How to help a kid chill out quick
February 8, 2012 8:44 PM   Subscribe

Quick calming techniques for a jittery, anxious kid?

I'm managing my eight-year-old son's Destination Imagination team this year (they work over the course of several weeks to create a project in response to a particular challenge, then take it to a tournament and compete with teams from other schools). It's great because he's precocious and needs challenges. However, he's been having serious difficulties staying calm and focused enough to participate in the meetings. He's not a hyperactive kid - no problems focusing in school, reads or does science projects for long periods of time. But in our last meeting his behavior was a real problem - he couldn't stay still, couldn't give serious answers to questions, couldn't really participate in brainstorming. Well, he did, after a while, but it took ages for him to get past his jumpiness and get into the challenge. If he were someone else's kid, I'd have called his parents and said we need to work on this.

When I've talked to him about it he says he doesn't know why and that he'll try harder. I think it's anxiety - he does enjoy DI and wants to do it, but the other kids are older than he is, and he's a perfectionist and wants to perform, and I think these meetings make him anxious. I have started taking steps to address this in the big picture - researching how we can be helping him with things that are making him anxious (including not making things worse by getting frustrated about the symptoms), thinking about his diet, physical exercise (both of which are pretty good already), talking to our very trusted pediatrician about whether we should consider a counselor.

But what I'm thinking about now is the short term - we have to keep having these meetings twice a week and when we get closer to the tournament, it'll be three times a week. I pick the kids up from school and bring them back to our house, we have a snack, and we get started. I need to find something I can do to help him get centered and calm before we start - something that won't keep the other kids waiting too long. I guess I'm thinking about something like a ten-minute meditation or something like that - but don't know where to start in helping a kid do something like that.

I also just really want him to know that whatever this is, I'm on his side. I need to work on my own response too - twice I've gotten really frustrated with him after meetings, and I know that's not helpful. For the most part I think I've tried to address it supportively - but either not as supportively as I think, or that's just not enough to help with his anxiety. But I want to make it clear that HE is not a problem - rather if he HAS a problem, we'll work on it together. But just saying that isn't enough (particularly after getting mad about it twice); I'm hoping that helping him get the tools to calm himself down will have more impact.

Have any of you had success with quick calming techniques/exercises for your kids- say, before sporting events or other competitive events - physical, mental, or both? I would love to know of anything that helped your kid calm down enough to see through the jitters and focus on the enjoyment in what they're about to do.

(Sorry about the lengthy explanation - many Google searches on this topic produced mostly solutions like "eat a healthy diet," so I felt I needed to make it very clear that I'm looking for quick, short-term techniques. [Not that I'm not interested in your fabulous ideas for the long term as well - only that those aren't as hard to come by.])

Thank you!
posted by Betsy Vane to Human Relations (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Could you have him help prepare the snack? Just thinking of some short physical task he can immediately succeed at.

Could you do a short team chant or ball-passing-around-circle game at the beginning of each session? Something physical with a verbal component, where it's easy to succeed but you have to concentrate just a little bit?
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:49 PM on February 8, 2012

With team chant, I'm thinking of some rhythmic clapping or other exercises we used to do with kids at summer camp. A special clapping rhythm or rhythmic chant that is your group's special thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:49 PM on February 8, 2012

You are throwing off his flow by taking all the kids from school to your home. He is probably used to getting home and doing a few things to unwind. I know when I get home and can't immediately do my usual unwinding things, I feel stressed.

Can you have the meetings somewhere else? If not, I would recommend checking him out a few minutes early (if the school will let you) and spending a few minutes just the two of you, asking about his day and what he wants for supper.
posted by myselfasme at 9:08 PM on February 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sounds like he's really nervous about contributing and doing the right thing - these guys are all older than him and he wants to impress, but they're also all up in his space! Could he do something to help set up the meetings, maybe help with the snack? LobsterMitten's first comment is pretty much what I was thinking halfway through reading your question.

Could he set up the chairs, put out napkins, fill a pitcher with water, clean up whatever clutter's around, do the sort of things that you might currently be doing without thinking about it? Then he's in control of the space, like he almost gets to play host, you know? He can be proud of helping you out and proud to provide something for the rest of the team before the meetings even start.
posted by Mizu at 9:10 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

"I think these meetings make him anxious." Then stop them? If you've gone off on an eight year old twice about something that's ostensibly about him, he's not the one that needs calming, you are. Just sayin'.
posted by facetious at 9:53 PM on February 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Two things.

1) "Big deep breaths." Make it a mantra. As soon as you see him winding up, "Stop. Big deep breaths."

2) Right before an event or a situation that is similar, you need to do some pre-game warm-up. Do the Xs and Os and actually gameplan it. "Here's what we're doing. Here's what you might expect to see. Here's what you should do when you see XYZ. I'll be right here if you have any trouble." Make it fun, like a sports team. Hands in the middle! Ready, break! Do this right before the event so it's fresh in his head and he remembers it and he knows you're there for support.

Some special educators call this the "hidden curriculum," the things that everyone takes for granted that everyone knows, but some people just don't because no one's explicitly laid it out for them in plain language. You need to gameplan that.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:56 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

How long have these meeting been going on and how well does he know the other kids? He might find the situation less intimidating if he knows the other kids on a more personal level... so some low stress icebreakers/ warm ups/ team building activities might be helpful. This way when he's panicking you can also remind him of that awesome time he had with so and so doing such and such.
posted by oceano at 10:10 PM on February 8, 2012

I love DI for kids - it's a great program. Since he is OK in other settings, maybe think about ways he can be more comfortable and confident with team.

