All parents should know how to calm a child’s nervous system.
Don’t panic if you don’t know how to do this. It’s the reason I wrote this article.
Does your child show signs of high stress?
Perhaps they have anger outbursts or anxiety attacks?
The root cause is the same – the fight or flight response.
It can be very tough to know how to de-escalate the situation despite your best intentions. There are many ways to calm a stressed, angry or panicking child but below are five of my favourite “body strategies”.
The best things about these calming strategies are that they are quick and simple.
5 Ways to Calm Your Child
The five strategies recommended to calm your child quickly are as follows:
- Intense Exercise
- Get Outdoors
- Rhythmic Movement
- Deep pressure
How to Regulate a Child’s Nervous System: Understanding the Root Causes of Big Emotions
Your child’s autonomic nervous system has (rightly or wrongly) detected a threat and it is reacting in a way that (it thinks) enhances survival.
This directly causes strong emotions: aggression (fight), or panic which may be accompanied by an overwhelming urge to get away (flight).
The brain waves a red flag which instantly sets in motion a massive chemical reaction in the body.
Rational thoughts go out the window because the brain prioritises survival over clear thinking until the perceived danger has passed.
Our article about anger and its connection with anxiety explains why modern life tends to trigger this reaction, even when there isn’t really a danger to life.
If your child has a mental health issue like generalised anxiety disorder, their nervous system is even more likely to be on hyper-alert, always on the lookout for danger.
If your child is currently having a difficult time with regular angry outbursts or angry feelings, they are going to need some practical support from you to help them regulate these big emotions and work towards developing an appropriate reaction to their triggers.
Young children will need a lot of help but teens may also have phases of needing extra adult co-regulation to deal with stressful situations.
The strategies in this article can be added to your family’s “toolkit” of strategies. Every family member can benefit.
Anger and Panic Attacks: What To Do In The Moment
As I’m sure you know, telling your child to calm down can have the opposite effect.
At the peak of their emotions, your child is way beyond listening to rational words, because fight or flight inhibits the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for rational thinking) so that the body can focus on survival only.
Automatic physical reactions take over from clear thinking.
If your child is having a panic attack, you will find an easy-to-follow plan in my recent article here about how to help a child during a panic attack.
As you will see in the article, slow, deep breathing is the key to triggering the parasympathetic nervous system and calming the child down.
But there are a variety of ways to supplement deep breathing to speed up the calming effect of the deep breaths. I’m going to talk you through some of these below.
How to Calm a Child’s Nervous System: 5 Strategies
1. Intense Exercise Calms the Brain
Physical activity, particularly when it raises the heart rate significantly, stimulates the release of dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin.
These brain chemicals can quickly regulate a child’s mood.
Intense exercise will immediately relieve your child’s physical tension, and feelings of anger will melt away shortly afterwards.
So, if you can get your child to jog or power walk around the block with you or pace around the garden, you will quickly see them start to calm.
2. Get Outdoors to Regulate a Child’s Nervous System
Don’t use cold or wet weather as an excuse, as you will be missing out on the calming power of nature.
We can turn off the stress response by changing the way we view the environment, and it helps if we can look out into the horizon, with our head still.
Panoramic vision – looking at a broad vista – dilates the gaze and triggers the calming parasympathetic nervous system. This article explains the technical reasons behind it.
So, get outside and try to get your child to look straight ahead at the horizon for a few moments.
But there’s more!
The increased levels of ion-rich oxygen found outside also help regulate breathing and have a relaxing effect on the body.
As this article about the benefits of being in nature explains, “negatively ionized air promotes alpha brain waves and increases brain wave amplitude. This creates an overall clear and calming effect”.
In summary, get your child outside when they’re stressed, panicky or angry. Even if they are not engaging in exercise, the vista and oxygenised air will calm their physical symptoms.
Of course, the best way to calm your child is to get them outdoors and doing intense exercise at the same time. Do this alongside them so you can continue to help them regulate negative feelings until they feel calm and clear-headed.
3. Rhythmic Movement to Calm the Brain
Drumming, tapping and singing are all examples of rhythmic activities which regulate and calm the brain stem.
The brain stem is where we find the more primitive parts of the brain, responsible for survival.
In the same way that a baby can be calmed by rocking, your older child can be calmed if they can engage in rhythmic movement. Get them on a rocking chair, swing or hammock if you have one.
You could also try gently massaging your child’s hand in a rhythmic way (if they give perimission).
Or, encourage them to tap their hands or feet.
You might find this guide by Beacon House informative.
In summary, rhythmic movement is a much under-rated but extremely powerful tool for managing feelings of anger and physical symptoms of anger. It is especially powerful when accompanied by deep breathing.
4. Use Ice to Reset Your Child’s Nervous System
The dive reflex is activated by icy cold water on the face. This is a simple way to instantly activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down.
It’s an easy way to “reset” the nervous system and manage big feelings which works for many children and adults.
Try it next time you are having angry thoughts or you spot signs of anger!
If your child is having an anger outburst or panic attack it’s unlikely you will be able to get them to take an ice-cold shower or dunk themselves in a lake.
But you can achieve the same effect by getting them to hold an ice pack to the face and holding their breath for a few seconds, or giving them a glass of iced water and asking them to submerge their tongue in it.
If your child is experiencing anger issues, get experimental and try out a few different ways of exposing them to ice. You’ll soon figure out what works for them.
5. Deep Pressure Regulates a Child’s Nervous System
Deep pressure touch calms and regulates the sensory systems.
It activates the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”), calming us down.
That’s why massage can be so relaxing.
The good news is that in the heat of the moment there are certain activities that your child could do which could instantly help to calm them down.
It’s most helpful if you and your child can decide in advance what will help.
Otherwise, you could find yourself trying to give a firm hug when this might inflame the situation.
Here are a few ideas:
- Firm hug.
- “Dive” on to a large bean bag or bed (repeat as many times as necessary).
- Bounce on a trampoline.
- Rub the hands together firmly.
- Get wrapped up tightly in a blanket (only if your child gives permission in advance).
Read this article for more ideas, including specialist equipment you can buy.
How to Calm a Child’s Nervous System: Summary
If your child or someone you are about is having a difficult time with anger and other overwhelming emotions I recommend developing a “toolkit” to help them.
This toolkit should include body strategies.
The strategies I have described above are particularly powerful: intense exercise, getting outdoors, rhythmic movement, ice and deep pressure.
You could also consider progressive muscle relaxation in combination with the strategies above.
The more healthy ways you can teach your child (or yourself) to regulate emotions and angry thoughts, the fewer unhealthy ways will be needed.
These strategies can prevent verbal and physical aggression too.
Teach or practise the strategies when you and your child are relatively calm. The more practise you/they get, the more likely these strategies will become the first thing you/they choose in a tense situation.
Don’t expect your child to be an expert at using these healthy strategies straight away. Whatever their age, they will need support from you.
You need to “co-regulate” with them until they can do it for themselves. You can provide them with a safe place to learn how to manage emotions.
The work you put in now will pay off many times over. You are teaching your child skills they will be able to use throughout their adult lives.
Which strategy will you choose to work on first?
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Are you the parent of a 6-16 year-old? Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.