Handling Hard Things: Calming Down in the Moment and Reflecting After Hitting, Biting, or Kicking

Kimberly Lindgren, OTR/L - May 28, 2021

In our Handling Hard Things: Preventing Hitting, Biting, and Kicking blog post, we discussed activities to incorporate into your daily routine to help with emotional regulation (i.e. reduce getting physical when upset). We also talked about ways to better understand your child, so that you may adapt activities and your environment that may be triggering those big reactions.

In this blog we will cover what to do in the moment that this behavior occurs. It’s stressful! So remember these 4 simple steps: Stay calm, Remove your Child, Limit your Words, and Label Feelings

In the Moment

  • Keep Calm and Carry On. It is so easy to react (especially if your child hits you!) but at this moment your child needs to use you as their ‘co-regulator’ to help their body return to a calm state. Use an even and firm voice. Limit how many words and requests you are saying. Move your body slowly.
  • Remove your child from the triggering moment. Help guide your child to a quiet room or space, while limiting your words. “This is not safe. We need to calm our bodies in the bedroom/car/etc.”. Calming spaces may be dimly lit, have little visual distractions (few to no toys, bare walls, organized, etc.), or are a small contained space like a fort or teepee.
  • Label their feelings. This is more effective before the hitting occurs, but nonetheless should be stated. “Your body looks angry”. We like to use language like “your body looks…” as it helps your child know that it’s okay to have these uncomfortable feelings (everyone feels that way at some point!) and it does not define who they are as a person.
  • Less is More. Say as little as possible. Your child is in their survival “Fight” mode, meaning that the neural circuits to the part of their brain responsible for reasoning and processing language is shut off. More neural input and energy is being directed to their survival instincts. Considering the suggestions above, you may say something like, “This is not safe. Your body is angry. I am going to help you move to your room”, and physically guide your child to that space without speaking. Later you might say something like “I will give you space until your body is calm, then we can talk”.

After the moment… Alert!! Out of all these suggestions, these ones are the most important.

  • Positive Reinforcement. When your child is successful with reacting to whatever is triggering their hitting / biting / kicking, highlight to them how well they did. “Wow your body stayed so calm when Johnny took your toy away. I like how you asked for help. It made me feel so happy!”.
  • Reflect. When your child has calmed (maybe the next day!) reflect and sympathize with them. “That was so frustrating when ______ happened. I would be frustrated too! I wonder what we can do next time that happens so that everyone feels better.”
  • Share your own feelings. It’s helpful for our kids to know that we get big feelings too. Share about times you’ve been upset or angry and how you learned to cope.

Other notes, strategies, tools and exercises to practice at home

  • Role play. Kids learn through play. Use stuffed animals, puppets, or act out those challenging scenarios yourself.
  • “What if…?” Game. Ask what if questions before you enter the challenging situation to practice problem solving. “What if… our favorite swings are being used at the park?” “What if… it’s too noisy in the lunchroom?”
  • Use a visual timer. This is mostly helpful for challenging transitions. Kids can see how much time they have by how much color is left on the clock--this is necessary because most kids don’t have an accurate concept of time! Set the timer for how much time they have left with a preferred activity, or how long they have to stay with a non-preferred task.
  • Practice calming techniques (when your child is already calm!). Deep breathing, going to a quiet space, or getting a drink of water are some examples of simple calm down strategies. Do not expect teaching and learning to go smoothly when they are already upset. The learning centers in our brains are shut off when we are overwhelmed. Emphasize practicing these strategies when they are calm and in a safe environment.

Learning how to feel different emotions is a huge part of growing up! We hope these strategies help you and your child learn how to manage those big feelings. Feel free to contact us or join us for our members’ office hours for individualized support with a trained pediatric occupational therapist.