Updated: Nov 11, 2021
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The Importance of Self-Regulation
Close your eyes for a moment and think of a time when you were really upset, frustrated, sad, hurt, or anxious. Maybe a few of those emotions were present all at once. As you recall that moment and the emotions you were feeling, ask yourself:
What did I notice happening in my body when I was experiencing those emotions? Was my heart racing? Did my fists clench? Did my jaw tighten?
What helped me calm down?
What allowed me to slow down my heart rate and let go of the anxious or angry thoughts?
Was there a person around who I talked to?
Was there a space I went to that provided calm and comfort?
Was there an object I held or fidgeted with?
Was there anything that caused me to feel worse or escalated the way I was feeling?
Make a mental note of your insights or jot them down on a piece of paper because we will come back to them shortly. As you reflect on the answers to these questions I want you to ponder another concept; that at any age we experience intense emotions and as adults our ability to self-regulate, or process and cope with those emotions, is much more developed than in the children around us. Our job, as the adults in the room, is to be the co-regulators so that children may slowly develop the parts of their brains that allow them to self-regulate. While self-regulation may be a more common and obvious concept, co-regulation is equally important and often less talked about.
When your child is angry, upset, melting down, and having a world ending tantrum over his sibling taking his truck, he is not in a state of self-regulation. Rather he is dysregulated. I like to view dysregulation on a spectrum from 0, none at all to 10, the worst meltdown there ever was. This can help you decide the best way to proceed (more on that later). As the adult working through this situation with the child, it is important for you to remain calm, with an even toned voiced. Or as the great Garry Landreth describes it, be a thermostat not a thermometer. Rather than reacting to the child/situation (thermometer), set the temperature (thermostat). This, in a nut shell, is co-regulation. If you remain calm while your child is emotionally elevated and dysregulated, eventually they are going to come back down to a state of self-regulation. You act as the co-regulator and with your help they can find a state of equilibrium more quickly. If you accidentally get upset, which sometimes happens, then both you and the child are dysregulated and it usually takes a lot longer for everyone to calm down.
To demonstrate this concept in more detail please watch the following video by Dr. Daniel Siegel.
Dr. Siegel explains the concept of self-regulation and co-regulation with a different narrative, but the core concepts remain the same. Our frontal lobe, or the top part of our brain acts as the "parent" to the lower areas of the pain. If the "parent" goes offline there is no one managing the parts of the brain that control emotions (limbic system) or the body (brain stem). Therefore, the emotions and the body run wild. This is the space where tantrums occur.
So lets come back to the questions I asked at the beginning about a time when you became upset, anxious, overwhelmed, angry, etc.. Did you remember feeling your heart beating really quickly or feeling pressure in your chest, or that you felt so overwhelmed you couldn't control what came out of your mouth? Well, that is what it feels like to be dysregulated, or "flip your lid" as Dr. Siegel calls it. And this same phenomenon can happen to a person at any age. However, because children are so much younger and the frontal lobe, or "parent," of their brain is not yet fully developed (and doesn't fully develop until they are 18-24 years old), they are more susceptible to flipping their lids.
Now let's come back to the idea that emotional dysregulation, or a trantrum, can happen on a scale from 0 - 10 depending on the severity. The lower the number the less work or calming time will have to pass before the child can self-regulate. Additionally, the resource, or intervention, you offer your child may vary depending on the severity of the tantrum. Another great tip from Garry Landreth is, when a child is drowning don't try to teach her to swim. In other words, when your child is dysregulated, this is not the moment to teach a lesson. Using as few words as possible, help your child access available resources so they may cope with their flipped lid. Once they are calm, and their frontal lobe, or "parent" is back online, then talk with them about what happened. Giving your child the language to say "i'm about to flip my lid," can make all the difference in helping them access their available resources. If your child is 3, 4, or 5, you can say that them, "you're really upset and you're about to flip your lid, lets go spend some time in our calming corner," (more on this language below). If your child is older than 5, they may be able to learn to say "I'm about to flip my lid" to you and you can help redirect them to the calming corner before it turns into one of those world ending tantrums.
Now that we have a foundation in self-regulation and co-regulation, lets get into the fun stuff and create that calming corner!
Creating your Calming Corner
About a year ago, I stubbled across a company called Generation Mindful. They create resources to help kiddos calm down and on one of their posts they reference a "calming corner." I thought, Yes!!! Yes!!! That makes so much sense. If one of our jobs as a caregiver is to help teach children how to self-regulate, a calming corner is a brilliant way to encourage that and provide a space in the home that is quiet, safe, and resourcing for the child.
Before I give you the steps to creating your calming corner I want to briefly address the word "resource." You may have noticed that I used this word often. Resource is another word for a coping skill, and often involves somatic, or body, coping skills. In other words, it's an activity, movement, fidget toy, etc.. that help our bodies calm down so that we can then calm our emotions and help that frontal lobe come back online. Somatic resources can be stretching our bodies, taking deep breathes, wrapping ourselves up in a blanket like a burrito, or holding onto a stuffed animal really tight, to name a few.
