Staying calm and regulating when a child is melting down, having tantrums, or losing
control is one of the most difficult tasks of parenthood. One of the reasons is something
called mirror neurons - where when you observe the behaviors or emotions of another the
neurons in your brain fire as if you were having that same experience. This is why if you are
walking down the street and see someone smile, well... you start to smile too!
The difficult news is that when the person in the room with you is a very angry, distressed, or
enraged child - your neurons in your brain start to fire the exact same way too, leading to
you as the grown up to become dysregulated too!
Our nervous systems also “talk” to one another and can pick up energy, cues, and clues
from other human beings. This is why you can walk into a room where an argument just
occurred and something “feels off”. We are wired to get clues of safety or danger from
other human beings and just being in the presence of a dysregulated nervous system can
make your nervous system dysregulate too.
And sometimes? The behavior of your child is pretty dangerous or aggressive, so your
nervous system is doing exactly what it thinks it needs to do to keep itself safe. By
powering up your body with a fast heart, fast breathing, and chemical responses, it is
getting your body ready for action to fight or run away.
But, here is the hardest part, the number one thing children need from grown ups is to be a
container for regulation, or external co-regulation. It’s the task of using your regulatory
capacities as a grown up (with a fully developed brain with abilities to make good
choices) to help co-regulate with the child from a dysregulated to regulated state.
So, in order to help young people calm down and regulate - you have to first start with
yourself. I wanted to give you my guide for the 9 ways I discuss helping parents regulate
themselves and co-regulate with their child.
Regulation For Grownups
Neuroscience shows that slow deep breaths in and out is the most effective
way to calm your body. Breathing slows your heart rate and actually gives
signals to your brain that your environment is safe - taking you out of the
flight/fight response of anxiety and anger. The key is to breathe out for twice
as long as you breathe in - think in for 4 and out for 8. This isn’t a magic
formula, so you can shorten or lengthen it as is comfortable for you. AND
when we are regulating our breathing, it can actually synch up and
regulate the breathing of your dysregulated child.
The messages you say to yourself are incredibly powerful in either calming
your nervous system or revving it up. Take an assessment of what messages
you are saying to yourself as your child is becoming dysregulated. Some
parents might think things like “not this again” or “can’t we have just ONE
good night?”. Thoughts like these (although understandable) lead to more
dysregulation for the grownups. Sometimes it is helpful to be intentional
about thoughts that your number one job is to regulate your child and
thoughts that decrease time pressure or others’ expectations.
Grounding skills help us stay in the here and now and allow us to be present
and regulate through the distress of the outbursts or the tantrum. Some of
my favorite ways to ground are identifying and naming (in your head) 5
things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, and
one thing you taste. It can also be as simple as holding a grounding object
like a stone or a rock, intentionally noticing the air going in through your
nose and out through your mouth, or intentionally noticing the pressure of
the contact of your feet with the ground.
Understand The Brain and Nervous System
There are two very important parts of the brain to consider when thinking
about meltdowns, tantrums, and dysregulation. The first part is called the
prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is in charge of reasoning, decision
making, problem solving and logic. The second part is the limbic
system. This is the part of the brain that is focused on survival. It holds the
parts of the brain that scan for safety and danger (amygdala) and store
historical and contextual information about a situation (hippocampus).
When these lower brain regions of the limbic system sense danger the
autonomic nervous system kicks into gear triggering the fight or flight
response. For children danger doesn’t always mean life threatening
situations. Their amygdala might see something that is unfair, having to shut
the TV off, or getting beat in a game as just as dangerous as if there was a
tiger in the room.
When the fight and flight responses are triggered amazing things happen in
the body for survival, but actually aren’t so great for everyday life. This
includes changes in hearing that tune into high pitch noises (distress calls)
and low noises (predator noises). When this happens children can tune out
human voice just because of these changes in hearing.
