You need peace and serenity in your household, and you need to be proactive to attain it, but how? Therapy works. So does disciplined meditation and yoga. Anti-anxiety medications work, use them, but they’re not the best long-term solution. You need reliable skills for calming yourself, your stormy child, and all other family members. In psychological jargon, you need to learn “de-escalation” skills. (see research at the end of this article on the brain benefits of mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
Calming yourself in the tension-filled moment
Become consciously aware of your tension and ask: What are my options for coping with my tension right now? Brainstorm options ahead of time and create a list because you won’t be able to process in the moment. For example: take a very deep breath, then silently count to 10 backwards. Another idea: eliminate distractions. Turn off the cell phone, send others out of the room, pull the car over, turn off music… You must strategically choose your response to a common situation, which is a key element of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and it works.
Be your own cheerleader. Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control;” “You Go Girl!;” “I am the calm upon the face of troubled waters…” Have fun with it. In psychological jargon, this is called “positive self-talk,” and is a key element of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy).
Ways to calm your child in the moment
Note: the techniques are different for each child depending on their disorder and its characteristics. Experiment to find out what works with your child’s typical patterns at home, in school, with others, or other situations that are typically stressful.
In a steady voice, give them directions or requests to calm down. You will need to repeat yourself periodically as they struggle with their inner storm. If you ask them to move to another space or use their own calming, skills, use your body language to initiate the act. If you ask them take a deep breath, do it yourself. If it helps them to punch a pillow, punch it yourself and hand it over.
Wait them out. Give them plenty of time to unwind as long if they are not hurting anything. There is no rush. Allow long moments to pass as they struggle with whatever is triggering them.
Give them extra time to “change channels” and go from one environment to another. Children and teens often have problems “transitioning.” Examples: coming home from school; getting out of the car after a long ride; waking up in the morning. Changes are difficult for troubled kids.
Redirect their focus. Draw attention to something to distract them in the moment (this is a useful kind of channel-changing). A young child could be directed to a physical activity (draw, push clay around, throw a Nerf ball against the wall), a teen can be asked to play their favorite music (even if you hate it), shoot baskets, or take the dog for a walk.
Animals heal, but strategically pick the best animals. If you can have a calm smiling dog, a calm affectionate cat, or a little low-key animal like a hamster, bird, or turtle, you’ve got pet therapists. Excessively active or barking dogs and aloof kitties probably won’t work. If you can afford calm livestock like a goat or horse, the ‘largeness’ of their serenity works wonders!
What makes a good “security blanket” for your child? I’ve completely wrapped anxious children and teens in a blanket or coat, and they became immediately present. Have a child bury themselves in a favorite piece of furniture, or let them get their video game or iPod.
Once a situation has passed, ask yourself what happened just prior to your child’s episode. Was there a trigger? Did they just transition from one kind of place to another? Do you have options for removing the trigger?
It is very common for a trigger to be so small or elusive that you miss it. The child or teen’s sibling could have sniffed or rolled their eyes without you noticing. An object your child or teen reached for (like a remote control) could have just been unintentionally grabbed by someone else. If you can identify the little frustrations that send them to the stratosphere, and address them immediately, it will proactively ease their mind. “Your sister is not supposed to tease you and I’ll see that it stops.” “Your brother was not trying to bother you by taking the remote just now. It was an accident of timing.”
Calming your home for the long term
Calm your emotional self first and think Zen. If you can take 5 minutes during a day, even a stressful day, sit quietly and breathe, and consciously work at eliminating all thoughts, ALL THOUGHTS, you would calm down. Not thinking anything is the hard part of meditation, yet it is the skill that makes it work, and there’s proof.
Maintain bodily calm with the big three: exercise, sleep, and healthy diet. You’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s good reason and proof. If you can’t simultaneously maintain all three habits in your family, take one at time and you will still see benefits.
Calm the sensations that exist in your home environment. Reduce noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, and the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV, etc. Create a place or time period in your home where anyone can go that’s contemplative, where people agree to behave as if they’re in a library, a special place of worship, or a safe zone.
Have you ever wondered how a hospital psychiatric ward is designed to keep patients calm? I’ve visited a number of wards, and the best ones I saw were in China, where I toured with a delegation of mental health practitioners.
Visual: they had windows and lots of light, plants, and beautiful aquariums with gorgeous fish and lots of bubbles. Those hypnotic fish are great de-stressors.
Sound: besides the bubbling aquarium, there was often low-energy music.
Physical: soft furniture, a table where people could gather in the comfort and buzz of a group, and nooks where people could remove themselves from the buzz and avoid over stimulation.
Two things to avoid
Do not communicate strong emotions in your voice. Word choice and sound volume don’t matter as much as strong emotional content, negative or positive. Strong emotions trigger an unstable child or teen, yet are hardest to control when you are excited or under stress! Practice vocal neutrality. Which is better: “Will you please let the cat out?” versus “Will you PULLEEEEZ let the cat OUT!!!
Don’t pressure the child to calm down when they’re not ready—it takes time for anyone to unwind. Wait patiently while a child or teen works through ugly emotions and finishes releasing their stuff. You may have to take it on the chin, but this will pass. Let them have their catharsis. We all need to release our stuff, and we all need others to patiently let us.
In my support group, I’ve observed that very stressed parents, who visit for the first time, need at least one solid hour to vent and cry before they’re calm enough to benefit from another’s supportive words and sympathy.
Be the calm, spread the calm, live the calm.
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ABSTRACT – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density
Britta K. Hölzelab, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Gardab, Sara W. Lazara
Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43 (30 January 2011)
Summary in plain English: Meditation causes structural changes in the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress, according to new research. Researchers examined MRI scans of participants over a period of 8 weeks. Daily meditation sessions of 30 minutes produced measurable changes in subjects with no previous meditation history. The anxiety and stress region of the brain, the amygdala, produced less gray matter. In a non-meditating control group, these positive changes did not take place.
“Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.“