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Managing Meltdowns & Teaching Mindfulness Skills to Children

Mom and child practicing mindfulness skills

Today I am sharing some ideas about teaching mindfulness skills to kids. The same tools I teach clients - the ones that help us to regulate our nervous systems - are useful in helping kids manage big emotions and navigate meltdown moments. 

Tantrums are often triggered by a combination of factors such as frustration, fatigue, hunger, and/or being unable to communicate effectively. When a toddler has a tantrum, their nervous system is essentially overwhelmed and dysregulated, which leads to heightened emotional responses such as crying, screaming, or physical outbursts.

Toddlers don’t yet have the tools to calm the nervous systems. But we, as parents, can embrace mindful coping strategies in these moments to ground ourselves in order to better weather the storm and ultimately help to deescalate the situation. 

When we begin teaching mindfulness tools to kids (outside of moments of meltdowns), they too, can begin using these strategies to regulate their own nervous systems to avoid and/or cope with meltdowns. 


A few tips about navigating tantrums & meltdowns:

1. Don’t try to reason with a child during a tantrum!

It’s nearly impossible to reason with a child during a tantrum. Because their nervous system is dysregulated, their frontal lobes are shut down. Reasoning and communicating effectively are impossible and there is little capacity to absorb new information.


2. DO implement strategies to regulate your own nervous system so you can stay present and use your own energy to help calm your child’s nervous system. 

Tantrums can be unnerving for any parent, but the more we step back from trying to end the tantrum and instead focus on getting our own mind and body into a calm state, the better prepared we are to stay present and deescalate the situation. Humans are like tuning forks - The more we stay regulated, the quicker our kids will be able to calm. If we get upset and dysregulated ourselves, the tension only escalates.


3. Focus on providing a calm environment, offering comfort and reassurance, and helping your child to identify their feelings.

Once you feel calm in your own body, focus on providing reassurance and helping to name and validate your child’s experience: “I see you’re very upset. You feel angry that your brother took your toy. You’re very angry. I’m going to stay here with you and help you feel calm.”

*A client recently asked me how to handle situations where her child pushes her away, not wanting hugs or comfort. Sometimes during a tantrum it’s trial and error, to see what escalates the situation versus what deescalates the situation. 

In some instances, genuine compassionate hugs will help children become calm but in others, they may evoke further rage. Respect the child’s wishes but communicate what you’re doing. If a hug is rejected, you can say, “Okay, I see you need some space to get calm. I’m going to sit over here and just take some deep breaths. I’m here when you’re feeling calmer and ready for a hug.” 


It can feel difficult to stay calm and sooth a child who’s being unreasonable, especially when the reaction seems extreme or the reason for the tantrum feels trivial. Try to forget about the details regarding what prompted the tantrum and instead focus on compassion regarding your child’s dysregulated nervous system in that moment.  

Again, it may take some trial and error - and what works in today’s tantrum might not work tomorrow. But the key is staying calm yourself as you ride the wave of the tantrum. 


4. Teach mindful coping skills outside of moments of tension and tantrums and encourage kids to practice them often.

While it’s difficult to introduce calming strategies in the heat of the moment, we can introduce and encourage kids to practice calming strategies outside of moments of meltdown. The more kids practice these strategies, the greater the chance they can employ them without much thinking, allowing them to become  effective in alleviating stress in the moment. It will be easier to remind a child to use a coping strategy during a meltdown if they’ve already learned and practiced them before. 



Teaching mindfulness skills to kids

It’s really easy to teach mindfulness skills to kids! Because kids are so imaginative, not yet overwhelmed by the stressors and mental overload that we face as adults, they have a much easier time connecting to mindfulness skills. Added bonus: When you teach mindfulness skills to your kids, you get to practice them, too. It’s a win-win: Spending quality time with your kids, teaching them invaluable life skills, while also engaging in your own self-care.


To teach mindfulness skills to your child, simply start by saying, “I learned something new that can help me get calm and feel good. Can I teach it to you?” Or, following a meltdown, when the storm has passed, say, “I know something that can help you feel calmer next time you have big feelings. Can I teach it to you so we can remember it together next time one of us feels upset?” Kids love to learn and try new things. 


