How to Teach Kids and Toddlers to Self-Soothe
With expert advice from Dr. Kamilah Hampton, Chicago-based school principal; Lisa Richards, MSN, CNM; and Amanda Vierheller, COO & Co-Founder of Playgarden Online
All kids have the occasional tantrum or emotional meltdown from time to time, but as we grow up, we learn how to better control and manage our own emotions without getting overwhelmed. If your child often struggles to express themselves or regularly has trouble dealing with their big emotions, it may be time for you to start teaching them self-soothing techniques that will help them cope on their own.
What is Self-Soothing?
Self-soothing is a method of self-regulation where someone teaches themselves not impulsively react to upsetting situations. Especially in younger kids, frustrations, confusion, or even being overstimulated by an exciting situation like a family vacation can often result in crying or screaming.
Toddlers’ brains are still emotionally developing. It’s a sign of your toddler maturing when they’re able to deal with small challenges in life without immediately feeling like it’s the end of the road.
However, learning to self-soothe is something kids need to learn and practice. We spoke to experts in the field of child development and mental health to learn more about how to teach your kids useful self-soothing behaviors and habits.
When Should Toddlers and Kids Begin to Self-Soothe?
When your child is a baby, all the soothing and care is done by the parents. Infants don’t have the skills or emotional development to understand why they’re crying or judge the seriousness of any mild inconvenience. When a baby feels hungry, tired, or like their diaper should be changed, they know that crying for Mom or Dad will help them get what they need.
Techniques like swaddling a baby to sleep, cuddling a fussy baby, or giving them a warm bottle or pacifier are all ways that parents soothe their children. However, once your little one reaches two to three years old, parents should start letting them be more self-sufficient.
A two-year-old won’t be able to cope with everything alone but the sooner you start practicing self-soothing skills in small moments, the quicker your son or daughter will realize that they don’t need to cry for mom or dad for every little problem.
How to Balance Parental Instincts with Independence
The instinct for parents to comfort their children when they’re sad, stressed out, or angry is strong — it’s heartbreaking when they’re upset and can’t process their emotions. However, says Lisa Richards, MSN, CNM, of Ovia Health, “it’s important parents start teaching kids emotional intelligence/self-regulation skills early so they learn how to cope on their own when Mom or Dad isn’t around.”
Explains Richards: “One of the best ways parents can support their children in mastering that skill is to validate their children’s feelings.” For example, if children’s feelings are shut-down, ignored, or invalidated, that can make coping with those feelings much more difficult. “Validating the way a child feels and modeling healthy responses can help children learn to regulate themselves.”
Resisting the Urge to Run When Your Child Cries
Let’s just say your child gets hurt and cries. “It may be tempting to say ‘you’re okay’ to that child. But at that moment, the child does not feel okay, so the response from the parent can be really invalidating.
It can communicate to the child that their parent doesn’t understand or believe them, or send the confusing message that they aren’t sure if they can trust their own parents or their own feelings,” says Richards.
“Instead, reframing the message as ‘Ouch! That really hurts, but you will be okay,’ this can validate the child’s experience, help them to feel understood, and help them to move past the pain they’re feeling in the moment.”
Don't Ignore Your Child's Emotions, But Let Them Work Them Out
The same approach can be used for other kinds of upsets, says Richards. Instead of dismissing the validity of a child’s feelings, “it can be more helpful to let them know it’s okay to have the feeling, and then help them learn how to move on from it.
Sometimes taking deep breaths to calm down can be helpful, or it may help to redirect focus with distractions like “Let’s look for the color orange together; can you find anything orange?” Other times, stomping feet, squeezing fists, hitting a pillow, or pushing hard against a wall might help a child vent their frustration in a way that allows them to move on from the feelings that are most challenging.”
Demonstrate Self-Control and Positive Behaviors for Your Kids
“One of the best ways to support self-soothing for toddlers is by modeling calm behavior and responding in a calm manner at all times,” says Dr. Kamilah Hampton, Chicago Public School Principal, and Sports and Education Enthusiast. “As adults, we model how to engage in calm responses even when children are frazzled, and also need to allow them to emote.”
One of the reasons kids develop negative emotional behaviors is because as adults we get frustrated and want to respond back with authority, says Hampton. “This will only make the situation worse. Another technique is allowing children to express emotions and simply stating, ‘use your words.’ We are then teaching them it’s OK to express their emotions, but we want them to express them calmly.”
Keep your energy calm and your voice low and slow to help your little one calm down. If possible, move down to their level to comfort your little one instead of picking them up. This allows them to stay grounded and independent, but still, receive the benefits of your love!
Kids Need to Learn to Self-Soothe Before Starting Pre-K or Kindergarten
To prepare young kids for pre-K and kindergarten is to have kids interact with other kids their own age without interfering. “One of the ways we can support our kids is by allowing them to be with other children their age,” adds Hampton. “Children who spend the majority of their childhood at home with little interaction with other children tend to struggle more when school starts. It's best to engage children as early as possible to hopefully reduce anxiety when it is time to come to school.”
When kids start school or daycare they won’t always be the center of attention or be able to get help or comfort immediately. Caregivers and teachers often have a dozen or more children to tend to, so patience is an important new skill to teach to your child.
Practice teaching your toddler patience with small things such as waiting until mom or dad finishes washing up after dinner to have dessert. But delayed gratification can be a hard thing for kids to understand. Practice “silent time” for a few minutes a day where your kid needs to be quiet and calm while mommy or daddy work before they get a small reward.
Leave Your Little One Alone in a Safe Space to Work it Out
When youngsters emotionally break down after their dropped off at school, is it OK for the parent or caregiver to stay in the room to soothe them? Actually…no.
“When it comes to school, they shouldn't,” says Hampton. “This sounds harsh, right? Whenever I have a crier or a child having an emotional breakdown at the start of the school day, I ask the parent to leave them in the school and enjoy the rest of the day.”
Doing this teaches the child that “home is your safe space with your parents while school is a safe space with your teachers, friends, and other adults that care about you. When a parent immediately steps in or comes back, this breaks this structure for the child and they learn if I cry Mom or Dad will return.”
Adds Hampton: “This is hard for the kids and the parents honestly, but it's necessary to start this immediately, or the teacher and the parent will have a long year!”
If you want to help your child better regulate their emotions, it’s important to create a structured routine that allows them to get comfortable with applying self-soothing skills and habits on their own without always relying on their parents.
“Set up a cozy calming corner in your house to provide little ones with a space to self-soothe,” advises Amanda Vierheller, COO and Co-Founder at Playgarden Online. “Having a designated space that is all theirs helps grow their independence and builds confidence in themselves.”
Self-Soothing Techniques to Try at Home
If you want to try out a few of these self-soothing techniques to help your toddler recognize and react appropriately to their strong emotions, here are some of the tricks and tips we recommend.
1. Provide hands-on tools such as glitter jars, stress balls, soft toys, and fidget toys
Sensory toys like crafts and fidget spinners can help older kids process the emotions that arise. By setting them up with the space, tools, and patience to feel their feelings, you allow them to find solutions in their own way and time.
2. Listen to calming or familiar music
If your child has a favorite song, like a theme song from their favorite show or a ballad from a familiar Disney film, listening to this song together is a good way to ground them and make them feel comfortable. You can even get your little one safe, kid-friendly headphones to put on when they’re feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated.
3. Deep breathing and positive visualization
Taking slow deep breaths is a classic self-soothing and relaxing technique for both kids and adults. Teach your kids how to inhale a breath, count to three, and exhale. Then repeat. You can coach them through these deep breathing techniques by watching their belly fill up with air and deflate like a balloon.
Another common meditation technique for kids is positive visualization or imagining somewhere fun and relaxing they want to be like a tropical island or at their grandma’s house! Have kids decide on their “happy place” and in moments of anxiety or sadness, have them close their eyes and describe to you all the stuff they’re seeing as they walk through their positive place.
Self-Soothing Techniques to Help Kids Go to Sleep at Night
If your toddler is always waking up in the middle of the night and crying for mom or dad to come to comfort them or read them a story, it can be frustrating for overly tired parents. Self-soothing techniques will quell these nighttime meltdowns and help your toddler fall back to sleep on their own so they (and you) can get a good night’s sleep.
The first step to helping kids fall asleep alone is by establishing a familiar sleep routine at the same time every night. This could be reading a bedtime story, having a small snack, picking out their favorite bedtime stuffed animal, etc. But once all the steps in the routine are done, that’s it.
Mom or dad will say goodnight, and turn off the light. If you cave, even once, and let your kids stay up past their bedtime, they will have a harder time falling asleep on their regular schedule the next night. Learn your child’s needs to get enough sleep whether they need a nightlight, to keep the door cracked, or to have a bath before bed to wind down, and stick to this.
If children struggling to self-soothe are hurting themselves or others, destroying property or seeming unsafe, parents can and should offer support. Yes, it’s a tantrum and it’s frustrating, but, says Vierheller: “This means your little one needs more guidance and practice in processing their feelings.”
Expert Sources Cited:
Dr. Kamilah Hampton
Chicago-Based School Principal
Lisa Richards, MSN, CNM
COO + Co-Founder