I recently bumped into a friend at our neighborhood library, and she hurriedly pulled me aside for the few precious minutes we might have to chat as our kids thumbed through stacks of summer reads.
She was worried about her 6 year old daughter, who is well advanced for her age in several academic areas. The mom tells me that because her daughter is academically gifted, many think that her daughter has it easy, so to speak. Her mom tells me the bigger picture is that she feels her daughter has poor focus for some rather simple things, explosive emotional reactions and big resistance to simple daily routines and everyday transitions. "She doesn't qualify for therapy under our insurance, and I can't afford to pay for it out of pocket," she states with disappointment, "but you do this kind of work, right?" she asks. I nod and lean in. "Isn't there something I could do at home to support her?"
I light up, "HECK, YES!!!!!!" I want to scream, but I don't considering I had just reminded my girls to keep "quiet voices in the library". Instead, I nodded in an I've-totally-been-there kinda way (because I totally have) and smile a big smile knowing some small simple changes in movement and the environment can likely help her amazing daughter feel better in her own skin.
A child's brain, gifted with academic talents or not, isn't yet developed enough to self-regulate intense negative emotion on it's own. When feelings get big, the ability to listen to logic or make decisions gets small (or nonexistent) for many kids.
When it comes to a child on the brink of meltdown, a self-regulating strategy is to move the body and adjust the environment mindfully.
That's all. Just move and be mindful. It's such a simple concept, isn't it? Most people ignore it altogether thinking something so easy and accessible couldn't possibly be an answer to such complicated power struggles and family dynamics, but I hope you will trust me on this one.
"Move more." I tell my friend. The two word suggestion does not impress her. Yet.
I go on to suggest easy sensory strategies, movement ideas and mindful environmental changes she could offer her daughter, both preventatively and on the brink of meltdown.
Per the usual, she's slightly surprised at my suggestions, saying, "Oh, really? That seriously helps?" Her eyebrows raise at some of my unconventional recommendations which, truthfully, can seem a little crazypants to some, and too simple for others but I'm not kidding around.
Straight up, this stuff really works, and it's not just anecdotal proof. These strategies are scientifically proven, and many of them are age-old. Best of all, they support kids in a mindful and compassionate way by teaching them to honor their own body cues and needs to move as a way to feel better in their own bodies.
Movement, sensory strategies and mindful environmental modifications can pull a child out of meltdown and support optimal brain and body development.
If that feels appealing to you, I do hope you will read on.
Here, I'll outline the 4 strategies I offered my friend at the library in hopes she could better support her daughter. "They helped--a lot", she tells me. I hope they will somehow serve you, too, as well as the amazing kiddos at your feet.
So first thing's first: take care of you. True to my yoga practice and training, I can't resist suggesting that the first thing you can do is something kind for yourself.
I know you've heard it before, but a deep breath (or 5 if you can swing it) will take the edge off as you circumnavigate a meltdown with your kiddo.
Now, make a mental note to keep doing that as you support your kiddo through movement, mindfulness and senosory strategies, and don't be afraid to actually implement any of these strategies for yourself (in an adult kind of way, of course). They actually are strategies for humans, not just for kids!
Here's what I mean:
Use any combination of these strategies as long as they work well for your family and jive with your parenting style. Goodness knows, you don't need to add anything to your plate, so try to insert this type of stuff into what you are already doing.
For further explanation, please scroll down for more sensory strategy and mindful goodness!
1. Invert the Head or Move the body. If the child likes going upside down and is still small enough to pick up, by all means, literally turn that frown upside down! Bigger kids can learn to lean back over the couch, do a down dog or hang upside down off the edge of the bed as a coping strategy.
Head inversion can be very calming to kids. By changing the perspective of the body, you can also change the mental and emotional viewpoint of the individual. Change the body position, and you can change subtle neurochemical responses in the brain and body, which help soothe the nervous system!
Also, if you anticipate an emotional struggle or speed bump, front load it with playful movement the child enjoys! Before you get in the car, run up and down the sidewalk a few times. Before you sit your kiddo down to do homework that usually creates a power struggle, have him ride his bike for 15 minutes. Offer your child options to do the kind of movement you most see them wanting to do!
Big movement helps develop and stimulate the vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (posture and movement) systems of the body, which equals better self-regulation and better overall brain and body function!
Time and time again, research shows us that the more often we move, the more we can regulate big emotions and the better our self-regulation, decision making and learning!
Research also shows that getting outdoors can help with poor attention, and moving the body as minimally as walking on a treadmill indoors can help with executive functioning. You don't have to sign your child up for movement bootcamp to receive the positive effects movement offers. A recent study* shows that movement as easy as going for a short walk for as little as a few minutes can boost creativity by up to 60 percent and can offer a boon to the skill of generating ideas.
The CDC recommends just 1 hour of physical activity per day, but if you truly want your child to have good self-regulation, attention and cognitive skills in the modern world, kids need several HOURS of physical movement EVERY day for optimal brain and body development! Get your kids moving both indoors and outdoors (really, get outside!) as frequent and intermittent movement as often as possible is better than one hour just one time a day!