These tools are simple and can be practiced anytime, anywhere, but consider working them into your daily routine–perhaps the bedtime routine, for example, to establish consistency and help induce relaxation to aid in falling asleep. 

Mindfulness Skills

Below I offer several simple yet effective mindfulness skills you can use yourself and practice with your children:


Grounding through your feet:

Press your feet firmly into the floor and feel the ground beneath you. This simple exercise helps to bring you into the present and helps you to literally feel more grounded and stable. If you are doing this with a toddler, ask them to stomp their feet a few times and feel the floor under them. Encourage them to feel how strong they are. Kids may laugh and giggle, having fun with stomping. You are teaching them to safely use their body and movement to decrease tension and feel more steady.


Five senses:

Becoming aware of what you are experiencing through your five senses can immediately bring you back into the present moment and help evoke a sense of calm. Look around the room and describe five things you can see. Use your finger to feel four different objects and describe the feeling or texture. Name three different sounds you can hear. Try to identify two different smells. Notice whether you have any taste in your mouth. Explain to your child what you notice through each of your senses and encourage them to also notice what they see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.  Bringing awareness to our senses and surroundings activates the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Have your child lay down and guide her to focus on each muscle group in her body, from head to toe or vice versa. You can help by gently squeezing each section of the body as you go. Encourage her to tense up her face muscles, making a scrunching face. Hold for five counts then release. Next gently squeeze her shoulders and hold for five counts, then release. Repeat with her arms, torso, thighs, calves, and feet, encouraging her to squeeze, squeeze, squeeze then release each muscle group as you go. This is a great exercise for you to do as well. It helps us recognize where we are storing tension in our bodies and practice letting it go.


Deep Breathing

Deep breathing exercises are great for kids.  Have you ever watched your baby sleep and noticed the rise and fall of his belly? That’s how we are meant to breathe. Taking deep, cleansing breaths all the way down into the diaphragm. But when we grow up and start experiencing the chaos and stressors of life, we tend to begin breathing more shallowly. You can teach children how to use breath to calm their nervous system. 


Here are some fun breaths kids love: 

  • Flower: Imagine you are holding a beautiful, fragrant flower. Slowly sniff in the wonderful scent. Then release. 
  • Snake: Take a deep breath in and slowly let it out with a “sssssss” sound.
  • Ladder & Slide: Take a few short breaths in, imagining you are going up, up, up a ladder as you breathe in, in, in. Then slowly release, imagining going down a slide. 
  • Balloon: Breath in as if you are filling a big balloon in your lungs and belly. Hold for a few seconds. Then slowly release, imagining the balloon deflating and flying away. 

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery, or guided meditation, is another great tool to teach children. Because they have such great imaginations, they have a much easier time than many adults blocking everything else out and allowing their minds to follow along. You can find so many resources for guided meditation online or here on my website.

Try using the below script from Good Night Yoga: A Post-by-Pose Bedtime Story by Mariam Gates with your child next time she has difficulty falling asleep. Read slowly and pause between sentences to let them imagine and visualize each prompt.  

 Lie on your back with your hands by your sides.  Take a deep breath in…and let a long breath out.   

Imagine you are lying on a white, puffy cloud.  Feel yourself sink into its softness as the cloud lifts you up, up, up into the air.   

You are floating.  Rocking back…and forth.  Your cloud is taking you somewhere you love to be.  This wonderful place has colors to see and sounds to hear.  Feel how good it is to be there.   

Breath in.  Breath out.  

When you are ready, your cloud slowly brings you down, down, down.  It settles you back on the earth.  As your cloud pulls away, it takes with it anything that is troubling you—whoosh!  You are left feeling calm, peace, and happiness inside.  

Take another deep breath in…and let a long breath out.  Sweet dreams.    


While these skills may seem simplistic, they can be profoundly effective for both children and adults. Remember that the more you practice and encourage your children to practice these tools outside of moments of stress, the more readily available they will become to use as tools to help you—and your child—cope during times of stress.


For more tools & visuals, check out my Stress Stopper freebie at: