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Self-calming techniques for children?

QUESTION: My 4 year old gets agitated easily. We talk about her feelings, and have a good relationship. She shares her feelings easily with me. But I wonder if she would benefit from some of the techniques I use for relaxing, such as visualization or meditation. Is she too young?

ANSWER: The value of meditation and visualization techniques for self-soothing cannot be underestimated. And the use of these tools for relaxation and calming anxieties is well documented.

Life is full of excitement, both positive and negative. The ability to wait for something good in the future often depends on our capacity to delay gratification in the present. Teaching your child methods that allow her to regulate her body arousal will help her stay calm in an argument, develop patience, and generally increase awareness of her body's signals for sleep, rest, food and other physical needs. But the potential benefit of these techniques does not stop there! In fact, self-soothing is the very psychological foundation for growth and development throughout life.

Self-control is essential for success in many areas of life. When we are frustrated, angry or upset it becomes difficult to express ourselves rationally. Very often, marriages fall apart, not because spouses do not love one another, but because they cannot remain emotionally connected through an argument.

The ability to calm ourselves in the face of distress increases our ability to successfully negotiate life's inevitable conflicts and weather disappointment. This increases the likelihood of moving forward during times of stress, rather than becoming overwhelmed with dissatisfaction or despair. Your daughter is not too young to begin to learn how to calm herself in times of stress and adversity!

Simple techniques your daughter might benefit from include:

1) Slow deep breaths. Teach your child to count 10 slow breaths. Use it to help her relax and calm herself, or before falling asleep.

2) Teach your child to tell herself good things when she feels bad about herself. Affirmations repeated 3 times, such as "I like myself" or "I am a good person" , "Things will get better" can offer her some solace when school friends tease or reject her temporarily. 3) Spend 5 minutes, sharing meditation space together. Close your eyes and listen to sounds silently. Let thoughts pass through your mind without needing to do anything about them. Later, if you wish, you can share your experiences with one another.

Keep in mind that our society is reeling in the midst of momentous sensory overload! Rapid advancements in technology have created an unprecedented over-stimulation of our nervous systems. Everything from car alarms, to electronic toys, to people talking on their cell phones in the grocery store have increased the amount of input to be processed through our senses on a daily basis. But our body's capacity to process this stimulation has not changed, leaving us vulnerable to increased anxiety and panic disorders, which are on the rise in this country.

Adults who have little ability to soothe themselves are left with limited capacity for dealing with the predictable tensions of life and even less buffer from modern sensory overload. Meditation and visualization techniques are prescribed for adults suffering from crippling anxiety. But why wait for a problem to present itself?

Visualization, meditation and other relaxation techniques help your child develop a healthy relationship to her body, which allows her to regulate over-stimulation, whatever the source. Teaching your child a method that increases the capacity for self-soothing is not just a good idea, but also a tool that will last her a lifetime!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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