You Need a Calm Down Corner
For Your Kid. But Maybe for You, too.
A Calm Down Corner is a Retreat from the Big, Open World
Adults can get easily overwhelmed by adult problems.
Any number of things could happen throughout the day that can make us feel tense and upset, such as criticism from a boss, a disagreement with our partner, or even a headache. Because we are grown-ups, it is easy to think only grown-up problems are worth losing our cool over.
When we see our children discontented and frustrated, we may minimize their feelings and ask, “What do you have to be upset about? You have zero “real” responsibility, someone cooks and cleans for you, and you get to play all day — life is good, my friend!”
This misjudgment, however, can make our children feel resentful and unacknowledged, which leads to more tantrums and upset feelings. But more concerning is that minimizing our children’s feelings fails to teach them how to effectively manage them and move on positively.
To our kids, the world is big, unknown, and scary.
Since they have seen and experienced very little in their lives, so much of what the world presents is unfamiliar and intimidating. In addition to not knowing what to expect, kids do not have the mental and emotional maturity to tackle big world problems. And to children, all of their problems are big world problems.
This basic lack of knowledge and perspective makes kids feel insecure. That is why it is our job, as parents, to guide them through this big, scary world, and help them along when things are too much for them to handle.
A calm down corner is the first step towards giving our children more control over their universe. A calm down corner is a physical retreat that kids can sit in, rely on, and shape to their liking, which is in stark contrast to the big, open world that they exercise very little influence over at this stage in their lives.
Adults feel more relaxed and in control by taking breaks, going on vacations, and retreating to safe spaces when life gets too hard, and children are no exception.
The Benefits of a Calm Down Corner
Creating an effective calm down corner begins with understanding what it has the potential to offer you and your child. Self-regulation, independence, and structure are some of the many benefits that a calm down corner can provide.
Self-regulation is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. Parents hate tantrums. Most people hate tantrums. They are loud, irritating, and you feel helpless watching your kid melt into a goopy, tear-stained mess.
But I am here to tell you to #embracethetantrum.
The next time your toddler loses it over getting the green cup instead of the pink cup; over you moving the sticker on her bed an eighth of a centimeter; over the fact that he can’t find his polka-dot sunglasses that are SITTING ON TOP OF HIS HEAD; take a moment to smile.
Yes, smile. Because when your kids lose their cool over the tiniest, most insignificant things, they are practicing. And the more practice they get at self-regulation — controlling one’s behaviors, emotions, and thoughts for long-term gain — the more proficient at it they will become.
You want your kids to practice managing disappointment, frustration, and fear over the small things so that by the time they are confronted with the same feelings over the big things — the ones that truly matter — they will be ready.
Back to the calm down corner. What a gymnasium is to basketball practice, a calm down corner is to self-regulation practice. It is a place for your child to go and feel all the feelings.
The calm down corner is a physical, tangible reminder that your child should ride the wave of her emotions and not ignore them.
This reminder is as much for you as it is for them. Your instincts will want you to avoid tantrums as much as possible. Your logical, adult self will forget to #embracethetantrum, especially when you are tired, stressed, and busy.
The calm down corner is a reminder that tantrums are healthy, and if you can accomplish nothing else in your frazzled and overwhelmed state, you can at very least go to the calm down corner with your child and let the moment pass. In those moments, when screaming, shouting, and punishing are all potential and tempting options, successfully retreating to a calm down corner is a huge win.
In addition to promoting self-regulation practice, a calm down corner can help your child feel more independent and responsible. If we continually rescue our children from tough emotions, we rob them of the opportunity to overcome those emotions themselves.
Because calm down corners encourage kids to feel their feelings, they will eventually feel more capable, confident, and ready to tackle big feelings when they surface.
They will learn to take increased responsibility for their actions because working through things like guilt and regret is challenging and uncomfortable.
They will also gain insight into themselves about what things make them upset and what things make them feel better. Instead of having us constantly in their ears about what to do, what not to do, what to feel, and what not to feel, we give our kids space and freedom to figure this out for themselves.
If they need your help and support, happily give it. The great thing about kids is how honest they are. If they need you, they’ll ask. If not, leave them alone. They’ll get there eventually knowing you are nearby and ready to respond when necessary.
By showing our kids that we trust them to sort out their feelings, we are projecting that unpleasant emotions are normal. Normalizing unpleasant feelings is also known as distress tolerance.
Strengthening distress tolerance is hugely important in raising well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent children. Distress tolerance is fortified by repeated exposure to unpleasant emotions in doses that both push and grow your child but are also well within their ability to handle without undue trauma or stress.
Calm down corners promote and teach distress tolerance.
Don’t Call it a “Calm Down Corner”
Consider a different name than a “calm down corner” with your little one. Even though we know that is what this is, your kid does not necessarily need to know. This is important for a couple of reasons.
First, calling it a “calm down corner” telegraphs the expectation that when your kid uses the space she will, in fact, calm down.