The calming corner allows your child a space to feel their big emotions, learn to regulate them, and language to communicate them.
Step One: Find a quiet corner
Set your child up for success by placing this special space somewhere that is quiet where they can be alone for a few minutes to calm down. Depending on the age of your child, you may allow them more or less time to be alone. Try to find a room with some carpet on the floor or a rug so that it is warm and comfy for them.
Step Two: Gather items for the corner
Use your imagination with this one. Engage your child by asking them to help you collect things on the list below. After all, this is their special place and we want them to feel drawn to it to spend time. Here are a few items that I recommend.
Many of these items you can probably find around your home:
Something comfy, like a beanbag, a few pillows, and/or a blanket.
Grab a container, bin, or a cardboard box (it doesn't have to be fancy) to hold calming corner items.
A book or two, especially ones that talk about feelings.
Stuffed animals your child likes to hold onto or hug.
A stress ball or tennis ball if you have any other those lying around.
Fidget toys like a fidget spinner, or a squishy ball.
If you decide you want to try out a few new items here's a few I suggest:
Time-in Kit by Generation Mindful (the posters hanging on the walls are included in their kits plus many other resources not shown here ->)
Giant stress ball (this is a fan favorite in my home & office)
Listening to My Body by Gabi Garcia
The Way I Feel by Janan Cain
Step 3: Talk to your child about the calming corner
Introduce your child to the calming corner and remember this is all new to them. Explain that this is a place where they can come when they feel upset, mad, anxious, or sad to take some time for themselves. Or they can come here when they feel calm and happy to spend some quiet time or read a book or even play. This is also a good time to talk about limits in the calming corner, such as:
When we are upset, mad, sad, and/or anxious only one person is allowed to be in the calming corner (this is helpful if you have more than one child).
Balls, toys, etc.. are not for throwing in the calming corner.
It's okay to feel our feelings in the calming corner.
It's okay to ask for help or for your parent to sit with you if you want.
Brainstorm other limits for your calming corner that fit your family, your child and your philosophy on parenting. The sky is the limit here!
Step 4: Start using your corner
Use your corner in lots of different ways. Your child's level of self-regulation will likely guide how to best utilize this space. A dysregulated child needs a few words and patient redirection, whereas a calm, regulated child may be able to have a more advanced conversation about their needs and/or feelings in that moment.
If your child is calm and regulated, they could decide during quiet time they want to sit in their corner that you have set up in their room. You can offer them a choice by saying, "it's time for quiet time. You can choose to lay in your bed or you can choose to lay in your calming corner. You get to decide."
Remember: Choices are empowering for kids! Stick with 2 choices that are safe, appropriate and you feel you can tolerate as their caregiver.
If your child is calm and you want to connect and play together you can sit in the calming corner together and read one of the books you have about feelings or practice ways they can cope that are listed on the Generation Mindful time-in charts.
If your child is upset, angry, frustrated, or mad, this is not the time to use a lot of words. Remember: when a child is drowning don't try to teach her how to swim. Instead, you can validate their feelings, restate the limit, and provide them a choice: "I know you're mad that you can't go to the park right now, but it's almost time for dinner. You can choose to go in the backyard and play or you can choose to go spend some time in your calming corner." Depending on their level of intensity you may need to restate their feelings, the limit and their choices a few times before they're able self-regulate and choose. For a 3 or 4 year old you may need to walk with them to the calming corner to show them. For an older child they may be more able to make that step on their own. Either way, repetition is key. It takes children some time to realize this resource exists and how to access it. And when they're dysregulated and their frontal lobe is offline, they will definitely need some calm, empathetic parental redirection.
Step 5: Observe and modify as needed
Every child is unique and every home and family have their own rhythm. If you notice the location you choose for the calming corner isn't working out, then try another location. If you notice your children constantly fight over the calming corner, set some new limits or consider creating one for each of them in their own spaces. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
A few more tips...
Place the calming corner some place you feel like your child is safe to be alone for a few minutes. This may vary depending on their age.
Place items in the calming corner you are okay with your child using alone. For example, you may not want to put playdoh or other items that, if left unsupervised, may create a mess.
This is a work in progress; try out some items in the calming corner and see what works. If your child consistently throws the stress balls, you may want to remove those from the calming corner.
While I have listed items you can find around your home and/or purchase, don't feel like you need to rush out and buy a bunch of things for this space. Use what you have and if you'd like, supplement with a few extra things as you go.
I do not recommend adding screens or technology to calming corners because it accesses a part of the brain that causes us to numb out. In order to feel our feelings it's important for us to stay present and connected.
Don't forget to have fun with this! Living a more calm, and joyful life is an exciting journey that helps us as adults and the children around us to cope and resource ourselves in new and healthy ways. It's a growth adventure for us all.
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