November 14, 2022

Calm Down! Why these two simple words often don’t work

“Why don’t you just calm down?” 

Have you ever had those words yelled at you, or perhaps you’ve even shouted them yourself? If you have, then you’ll probably know that these words generally have the opposite effect and will usually send the recipient into a more agitated or elevated state. 

Why does it have that effect? 

Children (and adults) require at least two things in order to “calm down”:

  1. a sense of safety in their environment
  2. a safe connection with a regulated human (or animal, which is why therapy dogs work so well). 

To feel calm is a whole-body experience, not just something that we can switch on or off as required. When your child is in an elevated state (in fight or flight – also known as the Red Pathway), there is a whole series of things happening within their body. Their heart is beating more rapidly, their breathing is shallow and faster, and their body is being pumped with energising hormones such as adrenaline, which tells the body to send more energy to the muscles in preparation for fight or flight. The child’s nervous system has entered into a survival response. At this stage, your child has lost the ability to truly listen and respond logically or rationally to your verbal commands. In this survival state also, your child is going to perceive even your most well-intentioned version of “calm down” as a threat. In fact, it doesn’t really matter what words you use at this moment; your child’s nervous system is wired to respond to any perceived threat, even the sound of a frazzled parent’s voice.

So, what can you do to help them calm down?

Understanding the unique stress response behaviours in your child can help you to develop resources to build a safe connection and a safe environment for your child’s nervous system to shift into a calmer state (their Green Pathway). The most effective tool you have at your disposal is something called co-regulation. Now, I’m not at all saying this is easy, however, it is absolutely the most effective and compassionate way to support your child. A child’s nervous system responds to voices with soft, slow, gentle tones. It also responds to slow breaths, a gentle touch, a kind face, and reassuring, soothing words. Often the most powerful thing you can do is to reassure them that you are there, taking some deep, calming breaths to regulate yourself in that moment. Co-regulation happens when your nervous system communicates directly with your child’s nervous system. If your nervous system is travelling along your Red Pathway, then it isn’t going to be possible for your child to shift onto their Green Pathway. They need your Green Pathway to travel on. Your child is not yet capable of self-regulation. That happens much later. They need to regulate through you in order to begin learning how to regulate for themselves. 

Your Green is their Green….

With Gratitude