Teaching Our Kids How to Self-Soothe Is a Critical Life Skill We Don’t Teach Well—and We Need To
In January 2020, a docu-series aired on YouTube called “Justin Bieber: Seasons.” Bieber has been a favorite teen idol since his debut album was released in 2009 at just 15-years old. Now, 27, the singer has opened up about his struggles with mental health.
During the documentary, there was mention of “havening”—a technique Bieber uses to calm himself down in stressful, anxious, and upsetting situations. Simply put, havening is a self-soothing technique. Some call it a pseudoscience, some antidotally swear by it—but whatever you believe, there is one thing I know from working with children and teens-- teaching kids how to self-soothe is a critical life skill we don’t teach well.
Traditionally, we think of self-soothing behaviors as the action of an infant or young child ceasing to cry without being comforted by a parent or caregiver, particularly when left to fall asleep on their own (Oxford English Dictionary). I like this definition best, but more on that later. It’s important to note that when we refer to self-soothing behaviors in adolescence and adulthood, it can mean any healthy behavior an individual uses to regulate their emotional state by themselves-- but what exactly does that mean?
Self-soothing behaviors get us through stressful, anxious, and difficult moments—they help us overcome negative thoughts and urges and help us from impulsive, intolerable, overwhelming emotions. Children and teens don’t have enough life experience to manage these intense feelings—and so, when they arise, they don’t have “backup” skills they can rely on, which often leave them in momentary crisis.
Sadly, the COVID pandemic is an excellent example of why we need to do a better job of teaching our children how to self-soothe. Now, the COVID pandemic challenged most, if not all adults, so to expect our kids to manage this successfully is ridiculous. However, I spend my days helping teens undo the unhealthy coping skills and self-soothing behaviors they adopted because of isolation, stress, and fear. A few examples of these unhealthy behaviors are bingeing on alcohol or food, restricting or purging food, and engaging in activities like gaming, cutting, smoking, or vaping.
It begs the question, how then do you learn healthy self-soothing behaviors? Interestingly, we unknowingly do self-soothing behaviors every day, like pacing, fidgeting, squirming, playing with our hair, tapping our hands and feet, or biting our nails. Though some of these behaviors can help, they’re not advanced enough to manage really big emotions. So, what ways can you start helping your child or teen effectively self-soothe?
The first “trick” is perhaps the hardest for parents. Earlier I mentioned that traditionally, to self-soothe means the action of an infant or young child ceasing to cry without being comforted by a parent or caregiver. Ceasing to cry without being comforted by a parent or caregiver. Yikes.
Inherently, when we see a child in pain, we rush to them—we comfort them-- we do whatever we can to ease their suffering. However, if we rush to their aid too quickly and immediately solve the problem, the child learns that you’re their pacifier.
Now, I’m not encouraging parents and guardians to be neglectful or cold toward their hurting child or teen, but when it’s something the child or teen can do on their own, they can figure out on their own-- allow them. It will build strength, character, and self-confidence.
My colleague, Maria Sikoutris-DiIorio, says, “often, we rush to a child or teen’s aid to help our own anxieties, to help ourselves feel better—but if we do for them what they can do for themselves, we cripple them.” I love this so much.
Next time you see your child or teen grappling with something, first ask yourself, “if I jump in…will it be for their benefit…or mine?”
It goes without saying that if your child is genuinely struggling, be sure to skip this step. Ideally, you want them to learn effective coping strategies before you begin having them calm and comfort themselves alone.
Create a self-soothing family distress binder. Take some time to create a game plan with your child or teen. The idea is to have healthy activities and ideas prepared in advance, so it’s available to help in the moment. Then, learn self-soothing behaviors like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, havening, and grounding techniques with your child or teen. You may also want to develop positive coping statements together-- it may sound silly, but the way we talk to ourselves in difficult moments matters. Lastly, try purchasing a few items like weighted or heated blankets, fidget toys, distracting and engaging activities like puzzles or soothing essential oils. One of my favorite websites for sensory solutions is the Therapy Shoppe.
I say the following often, but only because it works! Put the binder in a shared room and encourage your child or teen to practice some of the skills when they’re calm, so when they need to regulate their emotions in a high-stress scenario, the skills come naturally.
If you see your kids struggling, get them professional help. Intervening early is vital. The sooner your child learns effective coping strategies, the better off they’ll be. In a formal therapeutic setting, distress tolerance skills like DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) are taught and often provide lifelong emotional success.
To learn more about Christina H Chororos and Kairos Chronic Pain Coaching, please visit www.kairoschronicpain.com or call 908.370.5713.