That’s a lot of pressure! Think about it. When you are irritated or upset, the last thing you want to hear someone tell you is, “Calm down.” What if your child goes to that space and doesn’t calm down, at least not right away?
Does that mean it didn’t work? Does it mean she did it wrong? You wouldn’t want someone to force or expect you to calm down. Instead, you want someone to sympathize, acknowledge, or just sit quietly without judgment. You want to calm down in your own time and on your terms.
Your kids want the same.
Second, let your child flex some muscle and let her name her own space. The calm down corner fosters independence. By naming it yourself, you are characterizing it for her. To encourage your child’s comfort with and attachment to this space, give her the power and freedom to characterize and name it as she sees fit. Naming something is a powerful act, one that gives the namer a sense of pride and ownership.
That said, you should explain to your child what the calm down corner is, what it can be, and what it is meant for. You can use recent examples of when she felt upset, sad, frustrated, or mad, and tell her she is free to go to this space when she feels these unpleasant emotions. Just keep it open, judgment-free, and expectation-free.
The Essential Elements of a Calm Down Corner
A calm down corner can be pretty much anything you and your child want it to be. As long as you try to incorporate some of these elements, your calm down corner should prove successful.
Make the calm down corner comforting. Choose a space that is bright with natural light and has a window that can let the fresh air in. Incorporate furniture that is soft, plush, and pleasing to the eye and the touch.
Bean bags, children’s Ikea chairs like this one, and fluffy pillows are all great choices. You can also add a table and chairs if you want to encourage your child to draw, write, or craft in her calm down corner. Use colors that are calming like blues, violets, and light, pastel colors.
Choose toys, activities, and objects that are tactile and promote the use of the senses. You can make easy aromatherapy jars by poking holes in small mason jars and filling them with lavender, orange spice tea, mint leaves, cinnamon, rose petals, and other calming scents. Incorporate fidget spinners, slime, Play-Doh, beads, sticker books, and stress-relieving coloring patterns.
Consider encouraging your child to go around with a camera, and photos of things, objects, or scenery that makes her feel calm. Then enlarge them, frame, and hang up in her calm down corner.
Your child may choose to sit quietly and do nothing in her calm down corner, or she may find that keeping her hands busy and mind off of stressful or scary thoughts help her manage her anxiety and big feelings.
Whichever way your child chooses to use her calm down space, try to encourage engagement, whether that is the engagement of thought, reflection, ideas, analysis, or in a quiet activity.
A quintessential engagement and reflection tool is a journal. I love the idea of teaching children how to use journals at an early age. Journaling is one of the best things we can do for our mental health.
Keeping a journal promotes creativity, is not bound by any rules, is open-ended, and best of all, is non-judgmental.
No one ever has to look at what is written or drawn in a journal. Whether your child prefers to draw her feelings or express them with words, journals are a fantastic way to promote engagement, independence, and free expression.
This is Not a Time Out
Perhaps the most important takeaway any parent must remember when creating a calm down corner is that it is not a place for punishment. Some parents might wonder whether sending their child to a comforting, calm space with toys and books is a reward for bad behavior. Rest assured, it is not.
Understanding this begins and ends with relabeling misbehavior. Most of the time, a child’s misbehavior is a symptom of fear, loneliness, anger, pain, or some other unpleasant feeling.
Giving children a space to cool out, calm down, and manage feelings safely is the very thing that needs to be done when they act out. If we consistently view misbehavior as a personal affront, we miss a critical opportunity to connect with and support our children. I don’t blame parents who take their children’s misconduct personally.
I, too, feel hurt, offended, and sad when my children act out and defy me. This is natural and normal. I fight every instinct I have to punish and blame so that I could see beyond the misbehavior and give the support and love my child needs at that moment.
I have realized that half the challenge of parenting is setting aside my ego.
Is this permissive? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but maybe sometimes I get it wrong. Maybe sometimes kids misbehave on purpose because they are consciously trying to annoy, hurt, or irritate their parents or family members. Maybe. Maybe, in that case, some parents think it is best to punish and make their kids regret hurting someone on purpose. Maybe.
But what if we can teach our children that hurting is others is wrong without shame? Shame is not a necessary element of discipline. In the moments when my children are actively defying me, it is beyond difficult to choose empathy over defensiveness and anger.
But no one ever said the bravest path was the easiest. I am an adult that still commits all the mistakes I see my children make. I would be a hypocrite to shame them over these mistakes, purposeful or not. Perhaps my empathy will make them think, “Hey, mom is not so bad. I’ll go easier on her next time.”
Maybe. I cannot control or predict if this will be the outcome the next time, twenty years from now, or ever. I can just try my best, and that is all any of us can do.
So you see, the calm down corner is more than just a cozy corner with cute furniture. It is a reminder to us imperfect beings that we all need space for compassion and empathy in our lives.
Children and adults alike need calm down corners. Whether that is a physical space in your home or a metaphorical one in your heart, find a place where you can be quiet, still, fully present, and accepting of who you are and who your children are. Exactly as you are, right now.