A bedtime ritual to help children learn to calm themselves – by Judith Simon Prager, PhD
If bedtime threatens nightmares about strangers with guns, or even general anxiety, here are two approaches you might consider.
- At bedtime, when our conscious minds are no longer busy dealing with the small specifics of the day, sometimes bad thoughts sneak up on us and we—even we grownups—allow ourselves to get scared. We’re not in present time, but thinking about what if…. Deep breaths are incredibly useful for shifting our perspective and calming us. They are physiologically effective in unhooking the “hijacking” of the more logical brain by the primitive part, as I explain more in Verbal First Aid. They can bring us back into present time, so we’re not guided by our fears of past or future.
I’m recommending a bedtime ritual to practice breathing, which can help in the present and might certainly be invaluable should it ever become necessary in a real situation. If the child has practiced it, knows how it makes him/her feel calm, and can call upon it in a stressful situation, it’s built in. It’s become an automatic program we, and they, can count on.
Every evening, after a busy day, you can have the child do this practice when lying down in bed, and make it fun. In and out breathing, beginning with out, because in automatically follows. You can suggest the 4-4-4-4 breathing explained here, or just let them experience the sense of letting go that breathing offers.
Tell them, in your own words, “Whenever you’re feeling scared, whenever you feel your heart racing or feel a little dizzy or are sweating, you can remember your breathing. You can become brave like a dragon and blow the bad thought or feeling away on a pretend breath of fire. Or you could be brave like a fire fighter, shooting your breath like water through a hose at the bad thought and dissolving it.” You might offer another visual or have them come up with one. Or the blowing out the birthday candles, which could revive a good memory in the process.
If you place or have them hold a stuffed toy on their bellies, they can see it moving up and down when they’re deep breathing and know they’re doing it just right. (It provides the extra benefit of having a “friend” they trust to hug, and such sweet physical connection can also contribute to a sense of safety).
- Another useful approach is to have calming music of their choice playing quietly in the background at bedtime. I know several children who regularly fall asleep to the kind of lullaby effect of certain tones. As it’s played over and over, they may listen until it loosens the child’s attention and their tired brains simply allow it as they relinquish thought and fall into slumber.
Click here to read Judith Simon Prager’s approach for:
- Talking to Kids about School Lockdown Drills
- Discussing a crisis with Kids, The Words we Use
- Calming Yourself and Children, Tone of Voice, The Important C’s & Breath
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About Judith Simon Prager, PhD www.Judithprager.com
Judith has been invited around the world and across the US to present and teach the Verbal First Aid™ protocol she co-developed. She was brought to China after a devastating earthquake, to Borneo’s medical university, and she has often taught graduates at the European School of Osteopathy. She has been a consultant to or consulted with a number of medical centers, including Cedars-Sinai, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and New York University Rusk Center.
Judith’s deep belief in the power of words and images has found itself in her most recent co-authored books, The Worst is Over: What To Say when Every Moment Counts (deemed “The ‘bible’ for crisis communication” by The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health) and Verbal First Aid—Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain and Come out Strong. She has also written a picture book for children: Owie-Cadabra’s Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help You and Your Friends Heal.
All those books reflect on how words and images can heal the mind, body, and spirit.
She has a BA and MA in English Language and Literature and a PhD in Psychology, with a private practice in Los Angeles.
She has appeared on Good Morning America and PBS’s literary program, Between the Lines. She is a multiple-awarding winning instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program with her husband, Harry Youtt.
Most recently she has been training teachers at international schools in Los Angeles about How to Talk to Kids About Lockdown Drills without scaring or scaring them.