Helping your child calm down

Helping your child calm down
Does your toddler move around non-stop? This is perfectly normal! How can you teach them to calm down?


Before the age of 6, kids don’t sit still for long. It’s normal for a child to be active. They need to walk, run, jump, and climb—not just as part of their development, but also to feel good, release tension, and express what they feel. Sometimes their need to move comes with an excitement that’s hard to control.

Why do kids get excited?

You can recognize an excited child by their behaviour. They fidget and have a hard time listening to instructions and sitting still. They yell, run, and climb all over the place. Getting excited isn’t just normal, it can also be useful. Because their brains are still developing, children don’t yet have the ability to control their emotions or manage their frustrations. They usually get excited when they can’t contain themself or need to release tension that’s had a chance to build. Here are some situations that can cause a child to get excited:

  • A child might get excited to release pent-up energy. This can happen if they’ve spent the entire day indoors without being able to run and jump around. They might also become excited due to a lack of stimulation, in order to keep themself busy. For example, in a waiting room, they might fidget and climb on their chair because they’re bored.
  • A child might also get excited because they’re experiencing a strong emotion they can’t control. For example, they might be overjoyed about going swimming, or anxious about their first day at daycare.
  • They may also get excited if they’re tired, since a lack of sleep makes it harder for a child to control their emotions. This is why it’s not uncommon for kids to jump on the bed instead of going to sleep when it’s past their usual bedtime. They may also be releasing tension they’ve accumulated over the course of the day.
  • A child can get excited when there’s too much stimulation around them. For example, at a party, they may feel overwhelmed by the noise, lights, music, and all the activities. They might react to this sensation by becoming even more excited.

Why do some kids get more excited than others?

Groupe d’enfants qui s’amusent et s’excitent

The part of the brain that controls emotions and impulses develops during childhood. Every child grows at their own pace. As a child’s brain continues to develop and they learn to manage their emotions, they’ll generally be less likely to get excited. However, the ability to control emotions and behaviours in different situations varies from child to child. Some learn how to calm down early on, while others remain more sensitive to certain emotions or situations that excite them.

It’s often said that boys tend to get more excited than girls. It’s true that on average, during early childhood, boys tend to move around more than girls on a given day. This may be because the part of a toddler’s brain that controls impulsivity tends to develop more quickly in girls than in boys.

The way in which girls and boys are treated could also explain some of this difference. For example, by encouraging quiet play for girls and more active play for boys, some parents may unknowingly influence their child’s behaviour. In addition, some parents encourage girls to talk about their emotions more than boys. This might cause little girls to learn how to manage their emotions earlier and therefore mitigate their excitement.

How to teach them to calm down

You can’t expect your toddler to be fully reasonable and calm down on their own when they’re excited. With your help, they’ll gradually learn that they’re in control of their body and that they can control their actions and behaviours. Here are some activities you can do with your child to teach them how to calm down. It’s best to start practising these exercises with your child when they’re not excited. You can then use them as tools to help your toddler calm down.

  • Teach your child how to take deep breaths to calm down. Ask them to put their hands on their stomach and imagine a balloon that inflates when they breathe in and deflates when they breathe out. Repeat this exercise with them until they seem more calm.
  • Invite your child to come snuggle with you. In your arms, they will feel your calmness and your affection, and this will comfort them and direct their attention. You can then whisper little instructions into their ear (e.g., close your eyes, imagine you’re blowing on a cloud, breathe slowly, etc.), until they feel calmer. You can also simply ask them to come and give you a big hug. Sometimes, that’s all they need to calm them down.
In quiet places (such as libraries, waiting rooms, restaurants), your role is to remind your child to act like a turtle or walk like a mouse, or just gently put your hand on their shoulder when they get too excited.
  • Ask your toddler to clench their fists tightly and then release. Repeat this exercise with them until they feel more calm. This will help reduce the tension that sometimes causes excitement.
  • Give your child a small task that requires concentration, such as finding five objects that are their favourite colour in a room. Putting their energy into a specific task will help them calm down.
  • Compare your child to a speeding car to help them understand how their body works. When they run, ask them to put their hand on their chest. Point out that their heart is beating fast, their legs are racing, their voice is loud, and they’re breathing heavily: “You’re excited!” Tell them they have to slow down their little engine if they want to avoid accidents! Remind them that they are driving “their own car” and that they can control the speed.
  • Pay attention to your child’s feelings and help them understand their emotions. When you help your child describe an emotion, they feel understood, and this in itself has a calming effect. For example, you can say: “You’re jumping around because you’re really happy to go over to your cousins’ place!”
  • Prepare your child before you take them to a place where they might get too excited. You can help them stay calm by clearly explaining what you expect from them. Instead of telling them what not to do, tell them what they should do instead. For example: “At the library, you need to walk and whisper,” rather than, “At the library, don’t run or yell.”
  • Play a game with them that involves controlled movement, such as ”Simon Says.” Start by asking them to do things that make them move around a lot, like jumping, to have them expend their energy. Finish with quieter activities that require concentration, such as: “Simon says stand on one foot” or “Simon says pretend you’re a flower growing slowly.”
  • Invite them to do a quiet activity, such as drawing or doing a puzzle. Have them play with modelling clay. Having fun making things and taking them apart can be a calming activity for an overexcited child.
  • Highlight what they did to successfully calm down on their own. Point out that they’re developing a new skill.

For a list of game ideas to help your child relax, see our Relaxation through play fact sheet.

Are they hyperactive?
Just because your child moves around a lot, that doesn’t mean they’re hyperactive. Few children actually exhibit hyperactivity (5% to 8% of children). Hyperactivity is often accompanied by impulsivity and difficulty paying attention. If you think your child might be hyperactive, talk to their doctor. They’ll be able to guide you towards solutions that might help.

Things to keep in mind

  • Generally, children get excited to release strong emotions or accumulated tension.
  • As a child’s brain continues to develop and they learn to manage their emotions, they tend to get excited less often.
  • You can teach your child to calm down with different activities.

 

Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Chloé Gaumont, M.Sc., psychoeducator
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir Team
Updated: May 2018

 

Photos: iStock.com/nicolesy and GettyImages/kali9

 

Sources and references

For parents

  • Bourcier, Sylvie. Comprendre et guider le jeune enfant : à la maison, à la garderie. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2004, 168 pp.
  • Éditions Midi Trente. ”Affiche du retour au calme.” Poster.
  • Éditions Midi Trente, in collaboration with Isabelle Lapointe. “Cartons du retour au calme.” Card game.
  • Malenfant, Nicole. Jeux de relaxation : pour des enfants détendus et attentifs. Brussels, De Boeck, 2010, 122 pp.
  • Snel, Eline. Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents). Shambhala, 2013, 112 pp.
  • Sunderland, Margot. What Every Parent Needs to Know: Love, Nurture and Play with Your Child. DK, 2016, 304 pp.

For kids

  • Chabot, Claire and Geneviève Desprès. Zut! Flûte est excité. Dominique et compagnie, 2009, 32 pp.

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