Children also lose access to the prefrontal cortex - that part of the brain that
helps with problem solving, decision making, and weighing pros and
cons. The brain is now focused on making split second decisions that are
focused on survival and not necessarily the rules or society or your
For these reasons if you are getting clues that your child is in their limbic
system and fight or flight response the only focus should be regulation. They
don’t have access to the parts of the brain where teaching or learning can
happen, they can weigh pros and cons, or they can engage in problem
solving or self reflection. And parenting techniques like attempting to
facilitate problem solving or giving lectures will likely be seen as a threat, will
not be comprehended, and will not be effective.
Giving Nonverbal Cues of Safety
70-93% of all of what we communicate with others is nonverbal. There are
multiple things we can do with our bodies to make sure we are non-verbally
communicating safety to children when they are dysregulated. This
includes gentle eye contact with a soft gaze (as opposed to wide open
eyes), getting below eye level, tilts of the head, and using facial expressions
including gentle smiles.
This is because when we are in fight or flight mode and ready to fight or run
away, we have wide eyes to take in more of our environment for safety, we
are in a rigid posture ready to mobilize (usually with a head and neck
posture that is alert), and our affect is flat. By being intentional about how
we can be projecting either cues of safety or danger with our nonverbals
we can give these safe nonverbal cues to children, which will help them to
feel safe and begin to regulate.
Also making sure that your movements are slow and intentional can give off
cues of safety. When a child’s brain is dysregulated it is working very hard to
continue to assess for cues of safety and danger so all movements need to
Assess Openness to Physical Touch
Some children are the kind of children who will curl up on your lap and want
a giant hug or to be rocked. For other children, or at other times, physical
touch (even safe and gentle) will be seen as a threat. Attempting to soothe
a child with touch can either be regulating and soothing or dysregulating
and dangerous. Notice and assess how a child responds to physical touch
and respect their boundaries.
Intentional Verbal Interaction
When speaking, be intentional on the tone, pace, and pitch of
language. We can do this by using a skill called vocal prosody. We learned
above that our inner ear muscles tune out mid-tones when dysregulated,
which are generally the tones associated with human voices. For this
reason, make sure to vary your pitch with high and low tones (sometimes
called a “kindergarten teacher voice”). Make sure you are using
verbalizations that are slow, clear, and as concise as possible (as opposed
to run-on sentences and lectures).
Give Empathy and Validation
No matter if you agree or disagree with what has triggered dysregulation for
a child, they are still in incredible amounts of pain and dysregulation. And
for some kids? What they are going through in the moment of dysregulation
may be one of the hardest things in their young life. When we can have
empathy and validate pain for children, and be with them, healing and
regulation almost always occur. Also remember – validation and empathy
does not mean agreement!
Since our nervous systems “talk” to one another and gain information from
one another we are always assessing if a situation is dangerous or
safe. Incongruence (or when what you say and how you act doesn’t
match up) is something that is pretty threatening for our nervous systems. If
you are saying that you can understand how hard it is to have to turn off the
TV but have a sarcastic, disinterested, or disconnected tone - kids are going
to sense that and you become unsafe. In short, say what you mean and mean what you say.
What are the benefits of slime?It is true that slime has some downsides: it’s messy, it can be expensive, and it can get tiring to keep sacrificing bowls and utensils to a child’s slime-making pursuits. On the other hand, making and playing with slime can have some real benefits for kids, including the following:
Today’s children have less time to play outside, shorter school recess, and more screen-based time than the generations before them. All of this equates to fewer opportunities to be messy. When was the last time you saw a child make a mud pie? “Messy” play experiences, like slime, are a form of sensory play that enriches a child’s awareness of their bodies and senses. Kids need this kind of play to grow and develop, and many children aren’t getting enough.
Slime helps kids get in touch with almost all the senses:
they focus on how it feels, sounds, looks, and smells. This can lead to more self-awareness, as well as awareness about the world around them. Sensory play also helps children to develop: it’s been shown to boost language skills, problem solving skills, and cognitive abilities. The unmet need kids have for this kind of healthy play may explain the current obsession with slime.
Slime promotes mindfulness and grounding
When a child is focused on the tactile experience of playing with slime, they aren’t focused on their thoughts. Getting immersed in a sensory activity, like slime, can help kids focus on their experience in the present moment, rather than worrying about the future or replaying the past events of their day.
