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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 nothing beneficial.

Parents need to give their children the opportunity to learn self-calming skills. There are several major steps to teaching these skills:

  1. Reduce nagging. Eliminate lecturing, threatening, and warnings as much as possible - preferably eliminate them completely.

  2. 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 bothering you.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

Written by D. Robert Ward and Edward Christophersen. From "Beyond Discipline: Parenting That Lasts A Lifetime."
Copyright 1999 Clinical Reference Systems