Step 2 – Calm & Relax
When children are frightened they can quickly lose their ability to think clearly. Many parents tune in very closely to their child’s emotions and they find it hard to remain calm when their child is distressed. Or, parents find they are trying to be rational without first helping their child to calm down.
The first step for a child who is frightened is to teach them how to calm down and relax, i.e., learning to self soothe. This will help your child move on to the next stage by being able to put their feelings into words and respond to your questions.
Psychology Fun Facts
When our body experiences fear it prepares for action using a fight-or-flight reaction. Our pulse rate and breathing quicken as our body takes in more oxygen. We breathe faster using short quick breaths and this can reach a level of hyperventilation that is difficult to control. Children find this experience to be unpleasant and can cause them to avoid situations which have previously frightened them.
An effective method to switch off the stress reaction is to use the relaxation technique of deep breathing. Deep breathing is one of the most common natural stress reduction techniques around. Even a single deep breath can show an instant decrease in the effects of stress on the body. Of all physical relaxation techniques, deep breathing is most effective for most people and children can learn it from the age of 4.
The body has two ways of drawing the extra oxygen it needs. It can either breathe more quickly or it can breathe more deeply.
A relaxed child breathing using the chest muscles breathes in cycles of about 3 seconds.
Deep breathing requires a child to use the diaphragm beneath the lungs. This gives the lungs more room to inflate, allowing them to breath more deeply. Breathing using the diaphragm muscle brings air into the whole lung, where breathing using the chest muscle brings air only into the upper part of the lung. When we breathe using the diaphragm our stomach moves. This counter acts their stress reaction and helps them calm down and switches on a relaxation response.
Stress brings back old memories. When a child experiences a strong emotion, the emotional centre of their brain recalls previous occasions when the child experienced a similar emotion, using an emotional memory. When helping a child to deal with a current fear, it’s best to switch off any old memories and help the child to focus on the current situation.
The relaxation method of deep breathing requires a conscious effort. By paying attention to using deep breathing, a child can move their attention away from old emotional memories.
Fear is a negative emotion that is very contagious. It’s easy for parents to become frightened and agitated if they observe their own child being frightened.
If you find it hard to remain calm when your child is distressed, then you can both use the same relaxation method of deep breathing together.
It’s important not to blame a child for making a parent become distressed. Instead, demonstrate to a child that you are able to take responsibility for managing and reducing your own feelings of distress. A child can manage their fear by using the same methods you use. Both a parent and child participating in the same relaxation method at the same time is a great way to bond.
The purpose of this activity is to help your child to be calm before they try to manage a fear.
Step 1: How frightened is your child?
Your child will react to different situations with different levels of fear. Start by observing how strong their reaction to the situation is.
Is your child calm enough to talk to you about how they’re feeling? Are they overwhelmed by their fear?
If so, start by focusing on calming them down before moving on to the next step in teaching your child to manage their fear.
Step 2: Are you calm and relaxed?
Remember to keep your own emotions under control. Being faced with a highly emotion child can be stressful and parents often find they get caught up by the emotions too.
Whether you share their fear and are frightened yourself, or are just getting angry or frustrated at dealing with irrational fears over and over again, your child needs you to be calm in this situation so they can learn how to calm down.
WeParent Top Tip
If you are facing a situation that frightens you as well, e.g. a fear of spiders, it’s worth asking someone else who is in a better position to help your child to manage their specific fear.
Step 3: Practise deep breathing together
You and your child are going to practise this technique of deep breathing in sets of 8 seconds per breath, without holding your breath. Practise this together, so your child learns how to do the technique properly.
- Taking a deep breath, right down to your stomach, breath in for 4 seconds whilst raising your arms above your head at the same time.
- Next, breath out for 4 seconds whilst lowering your arms.
- Make sure is breathing deeply through their diaphragm by asking them to breathe through their mouth. (You will hear the sounds of their breath if they are doing this right).
Step 4: Practise when calm!
Keep practicing this technique for about 2 minutes every day for 3 weeks. Make sure you do this when your child is already calm. Learning deep breathing is a motor skill just like riding a bike or swimming. Once the muscles have learned this new skill your child will be able to use this by themselves on demand to manage their fear.
Once your child has mastered this deep breathing technique, they no longer need to use their arms.
Where to next?
Now that both you and your child have a technique to use that will help calm them down and feel more relaxed in situations that cause them to be frightened or anxious, it’s time to move on to our next strategy, Step 3 – Vocalise Fears.