Cooling the Fire

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.                          

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Ahhh, family life! Being in a family means that all members will witness one another in the best and worst of times. Typically the worst means they are intensely upset about something. That upset is usually a great amalgam of emotions – stress, frustration, anger, hurt, worry, fear. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint what the problem is and which emotion is ruling the day. It’s a great challenge for adults to identify their own emotions so for children, who are still getting a sense of their emotions; how they feel, how to identify them and what they mean, it can be overwhelming. Even teenagers, who have had a bit more life experience than young children, seem to regress at times to their toddler days and they have their own form of meltdowns as they are overcome with hormones raging combined with a sense of the injustice of rules and the pressures of social life.

Multiple coping strategies to deal with the firestorm of emotions and stressors in life are not just helpful, but survival. Consider that most adult-onset illnesses and ailments are stress-induced. Without proper expression of emotions and coping strategies, many bury their emotions and those stresses, with no other outlet, turn into problems within the body. My husband is experiencing back problems as we speak as a direct result of work stress and cannot sit at his computer (his daily stance) without major pain. Medication, exercise and other therapies can assist but he knows that it won’t completely go away until he either changes his mental game or he changes his work circumstances.

Trying to problem solve when emotions are high is frustrating and ultimately, a waste of time. Your brain physically cannot take that leap because it’s kicked into the “fight or flight” response and the rest of your mental abilities are on automatic shut down until you can calm down. That’s why yelling at children when they’ve done something really wrong doesn’t work (but we’ve all been there!).  Their brain has shut down and they either want to run and hide or punch you. In fact, it takes everything in a child’s power not to do one of those two things.  You can test this if you like… if you have had a circumstance where you’ve been upset and yelled at your child, ask later in a calm moment when the upset has passed if the child remembers what you said when you yelled or even why you yelled in the first place. My experience has been, 9 out of 10 times, the child can’t remember so, I have asked myself, what am I teaching him? I know the one thing that he’s going to take away from the experience is that yelling is okay when you are mad or stressed because that’s what I’ve modeled. Ugh!

Here are some very practical ways to teach coping strategies for every age child so that they can have the opportunities to practice and become proficient at dealing with stress.


  1. Create a calm environment (have your calming tools at the ready so that it’s easy to grab and use when the situation arises)
  • Listen to soft music (headphones can be helpful in focusing attention on the music and blocking out the world for a time)
  • Listen to sounds of nature (from a sleeping sound machine or toy that makes bubbles or other soft sounds)
  • Snuggle in your favorite blanket and/or stuffed animal
  • Sit with your comfortable pillow, chair or other place to sit
  • For older children who can go out on their own, being outside in nature is a great place to cool down. For young children, pulling them in a wagon on a walk can be calming or taking a quiet drive.

We set up a favorite four year old size chair in our finished basement with a basket next to it of books about feelings, a book with Grandma’s voice reading a story, crayons and paper, a stuffed animal friend, and a toy that requires blowing a ball to keep it in the air (a.k.a. deep breathing). See Positive Time-Out And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and Classroom[i]  for a detailed description of how to create a calming down space.

2. Find a physical release

  • Pounding on a pillow
  • Kicking on a bed
  • Throwing a basketball
  • Riding a bike
  • Taking a walk
  • Hitting a tennis ball against an appropriate outdoor surface
  • Drawing or painting using readily accessible materials

It’s helpful to have strategies that can be done immediately inside the house so that they are not weather dependent. Also, they must be safe and of course, acceptable to you. Practice these too! And if it seems silly to practice, then laugh and make it a silly experience to practice. It will pay off when you remind the child to do it when they are really upset and need to express themselves in an acceptable way.

3. Engage in a distraction (use with caution)

  • An enticing picture book
  • A game
  • A television show episode or movie

Distractions can be helpful in calming a child but should only be used temporarily to cool down and to move on to problem solving. If a distraction becomes the only tool utilized, it can become more of a way to escape problems than a temporary way to calm down. Be sure that, if you use a distraction tool, you then have a conversation afterward about how the child was feeling and what the problem was so that it’s not ignored.

4. Practice deep breathing

Try finding a relatable character that makes the sound of deep breathing so that children can mimic that sound. PRACTICE at times when children are not upset. This is critical! For example, chuff like Thomas the Tank Engine[ii] (and practice the chuffing sound as deep breathing), breathe like Darth Vader[iii] (school age children may be more excited by mimicking Darth Vader) , or blow bubbles like Ariel, The Little Mermaid.[iv]  Pre-teen and teens may better relate to the breathing training that star athletes in track and field and swimming undergo to become powerfully in control of their bodies and brains. Slow, deep breathing will actually restore the brain to it’s former full power. It takes the brain out of survival “fight or flight” response and gives the person the ability to reflect on his/her feelings and the problem.

Only after coping strategies are used, can discussion about the problem begin.


For Parents:

Positive Time-Out And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and Classroom (Nelsen, 1999) gives simple and straight-forward ideas for creating a safe, supportive cool down space when emotions run high. There are lots of helpful tips for parents on ways to proactively prevent power struggles and teach a sense of responsibility.

To Read with Kids:

Bang, M. (2004). When Sophie gets angry – really, really angry… NY: Scholastic.

For 3 years and up, this is a terrific book for learning about how to deal with angry feelings. Sophie uses all of the strategies in the Cooling the fire article in a way that flows seemlessly. This is terrific!

Spelman, C.M. (2000). When I feel angry. Chicago, IL: Albert Whitman and Company.

This is a helpful picture book appropriate for 3 and up that features a young bunny who finds ways to deal with his anger.

Dewdney, A. (2007). Llama llama mad at mama. NY: Viking.

This is from the author of the best-selling, Llama, Llama Red Pajama. This one is also appropriate for 3 and up and offers an opportunity to discuss getting angry and having a meltdown in a public place.

[i] Nelson, J. (1999). Positive time-out; And over fifty ways to avoid power struggles in the home and classroom. NY: Three Rivers Press.

[ii] Awdry, R.W. (2005). Thomas the tank engine. NY: Random House Books for Young Readers.

[iii] Lucas, G. (1977). Star wars episode IV: A new hope. Box Office Mojo.

[iv] Walt Disney Pictures. (1989). The little mermaid. Adapted from Anderson, H.C., The little mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures.

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