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware and accepting of what is happening in the present. It’s a simple concept, but it can be difficult to do. Mindfulness is often taught to adults and children as a way to handle overwhelming feelings like anxiety, and to help people feel more relaxed and focused in daily life. Focusing on body sensations is one way of practicing mindfulness, and so slime play can be a mindful experience for kids.
Grounding skills are anything that a person can do to help them feel more “rooted” or “grounded’ in the present, rather than allowing their mind to drift elsewhere. Grounding skills are often used with people following a trauma, to help them feel more secure and manage flashbacks. Sometimes, people are coached to give themselves a strong sensory experience, like a hot shower or holding a cold ice cube, as a form of grounding. Although it’s not exactly a grounding technique, I think slime provides a similar sensation that could have a grounding effect for kids.
At what age do kids become obsessed with slime?As far as I can tell, kids of almost every age are interested in slime. It’s one of the only activities in my office that appeals to preschoolers as well as preteens. Slime is so much a part of kid culture right now that children of all ages know what it is. I have even had older teens request to go to the playroom to try out making slime. Interestingly, slime is becoming increasingly popular with adults, too: a pop-up shop just opened in New York City targeting grown-up fans of slime. It seems like everyone could use more sensory play in their lives, regardless of age.
Can slime ever be dangerous?
Some slime recipes include ingredients like Borax, which are not safe to eat and can cause irritation to the skin in large quantities. I recommend that young children should always be supervised when playing with slime, and it should be stored safely away from toddlers and young children who might be tempted to eat it. For most people, the small amount of Borax in slime is not likely to cause irritation, but I always wash my hands (and children’s hands) when finished playing, just in case.
Slime in play therapy
I always keep slime ingredients on hand in my therapy playroom. It’s a great way to break the ice when welcoming a new child into play therapy. Because the sensory element of slime is relaxing, it can help kids relax and feel more comfortable in a new situation. Slime can also help kids to self-soothe after a session that has been “deep” or difficult. It can give children a sense of control over their environment, since they get to control what goes into the mix. Finally, it’s just plain fun for kids, and fun in itself can be therapeutic. I find that many kids really enjoy slime for the first few sessions in therapy, and then are ready to move on to other things.
RESOURCES RE: UKRANIAN INVASION
Resources in English:
Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event
After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal
Talking to Children about War
Traumatic Separation and Refugee and Immigrant Children: Tips for Current Caregivers
Psychological First Aid (PFA): Tips for Adults
Helping Young Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers
Resources in Ukrainian:
Age-Related Reactions to a Traumatic Event: Вікові Реакції на Травматичні події
After a Crisis: Helping Young Children Heal: Після кризи: Як допомогти дитині зцілитися
Talking to Children about War: Розмова з дітьми про війну
Traumatic Separation and Refugee and Immigrant Children: Tips for Current Caregivers: ТРАВМАТИЧНЕ РОЗЛУЖЕННЯ ТА ДІТИ БІЖЕНЦІВ ТА ІМІГРАНТІВ: ПОРАДИ ДЛЯ ОПІКУНІВPFA Mobile: Android version on Google Play
PFA: Tips for Adults: Поради для дорослих
Helping Young Children with Traumatic Grief: Tips for Caregivers: Допомога маленьким дітям які переживають травматичне горе: Поради для людей що піклуються за дітьми
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I was recently interviewed by a CBC Indigenous reporter (and briefly quoted) on how Indigenous parents might speak to their children about residential school and the 215 children who were found buried in a mass grave in Kamloops, B.C.
Here is the article:
Loves Languages for Kids
Four Responses to Stress
Parents do not always talk to their children about body safety early enough. I have heard all sorts of reasons why this does not happen. They are too young. I keep an eye on them. They won’t understand. It is a scary topic. It won’t happen to me. We live in a good neighborhood.