If you don't already know what kind of movement empowers your child toward their best potential (every child has different movement needs and preferences), you can take my FREE, 7 question quiz HERE and find out!
2. Get below eye level and whisper if you must talk to your child.
I love the advice child psychologist and best selling author, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, gives to parents: get below eye level to soothe a child's nervous system when they are getting emotionally upset.
Moving down BELOW a child's eye level sends a visual message (beyond the child's awareness) to the brain that because the other person is lower, they are not a threat. This tells a child's nervous system to simmer down already cause we are all on the same team.
If you absolutely have to say something whispering it with as few words as possible when you are below eye level will be better received by your child as it takes away vocal tone that may further aggravate the child and decreases possible over stimulation to the auditory system. Oh, and whispering prevents yelling. Bonus!
3. Firm Hugs from Behind or Deep Pressure to the Body. Occupational therapists like myself will often recommend deep pressure to the body as a calming or focusing technique for kids. That's because deep pressure,which means firm & even pressure to the body as tolerated by the child (not so hard your kiddo's eyeballs bulge) is soothing to the nervous system. It releases calming neurotransmitters and soothing hormones that are like a tonic to stress and big emotions.
I'll give you some real life examples so you can see what I mean: for instance, if your baby slept better when swaddled, you can thank the calming effects of deep pressure. Likewise, the biochemical changes in your body are responsible for the feeling of relaxation or decreased pain after a massage. Still not convinced of how innate the need for deep pressure is? Think of a time you cut your skin, stubbed your toe or bumped your head. You probably immediately grabbed or covered the injured area with your hand and pressed on it, which is an intuitive self-application of deep pressure to decrease the pain response. It works!
In contrast, light touch (think of a spider crawling on your skin) can be quite irritating to the nervous system, and we usually have automatic stress-like or aggressive responses to such input (like swatting at it).
Often, when we hug a child from the front, we are leaning forward and there are more opportunities for that light, irritating touch (like a necklace that swings forward and lightly grazes the child's skin or the parent's hair that falls down to lightly tickle the child's face) to create irritation to the nervous system.
This may seem like a small thing not worth minding. "My child isn't bothered by light touch," you say, but to a nervous system that's about to erupt into melt mode, light touch of any kind, even from a loved one toward a child that usually isn't bothered by it, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Fortunately, Deep pressure could be the rudder that starts the ship turning around. So if your child is generally receptive to a hug, offer a strong, loving hug from behind (which gives less light touch and more deep pressure), or deep, sustained pressure on the shoulders or firm back rubs.
You can also use deep pressure when the sun is shining, so to speak, which better develops a child's propriocpetive (posture & movement) and tactile (touch) systems!
Deep pressure also helps develops body mapping, which is our brain's internal GPS for where a part of our body is in relation to another! Close your eyes and touch your nose with your fingertip. If you can do it, that's your internal GPS knowing where to move your finger without looking!
I love teaching meditation in the aerial yoga hammock because the full body hug helps kids feel settled and comfortable in their own bodies, and I know the deep pressure is doing some good work for their brains and bodies unbeknownst to them!
4. Go Outside or Change Lighting and Noise Level. Often, environmental factors get overlooked, and parents may not understand how sensitive a developing brain can be to auditory or visual information in the environment, especially since many kids may not even know that visual or auditory overwhelm is what is driving them bonkers.
Many times, parents will be surprised to discover that visual and auditory overstimulation is a hidden cause of disruptive or explosive behaviors.
A child's brain is constantly taking in and analyzing the visual information and sound in the environment, and at an early age, the brain has less ability to filter out extraneous noise and visual information. The more overstimulating the environment, the more disorganizing that can be to an underdeveloped brain.
Our modern times are busy, loud, filled with visual choices and stimulation galore and pretty darn full to the brim schedule-wise. This can wreak much more havoc on the neural wiring and nervous system of a child than it can on an adult. Lucky for us, there are some simple solutions to the modern day hustle and bustle.
We can make small changes in the environment to reduce overstimulation of our children's sensory systems.
Usually, the simplest solution is just to go outside. There are many studies that demonstrate the positive effects of the outdoors on the nervous system. Just simply being outside can lower blood pressure and heart rates, which will soothe a revved up nervous system, and I hope all kiddos are able to get outdoors and play every day to build healthy brains and bodies.
However, if you live in Austin, TX in July like I do, you'll find going outside quite stifling mid-day. I don't recommend it. So the alternative to going outside is to alter the environment just by knowing what calms your child and being mindful of your child's auditory and visual preferences.
You might try dimming or turning off some lights. You could play some ambient background music or nature scapes. You could turn all the noise off (like the TV or stereo) and go into whisper mode. You could offer your child noise canceling head phones when you are out on the town or create a peaceful place for the child to use at home.
You know your child best. What does he or she need to feel better in his or her own skin with regards to the noise or lighting level? Try a few things and experiment to see what helps!
As always, my gratitude for your time and attention is far-reaching. Thank you for spending some of your precious time reading this. I hope this information will serve you or someone you love well.
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* Recent study on how taking a walk boosts creativity.
Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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