How to Help Your Kids Relax

October---Toddler

How lovely it would be if all you needed to do to help your children relax was to have them take three deep breaths. If only it were that easy. However, most children have so much built-up tension in their systems that simply encouraging them to breathe deeply, relax their bodies or “go to a happy place” with a visualization causes them to stuff their tension rather than release it. So if you are truly interested in helping your child relax, it is important to first focus on helping your child shed pent-up tension by inviting hearty laughter, encouraging physical activity, and/or facilitating a good, long cry. Then the relaxation skills you introduce can have a more profound and truly relaxing impact. In this way, you can help a relaxed kid relax more deeply, instead of encouraging a distressed kid to stuff his tension.

 

Laughter

If you want to help your kids relax, then find a way to help them laugh—a lot. As kids—including babies, toddlers and older children—move through their day, they come into contact with challenging experiences that frustrate them and lead to a build-up of tension until that tension can be released. Perhaps the tag on the back of his shirt has been irritating him all day. Perhaps she couldn’t communicate what she wanted, or she tried to but her cues were misinterpreted again and again and again. (We all know how frustrating that can be!) Perhaps he had to go along with you to the store to buy groceries when he really wanted to play in the park. Perhaps her closest friend said something mean to her during the day and she doesn’t know how to talk about it. There are endless examples of situations that arise that might cause tension in a baby, toddler, or young child’s life, and built-up tension in the system makes it challenging for kids to relax. Laughter releases tension, making relaxation possible again.

As lovely as this sounds, it  is easier said than done. Helping our children laugh is an art. It can be challenging to figure out what elicits a hearty laugh, especially in kids who  are tightly wound. Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting in Palo Alto, encourages parents to explore being purposefully clumsy or taking the less powerful role in play as a way to invite laughter. “Be goofy,” Wipfler suggests. “You don’t need much of an excuse to play this way. Just start, notice the moments when laughter breaks through, and do more of whatever created that opening.”

For instance, when my son was learning to walk, he loved it when I would walk towards him and purposefully fall at random moments, saying, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” as I dramatically fell to the ground. He laughed so hard and loved it so much that he would ask me to do it again and again (by signing the word “more” in sign language). I think it was helping him to release the frustration that was building up each time he fell down when he tried to walk on his own, which was several times a day. Wipfler writes about this process in an article on perfectionism and anxiety. She explains that laughter not only helps kids offload fear, but it also helps build a sense of resilience. Indeed, whenever my own son had a good, hearty laugh like this, he was more relaxed, confident and cooperative. The laughter helped to connect us, and a more connected kid is also a more relaxed kid. So if you want to help your child relax, one of the best ways is to find out what helps him have a hearty laugh.

 

Physical Activity

Another way to release tension, and thus help kids relax, is to engage in physical exercise. We all know the importance of providing young children with plenty of opportunities to run around and play. But what about babies and toddlers? They can’t just go for a long run to release pent-up tension and feel more at ease.

One solution for helping babies and toddlers (as well as older children) engage in tension-reducing physical activity comes from Larry Cohen & Anthony DeBenedet (2010), who encourage parents to explore rough-and-tumble play in their book The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. Whether it is rolling around on the floor and doing “steamrolling” maneuvers with a newborn, or playing “Almost Gotcha” (chasing after your child and almost catching her again and again, as you reach for her feet in heroic efforts that—to your dramatic dismay—somehow never seem to pan out) with a toddler, the authors suggest many ways to engage in rigorous and wonderful physical play with children of all ages. And not only does roughhousing help kids relieve tension so they can move about their day in a more relaxed way, but Cohen & DeBenedet state that roughhousing also builds emotional intelligence, improves social skills, boosts morality, increases physical fitness, deepens the parent-child relationship and brings joy to a child’s life. What’s not to love about that!

 

A Good, Long Cry

Crying is a natural process. Crying is even more innate than laughter. Babies come into the world fully able to cry, and they cry easily and often for the first few days and weeks of life, but it takes weeks before they can laugh for the first time. The first laugh usually doesn’t occur until about 6-8 weeks of life.

Crying is not only a natural process; it is also a healing one. Tears, it turns out, help to release stress hormones that have built up in the system. And the tensing and releasing of the major muscle groups during a good cry has the same effect on the system as physical exercise. A good, long cry deepens the breath, works the muscles, causes perspiration, and strengthens the cardiovascular system. This is why facilitating a good, long cry is another way to help kids engage in stress-relieving physical exercise and offload pent-up tension so they can feel more relaxed and at ease in the world.

But just how can parents facilitate a good crying session, and why would you want to? As parents, you naturally want your children to be happy and comfortable. It can be challenging to see your children in pain and to watch them cry. For many parents, it might seem counterintuitive to help your children cry if you want them to be more relaxed, happy, confident and at ease, but this is exactly what Wipfler suggests. “Listen,” she says. “Your attention is a powerful antidote to the feeling he is battling.” All children have feelings that have been building up inside, and when they get to the point of overwhelm—when they have reached the tipping point and can no longer keep those feelings at bay—it is those feelings we hear about as they are being washed away through the healing expression of wailing, whimpers, moans and cleansing tears.

