Clinical Reference Systems: Pediatric Advisor 10.0
How to Develop Self-Calming Skills
Some children misbehave because they do not have the skills
for dealing with situations that they do not like. When
children do not get their way, they may not have the skills for
self-calming. In adults, these skill are called coping skills
or anger control skills. Children without these skills are
often called bad-tempered, strong willed, or difficult.
With the best of intentions, many parents will put a great
deal of effort into trying to convince their children to
behave using lectures, explanations, and reasoning. When
this fails, they move into their coercive mode. That is, the
parents are going to get the child to behave no matter what
it takes. This often leads to direct confrontations that are
unpleasant for both parent and child and usually accomplish
Parents need to give their children the opportunity to learn
self-calming skills. There are several major steps to teaching
- Reduce nagging. Eliminate lecturing, threatening, and
warnings as much as possible - preferably eliminate them
- Provide your child with a great deal of time-in.
Time-in is brief, nonverbal, physical contact. This is not
meant to be a reward. Rather, it is meant to let your
child know nonverbally that you love him. Whether your
child is 3 months, 3 years, or 13 years old, you are
encouraged to repeatedly touch them for 2 to 3 seconds
while they are behaving in any way that is acceptable to
you. Parents can nonverbally let their child know that
he is loved when the child is playing a game, watching
T.V., coloring, building with blocks, or just looking out
the window. Time-in is touching, not talking. Talking to
children when they are doing something often disrupts them
enough that they never complete the task.
Try to identify situations where your child has a
history of bugging you. For example, if your child often
bothers you when you are on the phone, train yourself to
give her a lot of brief, nonverbal physical contact
while you are on the telephone but before she starts
- State three words in a nonemotional tone of voice.
When your child interrupts, say "Interrupting, calm
down" or when he is whining say, "Whining, calm down."
If you have been providing your child with a lot of
brief, nonverbal physical contact when he is not
bothering you, then, when he does interrupt you, all you
say is "Interrupting, calm down." It is extremely
important that you ignore your child until he is quiet
or has regained his composure. During these calming-down
periods, you should refrain from all warnings, naggings,
and reminders of what he did or did not do. Basically,
you should strive to completely ignore your child until he
has calmed himself down.
- Ignore your child during the calm-down period. Do not
make eye contact with your child. For a calm-down period
to end your child must calm down or gain control of
himself for 2 to 3 seconds. Your child can call you a name
or have a tantrum on the floor, but until he calms down,
he does not exist.
At first this will not be easy for you to do. Think of
the situation like a broken vending machine. When a
vending machine does not work properly, many people's
first reaction is to push, hit, or kick the machine. As
you know, the machine does not respond. It ignores you.
Soon, you walk away. Eventually, your child will give up
and calm down, too. Contrast this example with slot
machines. Slot machines may go periods without paying
off, but then unexpectedly pay off. For this reason,
people will stand for hours putting money into a slot
machine because they are occasionally rewarded for their
efforts. If you sometimes give your child attention when
he is whining or throwing a tantrum, he will keep doing it
every time for that occasional payoff of attention. You
are encouraged to be a vending machine to your child when
he is trying to calm down. Stop paying attention to
undesired behavior. Allow your child the opportunity to
calm himself down without your assistance.
- Let your child see you when you are ignoring him.
While you are ignoring, your child needs to:
- See you.
- See you not upset or frustrated.
- See what he is missing.
You can start doing an activity that he might enjoy such
as playing with his favorite toy or increasing time-in
with a sibling. One mother perfected this one day when
she slowly nibbled at the last piece of cheese until her
son calmed down. After he calmed down, she shared the
rest of the cheese. Remember, you are giving him the
opportunity to learn self-control, a skill he will use
throughout his life.
- Start time-in again. After your child gains control of
himself or calms himself down, wait 2 to 3 seconds, then
resume time-in. Do not remind him or discuss with him the
reason for the calm-down period.
- Keep working at it. Even if it takes your child a month
or two to learn how to calm himself down, having this
skill can help to make your household a much more
pleasant place to live.