It's called a calm-down zone ... and here's how it works.
Children are notoriously partial to throwing fits. Huge, raging fits. They’re good at it because they’re willing to commit to whatever it takes. They have no problem with screaming in the middle of the grocery store or during the priest’s homily at Mass, and they’ll even do it in front of other people so as to maximize your embarrassment. But it isn’t their fault; children are biologically hardwired for emotional explosiveness as their brains develop. Nevertheless, it can still push a parent over the edge.
I used to consider myself superior to my children in this regard, not that they can’t or won’t mature and learn to control their emotions, but I always thought that I, as an adult, had learned to control myself. They throw temper tantrums and I don’t.
Then I thought a little more about it.
Actually, I very frequently lose my cool. I have yelled at my children out of frustration. I have wished ill on other drivers on the road and driven more aggressively than I should have in response. I have felt my blood pressure rise when dealing with a difficult person and then later vented in anger. I tell myself that these behaviors are innocent catharsis and everyone needs to blow off steam from time to time. But are these behaviors healthy or are they actually a form of temper tantrum? Maybe I haven’t grown up as much as I think I have.
How do we — both adults and children — figure out how to get a grip?
There are lots of ideas for parents about how to deal with temper tantrums, but one that I’ve found particularly effective for myself is having a “calm-down zone.” When I’ve had a stressful day at work and know I’m becoming snappy, or when I’ve blown a fuse because of frustration, I know that I need to get away. It’s more than physical space, though. I need to use the time to actively examine my emotions, think through my feelings, and gain some mastery over them before I do something I’ll regret.
A Catholic grade school near me recently took a similar approach. Their school counselor, Katie Muschinske, is teaching them about creating a calm-down zone of their own. By having a dedicated space to go to when emotions are boiling over, and then using color codes to examine emotions, the children are learning to know their feelings better and working to master them. For instance, the green zone is calm and the red zone is frustrated. The goal is to identify what emotional state you’re in when you enter the zone and then work towards green so you can return to the class, tantrum-free. Muschinske says, “When children are young, they have a hard time expressing themselves because they don’t know the words to use.”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that adults also struggle to verbalize our frustrations. Instead we sputter, yell, and make accusations we don’t really mean. We could learn a lesson from these kids. For instance, One girl from the class explained, “Like when you’re mad and you’re trying to calm down if you get a drink of water that will help you calm down more faster.”
For me, the calm-down zone isn’t a trip to a specific place, but a physical activity. I find that anger and frustration cause a strong physical reaction in me, such as higher blood pressure, distractedness, and sleep loss, so the solution is also physical. I go for a run. And while I run, I think. By the time I return I’m tired, I’ve processed my emotions, and I’m calm. Working in the garden has a similar effect for me. There are any number of other options. For instance, it’s remarkably helpful to take a moment between returning home from work and going inside the house to intentionally leave the stress of work behind. For kids, a chill-out space where they can draw, read, or think for a bit until they’re calm enough to discuss what’s bothering them can work miracles.
What makes the calm-down zone so effective is that it takes us from being reactive and gives us a tool for self-regulation before we get to the point of losing control. It’s only once we’ve lost control of our emotions that we behave in ways we later regret.
We all wish we could gain greater self-mastery, and something as simple as a calm-down zone is a great first step for people of all ages.