Calm Box: Teach Your Child to Manage Overwhelm (Step-By-Step Guide)

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

One great way to help your child manage their emotional state and begin to self-regulate is to create a calming box with them.

As a clinical psychologist, I work with parents who are concerned about their children and teenagers experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.

Calming boxes can be powerful in helping children and teenagers cope with emotional distress and strong emotions, like feelings of anxiety and symptoms of panic.

In this article, I’ll explain the benefits of calming boxes and give you tips on how to create one for your child.

We will also look at how your child could use a calming box at school.

What is a Calming Box?

A calming box – or calm box – is a collection of items that can be used by children to self-soothe and manage stress and anxiety.

It can be a simple box or container filled with sensory toys, fidgets, stress balls, coloring books, or other calming items.

Children can use the items in the calm box to build their skills in self-regulation and enhance emotional wellbeing.

Calm Box: The Benefits

The potential benefits of a calm box include increased mindfulness, reduced stress and anxiety, improved emotional regulation, and enhanced self-awareness.

Stimulating certain senses, such as touch or smell, can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite of the fight or flight response. It helps the body calm down.

Activation of the PNS is also known as the “rest and digest” response. It leads to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.

Sensory stimulation can also help distract the brain from ruminating on anxious thoughts.

It can redirect a child’s focus to more calming experiences.

example of a child's sensory calming box

A calming box can also provide children with a sense of control over their emotional experiences.

This happens gradually as they figure out the tools that help them feel calm and centered.

Younger children will need a lot of support from adults to use their calm box effectively at times of distress.

Even older children and young people may need adult support, particularly when they are getting started with using their box.

Other Names for a Calming Box

There are many other names for a calming box including:

  • Calm down box
  • Calm down kit
  • Calm box
  • Stress relief kit
  • Coping skills toolbox
  • Sensory box
  • Self-soothe boxes
  • Self-soothing box

Self-Soothe Box: Sensory Breaks

A sensory break is a short period of time during which a child can take a break from their regular activities and engage in sensory activities that can help them regulate their emotions and reduce stress.

Sensory breaks can be important both at school and at home.

Sensory breaks are especially helpful for children who are easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells.

little girl with a sensory calming box

A self-soothe box can be an invaluable tool during a sensory break because it provides a variety of sensory activities and objects that can help a child soothe and calm their senses.

These items create a calming effect that can help them feel more relaxed and focused.

Self-Soothing Box: What to Put Inside

When it comes to what to include in the self-soothing box, this is down to your child’s specific needs and preferences.

Which of your child’s senses need to be engaged to regulate and calm them?

For example, if they find soft fabrics soothing, they may choose to include a square of soft fleecy material to stroke.

empty box for creating child's sensory box

Here are some ideas.

Some of these are more appropriate for home use rather than school use.

What you put in the box will depend on the environment your child uses it in.

Calming Box Ideas

  • Sensory toys/ fidget toys / fidget cubes.
  • Mindful coloring books and pencils in calm colors.
  • Stress balls / squishy balls.
  • A sensory bottle.
  • Favourite soft toys.
  • Lavender essential oil, organic dried lavender or other calming essential oils.
  • Coconut oil, olive oil or moisturiser to rub on the skin.
  • Silly putty or blu tak.
  • A nostalgic item which helps them feel calm and safe through positive memories. For example, a picture of a pet.
  • A music player and headphones, pre-loaded with a calming playlist.
  • A set of calming positive affirmations.

The contents of your child’s calming box can change over time. Their favorite things right now might not be helpful or effective in three months. It’s a process of trial and error too.

child's calming box

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Calm Box: Step By Step Maker’s Guide

Here is your step-by-step guide to creating a calm box:

  1. Choose a container. Shoeboxes or plastic storage containers are great options.
  2. Invite your child to select items for the box. It’s really important that your child is fully involved in the process. This will increase their sense of ownership and investment in the box.
  3. Help them choose items that engage the senses and promote relaxation, such as stress balls, fidget toys, weighted blankets, soft blankets or stuffed animals, calming scents, or noise-cancelling headphones. Use the longer list above for even more inspiration.
  4. Encourage your child to personalize their calming box by adding pictures or decorations to the container, or by including items that have special meaning or significance.
  5. Store the calming box in a readily accessible location. This might be as desk drawer, cupboard or bookshelf. It needs to be somewhere your child can easily access it when they need to.
  6. Prompt your child to use their calming box regularly, even if they are already feeling calm. Only through regular use will it become a helpful habit.
bot sitting at a table holding on to a self soothe box

How to Use a Calming Box

Now that your child has their calming box, they need to practise using it.

It’s important that they practise when they are calm and not just when they are in a high state of arousal.

If your child is going to use the box at school, they should first practise using it at home.

Sit alongside your child.

Encourage them to choose an item from the box that engages their senses and helps them relax, like a stress ball or a soft blanket.

Listen to your child and follow their lead.

They can then use the item for a few minutes to help calm their nervous system and regulate their emotions.

Try using a similar or identical item yourself at the same time. You will be modelling how to practise using sensory items to feel calm.

As time goes on, your child will be able to use the box by themselves without prompts.

Persistence is key.

Don’t give up if they don’t seem keen at first.

You may need to change some of the items in the box to make it more appealing.

If it’s going to be used in school, you will of course need to have had a positive conversation about it with school staff. They need to be on board with it and fully understand how it helps your child.

It may help your child and their teacher to have a written list of when and how it is to be used.

For example, every break time before your child goes out to play.

At the beginning, parents and teachers will need to give a lot of guidance and support to a child on how to use their calming box effectively.

Calming Box: School Vs Home

When we’re creating a calming box for children, we need to consider the context in which it will be used.

A calming box for school may need to be more portable and discreet, with items that can be easily carried and can be used quietly in a classroom setting.

A calming box for home may have more space for larger items. It may include things like scented candles or a cozy blanket for snuggling up on the couch, that wouldn’t be possible at school.

It’s also important to consider how the calming box will be used in each setting. For example, a calming box for school may be used during transition times or when a child is feeling overwhelmed in class, while a calming box for home may be used during bedtime routines or during family movie nights.

A Calming Box at School

When we implement a calming box for school, it’s vital that all staff involved with your child understand why it’s being used.

They also need to understand when your child should use it, and how much support they will need.

example of a sensory calming box

For example, do teachers need to look out for signs of anxiety or frustration in your child and give a gentle reminder to use the calming box?

Your child also needs to be really clear when and where they’re allowed to use it.

Can they use the calming box at any time, or only at certain points in the day?

Can they use the box at their desk?

Or is there a quiet area or “calm down corner” they must go to?

In general, younger kids will need much more direction and guidance than older kids.

Your child’s calming box should be tailored to their individual needs and to the setting they are using it in.

It can be adapted and refined over time.

Persistence is needed for it to become an effective tool for self-regulation.

Understanding Anxiety

Often, emotional overwhelm and anxiety go hand in hand.

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

Self Soothe Box For Teenagers

People of any age can use a self soothe box or calming box.

If you have a teenager who would benefit from a self-soothe box, consider showing them this brilliant video about self-soothing boxes from Young Minds.

YouTube video

Calm Box: Summary

Now that you have read my article, you know how to create a personalised calming box for your child.

With patience and consistency, the box can be used to by your child to calm their senses and regulate strong emotions. It’s one of my favourite (and simplest) emotion regulation tools.

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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 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.


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