Clenched fists, flushed cheeks and shaky, shallow breaths — most parents can spot these signs of an impending kid-meltdown.
When we notice our kid’s about to lose it, we have a few options: We can intervene in hopes of mitigating the damage; we can whisk our child home (or at least out of the public gaze) before the tantrum strikes; or we can simply hunker down and wait out the storm.
But what if we could avoid a meltdown in the first place?
Turns out, we can, at least some of the time. Researchers say mindfulness — that wellness keyword of the moment — can help keep kids calm and centered, a.k.a. far from meltdown town. By building a child’s awareness of their own emotional and physical state and strengthening the mind-body connection, mindfulness exercises are proven to reduce stress and anxiety and reduce self-harm in kids of all ages.
In the book "The Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience In Your Child," best-selling authors Daniel J. Seigel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., describe kids’ emotional zones: the enraged, about-to-melt down “red zone,” the calm, connected “green zone” and the withdrawn, overstimulated “blue zone.”
Using simple mindfulness activities, parents can help kids stay in the calm “green zone,” where they’re more likely to make better choices and maintain emotional and behavioral regulation (science-speak for “keep their sh*t together”).
Ideas to try
Of course, a solid mindfulness practice involves consistent repetition and routine, not quick fixes. But for particularly heated moments, it doesn’t hurt to have a few mindfulness exercises on deck to help kids de-escalate when they can’t do it themselves. After all, kids don’t want to lose control any more than we do.
“With my son, 11, I have him do a ‘fidget spinner meditation’ — Hold a fidget spinner toy, give it a spin and then take deep quiet breaths until it stops spinning,” says Erin Clotworthy Joosse, owner of Tacoma’s Source Yoga.
Or try a “time-in.” When steamed-up kids need to cool down, a “time-in” offers a chance to regroup and build vital skills that they might miss in a solitary time-out. The Time-In ToolKit from Generation Mindful includes calming activities to help kids build emotional recognition and learn strategies for keeping the peace.
For wired parents, tweens and teens, mindfulness apps (try Headspace or Buddhify) offer quick meditations to help kids shift out of a negative or angry state; parents can guide younger kids through these meditations, too.
But when a meltdown looms, sometimes you’ve got to pull something out of thin air. That’s where creative breathing techniques win the day. Deep breaths dial down anxiety in mere moments, and breathing exercises are simple, free and easy to whip out during heated moments.
- Birthday candle breaths: Pretend each outstretched finger is a birthday candle and then take a deep breath to blow each “candle” out
- Starfish breaths: Tracing a finger along the outline of the opposite hand in the form of a starfish, taking a deep breath up and down each finger
- Rocket breaths: Pressing hands together over their heart, then using a deep breath to “blast” the rocket overhead
Or try this one from "The Yes Brain": When kids are upset, help them move back into their “green zone” by placing one hand on their chest and one hand on their stomach and simply breathing.
Kids can practice this calming technique before bed when they’re getting relaxed and sleepy. Each time the exercise is repeated, its calming effect is reinforced (this goes for calming breath exercises in general — practice makes perfect).
Peace out, meltdowns.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2018, and updated in January 2020.