walking along a line is calming because the simple act of focusing on how the right and the left foot alternate can help your child enter into a meditative state. Walking meditation helps develop kids’ executive functions and teaches mindfulness. Use colorful painter’s tape or masking tape to make different line patterns on the floor for your child to navigate.
Kick a ball.
Kicking a ball releases anxiety by helping your child focus on something other than their worries. Whammo!
Push against a wall.
Activities that involve “heavy work,” such as pushing against a wall, have been proven to be effective in focusing kids’ attention and reducing anxiety.
Assemble a puzzle.
Puzzles are a great way to quickly shift attention and also help develop executive function skills.
Try a Montessori meditation.
Coach your child through this walking meditation, practiced in some Montessori schools:
- Give your child a bell.
- If you would like to participate alongside your child, grab a bell as well. (Every participant should have one.)
- Walk around the room in circles while ensuring that no bell makes a sound.
- Repeat the exercise for as long as it takes for your child to enter a calm, meditative state.
Have a toothsome snack.
Just like chewing gum, eating crunchy or chewy snacks has been found to help reduce anxiety and anger. Good options include dried fruits, dates, celery and cheese.
A recent study undertaken by researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter suggests that watching fish in an aquarium is deeply soothing. The researchers also found that the more fish there are, the more calming it is to watch them! If you can afford it, getting your child a reasonably sized aquarium populated with a school of fish might just do wonders to alleviate their (and your!) anxiety.
Look at an indoor fountain.
Just like watching fish, gazing at an indoor fountain can help your child calm down. Watching an hourglass run out of sand can also be relaxing, helping your child focus on something else for a set period of time.
Employ the 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique.
The 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique is a strategy that works like magic to restore tranquility in an anxious child. Like all the strategies mentioned here, it works best before your child gets “out of control.” It involves naming 5 things your child can see, 4 things they can hear, 3 things they can feel, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste.
Draw or paint.
Drawing is an effective way to help a stressed-out kid deal with their anxiety. Your child can either draw what they are feeling or draw whatever comes to mind. Finger painting is also an awesome sensory activity to channel big emotions creatively.
Jumping rope is an excellent physical activity that helps reduce anxious feelings.
It’s always easier to deal with your child’s stress before they go into complete meltdown mode, so it’s important to help them learn to identify different emotions, work on understanding what activates those emotions and then identify a stockpile of ready solutions to deal with those emotions in a socially appropriate manner.