Many parents unknowingly and reflexively encourage their children to stuff their feelings. Some parents distract (“Oh! Let’s look at this over here!”), others invalidate (“That’s nothing to be upset about. You’re fine. We had a fun day; let’s make sure to have a good night as well.”), and some use guilt and shame (“Why do you do this to me? I took you to the park and this is how you thank me? If you keep this up, you’re going to drive me crazy!”) But the more parents distract, invalidate and shame children when they have strong feelings, the more those feelings build up inside, causing inward pressure. When children have this inward pressure, it makes it hard for them to relax. Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves writes, “Stopping a child from fully expressing his feelings doesn’t stop the feelings, it stops their expression…his feelings accumulate until he is in a state of distress” (p.99).

If you really want to help your child relax, then practice facilitating the release of the painful feelings that have been building up inside by coming close to your child, listening with warm, calm acceptance, and giving your child permission to have a good, long cry.

Wipfler  calls this kind of presence Staylistening and offers it as a tool that parents can use when children begin to drown in emotional overwhelm. She encourages parents to practice simply staying close and listening with warmth and loving presence.

One 5-year-old child described Staylistening in this way:  “It’s like a mixing bowl that you put anger and love and listening into and you mix them up together and out come happiness.” This quote comes from the daughter of a mom who regularly practices Staylistening and other tools from Hand in Hand. From the mouth of a 5-year old babe, if you want your children to be happy, then listen lovingly to the big feelings they have.

You can come close and help your children have healing cries. For over 20 years, Wipfler has seen again and again that children who have regularly been encouraged to have a good, long cries are more relaxed, show less anxiety and aggression, interact more easily with peers, and are more cooperative with parents. Wipfler likens emotional overwhelm to a storm that builds, peaks and then passes, leaving clear skies and bright, shining sun again. The challenge is to welcome rather than resist the storm.

Built-up emotional tension is like a very full bladder that needs a container for release. Parents serve as a container for their child’s overflowing emotions when they can remain calm, come close and offer warm, compassionate presence throughout their child’s emotional release. “When we stay calm and welcome our children’s feelings, we give them a safe container for their emotions. Doing so helps children tremendously in the management of emotions that feel out of control. Simply sitting and listening to upset children is the best thing we can do for them” (Choen & Debenedet, 2010, pp.17-18).

 

Relaxation Practices

At the end of a day filled with lots of laughter, plenty of physical exercise, and a good, long cry, your child will be ready to make real use of relaxation practices. You will have a relaxed kid who is feeling close and connected. Or, your child might wait to release his pent-up feelings until bedtime, when a long cry might be necessary. In any case, after you have facilitated a long cry or roughhoused for a while and you are ready to deepen your child’s state of relaxation, you can try one of the following relaxation exercises.

  • Legs Up the Wall: Lie down on the floor (or on your child’s bed) and lift your legs up onto the wall, so your back is on the floor, your buttocks are at the juncture of the floor and the wall, and your legs are up the wall. Your older child can lie next to you. Babies and toddlers can lie with their backs on your belly, and you can lift their legs up so they are resting onto your legs. You might want to have a small blanket under your baby or toddler’s head for more comfort. This position calms the nervous system, slows down the heart rate, and lowers blood pressure.
  • Baby Yoga: To learn some simple, easy movements that help soothe your baby/toddler’s nervous system, try Itsy Bitsy Yoga in book form or Yoga with Your Baby in DVD format.
  • Systematic Deep Relaxation: Try leading your child through a systematic deep relaxation practice, which also calms the nervous system, lowers blood pressure and slows down the heart rate. First, invite your older child to take a deep breath in and tense all parts of her body as she holds the breath in…and then encourage her to exhale and relax the muscles deeply. Do this two times to help release chronic tension from the major muscle groups. Then begin to invite your child to close her eyes as you name each part of the body, inviting each part to relax, starting with the feet, legs, hips, belly and chest. Then move on to the hands, arms, shoulders and neck. Then invite the back, neck, throat, face and head to relax. You can also use a visualization of healing, loving light that pours into each part of the body as you name it.
  • Relaxing Songs & Lullabies: Try singing this song to the tune of “Kum-Ba-Ya” as a modified form of the above systematic deep relaxation practice to help your baby, toddler or child relax and go to sleep:

Close your eyes, my love. Close your eyes. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.

Rest your head, my love. Rest your head. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.


Relax your arms, my love. Relax your arms. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.


Relax your hands, my love. Relax your hands. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.


Relax your legs, my love. Relax your legs. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.


Relax your feet, my love. Relax your feet. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.


You are safe, my love, as you sleep. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.

You are held in love, as you sleep. (repeat 3 times)

Oh, my love. Go to sleep.

 

  • Visualization: There are some great guided visualizations for kids. Some come in the form of books and others are audio CD’s. Lori Lite has a collection of both books (such as Sea Otter Cove) and CD’s (such as Indigo Ocean dreams) to help kids relax.

 

These relaxation practices are more traditional ways of helping kids relax, but these methods just scratch the surface. Unless your children have had lots of tension release first, then these relaxation skills will only help them stuff their tension rather than actually helping them to relax deeply. It’s like putting a bandage on a splinter; you’ve covered it up, but it is still there. First get the splinter out—by helping your children release tension through laughter, roughhousing, or a good cry—and then apply the bandage by offering the relaxation exercises. Try it out, and let me know how it goes!

 

Jackie Long is a Marriage & Family Therapist and a Registered Yoga Teacher who offers Yoga & Mindfulness Groups for Moms. Please visit www.YogaWithLove.com for more info or email Jackie@yogawithlove.com.

Image provided by Melissa Miller & Vinnie Fernandez, PAMP’s Lead Photographers and co-owners of C’est Jolie Photography

 

 

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