Maybe pick some warm-up or team-building activities where that have a physical component where he isn't on the spot. Something like the activity where everyone grabs hands and then they try to untangle themselves without letting go. Or making a human pyramid/bridge or something else where they are working together, simultaneously and everyone has to contribute.

A second option is that have a closing circle at the end of the meeting to look at accomplishment (we completed this, made progress on that, determined something didn't work) and also have the group acknowledge each other - identify good contributions from each member during session. Tell them ahead of time to encourage them to notice when someone does something helpful to the team. In addition (or instead) help your son process what he contributed and to notice any signs of approval or recognition from others.

If he is a perfectionist, look for warm-up activities that encourage quantity over quality. Lots of the verbal brainstorming is scored to reward sheer quantity - it is better to be fast than clever so work on that with the team. (You know, name something blue. But instead of going around with each person saying one thing, have each person say 5 (maybe ignore repeats for this since it is just an exercise and don't score for creativity) Or have a "how many ways can you do this wrong?" challenge eg: build something that falls down.

Also, DI can be a very ambiguous setting - he may be anxious about not knowing what is expected of him and then anxiety leads him to making the situation worse. Preparing him ahead of time (ala Cool Papa Bell) and then debrief afterwards. You have the advantage that as the facilitator, you know what the schedule will be and you will be there to give him a different perspective on what happened. Focus on what he does well and encourage him to do more of what is working.

Good Luck to you, your son and your team!!
posted by metahawk at 10:30 PM on February 8, 2012

he's a perfectionist and wants to perform -- -- twice I've gotten really frustrated with him after meetings, and I know that's not helpful

As someone who is currently in therapy for perfectionism-induced anxiety I feel I have to emphasize: no-one is born perfectionist, it's a learned behavior. While not a quick calming solution, helping him build self-worth independent of his achievements is absolutely the best thing you can do in the long term. Be mindful of the cues he is getting from you and make sure he feels he can completely botch this or any other project without the sky falling down on him.
posted by Orchestra at 12:46 AM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can you start with a structured, group warmup activity? Anything - I'm Going On a Picnic, or Blob Tag, or Giants, Wizards, and Elves? It takes 10 minutes, burns off some energy and makes them work together before the real work starts.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:51 AM on February 9, 2012

Something I do with my son is what we call "four breathing" - we breathe in for four counts, hold it for four counts, take four counts to exhale, and pause for four counts; just a couple of cycles of this can help both of us quite a bit; sometimes it's a great way to get him to stop and focus so we can read together, etc. I do it to get to sleep sometimes, too.
posted by lemniskate at 4:47 AM on February 9, 2012



he's a perfectionist and wants to perform, and I think these meetings make him anxious.

Red flag. I grew up the same way, with the same anxieties. As I got older, I found myself not participating because I was afraid I would fail, so I never even tried. Nip this in the butt REAL fast...not sure how, as I had to overcome it myself, but maybe some reinforcement about doing your best is the best thing to do....try, try, again... something along those lines (Nope, I don't have kids yet..)

But in our last meeting his behavior was a real problem - he couldn't stay still, couldn't give serious answers to questions, couldn't really participate in brainstorming

Sounds like ADD to me. ADD can come in many different guises (By the way, I ain't a psycho-anything, just a former patient and "diagnosee")

Considering a counselor is a GREAT idea..just make sure you do a LOT of pre-screening, evaluating, maybe even talking with other parents whose children see a counselor. It's important that you have a counselor you can trust will work with your child constructively, so as not to create any problems later on down the road....

Both my parents are special education teachers (It was HARD growing up with ADD AND two spec ed parents *haha*) Over the years, your coping mechanisms will have to be tweaked and changed to meet your child's needs. My folks came up with everything from "screaming therapy" (where you just go somewhere and scream) to time-outs (where I'd isolate myself for a few minutes from all stimulus just to calm my brain.) These exercises my parents came up with for me carried over into my adulthood-I just modified them a bit (now I scream at others...again, kidding!)

Good luck!!!
posted by BeastMan78 at 8:47 AM on February 9, 2012

P.S....I know you're thinking about the short-term now..just PLEASE consider the long-run (as my post reflected just that.)
posted by BeastMan78 at 8:48 AM on February 9, 2012

If you google "improv warmup," you'll find some group options. But I'm not sure that those won't add to the performance anxiety.

Do you all have a pet? I think "Jim has to go take the dog out in the yard" would be a way to get him outside and with animals (both grounding) and alone (a break from the social anxiety aspects). Ideally, though, this'd be part of his daily routine. A special "you need to chill out" routine might exacerbate things. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 9:22 AM on February 9, 2012

Ok, this may sound weird but have you considered giving him something to do with his hands during the meeting? Sometimes for jittery kids I've seen teachers use Theraputty a really strong silly putty that kids sit and manipulate with their hands so that they can sit still and listen. Sometimes you can find similar stuff at the sport store for hand strengthening. Or you could give him a lapdesk and make him the note-taker, something that will help him feel a part of the group but give him something constructive to do.
posted by biscuits at 9:31 AM on February 9, 2012

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