Talk to your children. It is never too soon. It doesn’t have to be a scary conversation. Don’t wait another day. Start these conversations today. Here are the 10 most important areas to cover:
1. Talk about body parts early
Name body parts and talk about them early – very early. Use proper names for body parts – or at least teach your children what the actual words are for their body parts. I can’t tell you how many young children I have worked with who have called their vagina their “bottom” and other various names. If children need to make a disclosure of abuse – this can make their story confusing.
2. Teach them that body parts are private
Tell your children that their private parts are called private because their private parts are not for everyone to see. Explain that mommy and daddy can see them naked, but people outside of the home should only see them with their clothes on. Explain how their doctor can see them without their clothes because mommy and daddy are there with them and the doctor is checking their body.
3. Teach your children body boundaries
Tell your children matter-of-factly that no one should touch their private parts and that no one should ask them to touch somebody else’s private parts. Parents will often forget the second part of this sentence. Sexual abuse often begins with the perpetrator asking the child to touch them or someone else.
4. Tell your children that body secrets are not okay
Most perpetrators will tell children to keep the abuse a secret. This can be done in a friendly way such as, “I love playing with you, but if you tell anyone else what we played they won’t let me come over again” or as a threat – “This is our secret. If you tell anyone I will tell them it was your idea and you will get in big trouble!”
Tell your children that no matter what anyone tells them, body secrets are not okay. Let your children know that they should always tell you if someone makes them keep a body secret.
5. Tell your children that no one should take pictures of their private parts or show them pictures of private parts.
This one is often missed by parents. There is a whole sick world out there of pedaphiles who love to take and trade pictures of naked children online. This is an epidemic and it puts your children at risk. If you only talk about body safety you might be missing a risk factor. Tell your children that no one should ever take pictures of their private parts.
Also pedaphiles like to groom children by showing them pornographic pictures. This is their way of “normalizing” the abusive behavior. Let your children know that no one should be showing them pictures of other people’s private parts.
6. Teach your children how to get out of scary or uncomfortable situations
Some children are uncomfortable with telling people “No” – especially older peers or adults. Help give them excuses to get out of uncomfortable situations. Tell your children that if someone wants to see or touch private parts they can lie to them and tell them they need to leave to go to the bathroom.
7. Have a code word your children can use when they feel unsafe or want to be picked up
As children get a little bit older, you can give them a code word that they can use when they are feeling unsafe. This can be used at home, when there are guests in the house or when they are on a playdate or a sleepover.
8. Tell your children they will never be in trouble if they tell you a body secret
Children often tell me that they didn’t say anything because they thought they would get in trouble too. This is often reiterated by the perpetrator. Tell your children that no matter what happens – when they tell you anything about body safety or body secrets they will NEVER get in trouble.
9. Tell your children that a body touch might tickle or feel good
Many parents and books talk about “good touch – bad touch” – but usually these touches do not hurt or feel bad. Try and stay away from these phrases, as it can confuse children that are “tickled” in their private parts. I prefer the term “secret touch” – as it is a more accurate depiction of what might happen.
10. Tell your children that even if they know someone or even if it is another child – these rules are the same
This is an important point to discuss with your children. When you ask young children what a “bad guy” looks like they will most likely describe a cartoonish villain. Be sure to mention to your children that no one can touch their private parts.
You can say something like, “No one should touch your private parts. Mommy and daddy might touch you when we are cleaning you or if you need cream – but no one else should touch you there. Not friends, not aunts or uncles, not teachers or coaches – no one. Even if you like them or think they are in charge, they should still not touch your private parts.”
I am not naïve enough to believe that these discussions will absolutely prevent sexual abuse, but I know that children are at a much greater risk without these talks.
knowledge is a powerful deterrent to childhood sexual abuse – especially with young children who are targeted due to their innocence and ignorance in this area. Have these discussions often. One discussion is not enough. This is a topic that should be revisited again and again. Find natural times to reiterate these messages – such as bath time or when they are running around naked.
This article was written by Natasha Daniels.
I specialize in working with children, adolescents, and families. I am one of the few Certified Play Therapists in Toronto; am a Certified Trauma Assessor; and am an EMDR Therapist.