Self-soothing is a critical skill for our children to learn, but many kids who have experienced trauma don’t yet have it under their belt. Or, they have developed unhealthy self-comfort tools that won’t serve them well now or as they grow. Self-soothing skills are a necessary element of kids learning how to self-regulate. As we’ve discussed many times, self-regulation grows out of repeated modeling and co-regulation with us. So, if your adopted or foster child struggles with self-soothing skills, how can you go back and work with them to build those skills in healthy ways?

Tip #1: Direct Soothing

This first step is as simple as it sounds. Just as you would with a newborn, provide direct soothing to your child’s distress. For example, when an infant cries, a parent picks the baby up and holds the baby close. Your responsiveness will be one-to-one and targeted at communicating safety and comfort as soon as you know of your child’s pain, anxiety, or other crisis.

Of course, when you are parenting an older child via adoption, foster care, or kinship care, your actions might need to look a little different than you would offer a newborn. However, no matter our child’s age, it’s no less critical to offer your physical response in a way that communicates safety and comfort immediately. Depending upon the child, you might ask permission first before touching. You are modeling respect, consent, and body autonomy when you do so.

Here are a few examples of direct soothing with your adopted or foster kids:

Hugs

If your child will allow it, a warm hug is grounding and soothing. For a child who prefers not to be touched, practice the “butterfly hug.” Face each other and mirror each other’s actions by hugging yourselves and tapping your shoulders alternately in a regular rhythm. The tapping provides bilateral stimulation that is also grounding.

Weighted blankets or toys

Each child responds differently to the weighted blankets, so take care to calculate the appropriate weight for your child. You can learn more about choosing the right blanket for your child here. You might also consider input from an occupational therapist educated on the pros and cons of weighted blankets, lap pads, or toys.

Showers

A hot or cold shower can be soothing and refreshing for a dysregulated child. You and your child will have to experiment to figure out which is best for them and offer it as another method of direct soothing. Stick close to your young child when showering — narrating the experience by naming the calming sensations of the water, steam, and shampooing. You will both build his emotional language and communicate your presence. With an older child, make observations before and after their shower about the feelings that the experience brings, such as “I think it’s so relaxing to let the hot water stream over my stressed shoulders.”

Pets

We all know that our pets provide many therapeutic benefits! Petting and snuggling give the sense of safety and physical stimulation needed to calm down. Some kids will find other critters more soothing than the more common cat or dog.

If you don’t have a pet already, prepare together by researching and visiting a shelter to assess your child’s ability to give and receive the care a pet can bring. Being present to give and receive unconditional love is healing. Pets listen without judgment, criticism, or even feedback – except for sloppy kisses and more cuddles.

Hair play or back rubs

Our children often enjoy the rhythmic actions of stroking their heads or twirling their curls. Some kids love back rubs or back scratches. Whatever your child responds well to can be a beneficial tool for directly soothing them and regulating with them. However, be flexible with this one! If your child doesn’t enjoy being touched, you might need to work up to this tool gradually before they can accept the comfort it brings. You may even find that your child never connects with this direct comfort.

Parenting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

Tip #2: Deep Breathing

Another way to teach your child self-soothing skills is through deep breathing. Of course, don’t introduce this tool when the child is melting down in the middle of Aisle 5. Instead, practice these and other breathing techniques during calm moments together. Try one tonight when you are lying in bed after storytime or after you’ve come in from a rousing game of tag.

A few examples of co-regulating with your child through deep breathing are:

Pizza Breathing

Pretend you are both holding hot pieces of pizza. Bring them in close to your faces. Breathe in deeply to catch the smells of sauce, hot cheese, and yummy dough. Then blow slowly and gently on the slices to cool them. Don’t blow off the cheese! Repeat a few times till you both feel calm and relaxed. Next time you have pizza together, practice your breathing (and cooling!) before taking the first bite.

Pinwheel or Bubble Breathing

Grab a colorful pinwheel or a bottle of bubbles for this one! If you don’t either handy, it’s okay to pretend. But you’ll score big points if you grab them the next time you are at the dollar store. Pinwheel or bubble breathing requires a long, slow exhale to get the best reaction of flashing color or floating bubbles.

A deep, slow inhale is good, but the exhale should be longer than the inhale and controlled. Talk about it feels when your bellies expand and contract to help your child gain awareness of his body and thus the benefits of deep breathing.

Making the Switch from Belly Breathing

Remember that deep breathing is not natural to many of our kids, and they will need coaching on how to do it in beneficial ways. If your child struggles to be present enough to engage in belly breathing, teach the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Method. This tool helps them get them back to the present moment to begin the process of regulation. Practice these five steps with your child to teach the mindfulness of both their body and the environment.

The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Method:

  1. 5 things you see
  2. 4 things you can hear
  3. 3 things you can touch
  4. 2 things you can smell
  5. 1 thing you can taste

Tip #3: Movement

A dysregulated child will usually respond well to increased physical activity to calm down. We need to figure out what movement benefits our kids the most to help them burn off the excess energy that their big emotions have created. For some kids, that will be the trampoline or a bike ride. Many older kids take up running.

Consider throwing or rolling a ball with your child while talking about the day. The action of the back and forth is rhythmically soothing. However, the added benefit is that it teaches reciprocity by pairing it with asking questions and answering them. Some families enjoy daily or weekly yoga, which can double as healthy movement and time spent together.

Tip #4: Calming, Quiet Activities

We all enjoy a space to let down, relax, and feel safe. When we create a safe, peaceful place specifically for our kids somewhere in our home, we tell them that their peace and safety matter to us. They should have a voice in the creation of that space. Fill it with things they enjoy – music, coloring books, knitting, soft throws, stuffed animals, and their weighted blanket. Encourage the use of this space when they are calm and relaxed, so they learn to love their time there. Then, when they are dysregulated and stressed, that space will feel even more inviting and welcoming.

Many families use scented candles or essential oils and diffusers to calm the senses. Others bake, make soup, or cook together and fill the home with comforting smells. Consider how to make the larger environment of your family’s living spaces peaceful and calming too.

Regulating with Them Builds Trust

These are hard skills to teach our kids. However, digging in to practice these skills with them, both when stressed and regulated, builds trust and safety between our child and us. When they learn to regulate with us, they experience how good it feels. Those good feelings can give them the confidence to experiment with creating self-regulation skills.

Which of these 4 tips has been most beneficial to your child? Which could use some building up for more benefit? Tell us in the comments!

Image Credits: Dan Gaken; Eugene Kim; Michelle Bradley