I was talking to my BFF about her son who is in his “terrible twos”. Really, there’s nothing terrible about him; he is wonderful, but he is beginning to express himself, and sometimes his little feelings are angry or stressed. She said to me, “I know it sounds silly, but I am teaching him to just breathe.” I didn’t know how to articulate it then, but after gathering my thoughts (a.k.a. researching what others had to say about breathing as a calming strategy) I was able to write down how powerful simple breathing techniques are for kids because they actually aren’t simple, at all. Regulating your emotions, or self-regulation, is one of the most challenging things to learn for any of us, but according to James Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, an important determinant of a child’s success. Without self-regulation and executive function, there is little chance of achievement in children or, anyone! (Suskind, p. 110).
First, understanding what happens to a child's brain when they are in major melt-down mode is incredibly helpful. In Walter Mischel's book The Marshmallow Test, Mastering Self-Control he explains that the brain has a hot and cool system. The hot system, known as the limbic system, regulates basic drives and emotions essential for survival, from fear and anger to hunger and sex, while the cool system is crucial for future-oriented decisions and self-control efforts. The cool system regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions, and is the source of creativity and imagination, and is crucial for inhibiting inappropriate actions that interfere with the pursuit of goals (Mischel, p. 46). The hot system of the brain is fully functional at birth, making an infant cry when hungry or in pain, but the cool system develops slowly and becomes gradually more active in the preschool years, and the first few years of elementary school. (It actually does not fully mature until the early twenties, leaving the young child as well as adolescents greatly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the hot system). Knowing this, the whole terrible-twos phenomenon makes complete sense; these poor little monsters have a fully developed hot system, causing them to freak out when they are hungry, but are just developing the part of their brains that would allow them to calmly say, "hey mom, I'm feeling a little hungry, and will probably be really hungry in about 20-30 minutes, think you could start cooking up some of that mac and cheese you know I love?", and instead have a tantrum on the floor while waiting for the water to boil.
What's worse is in high stress situations the cool system weakens while the hot system accelerates. This is why asking a kid to "just use your words", or telling them "I'm going to count to three, before you lose this or that privilege... one, two...", or talking about any sort of a consequence during a high stress time is never, ever... ever, ever, ever going to work in your favor. This just revs up the hot system, and attenuates the cool system; your toddler can't even access the cool part of their brain that would allow them to calm down at this point. Your terrible two-year-old will win this battle every. single. time.
I must admit I learned the hard way as a behavior intervention teacher that if a child lacks executive function abilities and self-regulation skills then expecting him or her to calm down in a high stress situation is basically like me asking him or her to do their math homework without a pencil, or before teaching them how to add. They don't have the tools, or know how to use them. It wasn't until I realized it was my job to teach them how to calm down, just like it was their math teacher's job to teach them math, that I made any progress with my little buddies. However, teaching calming strategies only works if practiced when the child is calm. "By forming and practicing implementation plans, you can make your hot system reflexively trigger the desired response whenever the cue occurs. You can trick the hot system into reflexively and unconsciously doing the work for you. The hot system then lets you automatically act out the script you want when you need it while your cool system rests, but unless you incorporate the resistance plan into the hot system, it is unlikely to be activated when you need it most." (Mischel, p. 68) I saw great results when I practiced breathing techniques with my most angered students, then modeled it for them when they found themselves in a high stress situation.
After making many mistakes in my first year as a behavior interventionist, I found that remaining calm worked like a charm, every time. I had to be the calm to their chaos, to help them access that cool part of their brain that was currently buried deep beneath their raging hot system. Then, after calming down we could talk about consequences, and what to do next time. I love this article that reminds us that we can't control anything our child does, eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk or stop having a tantrum, but we do have control over how we respond. And guess what, this is what guides and shapes their behavior. So, if we want a calm kid in a stressful situation then we have to model exactly what that looks like. Luckily, there are many resources that can teach children (and us) calming strategies. I added links on my resource page to videos and a couple really good articles. Peace be with you... literally.