Using The Power of Distraction to Manage Anxiety & Anger in Children
Children are easily distracted.
Keeping a child focused on a task can be tricky as attention spans are often short. We often associate being distracted with a negative connotation and sometimes it can be. Not paying attention in class, not listening to parents when they are being asked to do something, refusing to step away from the video games or mobile can be frustrating for parents and teachers alike.
However, distraction can also be a very powerful tool.
Distraction is a cognitive-behavioral intervention that is effective in redirecting a child’s focus away from stressful situations such as physical pain, emotional distress, and negative thinking.
Encouraging your child to distract themselves away from these situations and focusing on a specific cognitive task helps de-activate their brain’s ’emotional centre’ (the amygdala) and activate the ‘thinking centre’ (frontal lobes). This is why distracting the mind away from the stressful situation works better than not thinking about something.
The brain is constantly looking for something to focus on.
That’s why it’s not particularly helpful to say things like:
“Don’t think about it”
“Don’t do that”
Instead, diverting attention away from the challenging emotion, behaviour, or situation and onto something else such as a book, toy, or by talking to them about something completely unrelated can be really effective.
This strategy stimulates the senses, engages the child in a focused talk, and is able to compete with the negative stimuli to capture the child's attention and inevitably calm them down.
Positive distraction can work for your child, but knowing how to successfully implement these strategies, how they benefit your child, and how to address underlying emotions once they have successfully used their distraction methods is essential for long-term success in cultivating high emotional intelligence.
Here are three ways distraction can powerfully support your child:
Distraction helps reduce pain
As an adult, we also implement distraction techniques when it comes to redirecting our focus onto something else. For us, it’s common for us to practice this when we’re receiving medical procedures. Sometimes, the doctor will talk to you throughout the procedure about other non-relatable topics, there may be music playing in the background, or you may focus on your breathing to help you re-direct your focus away from the pain.
It’s the same thing for our children, but they need a little support and guidance from you so they can do this effectively.
Studies have shown that children who receive high frequency and high-quality levels of distraction techniques from parents, teachers, or other significant adults when they are undergoing a painful medical procedure, experience lower stress and anxiety levels and are less likely to develop emotional trauma such as phobias.
Distraction helps children manage physical and emotional pain and is proven to reduce anxiety and stress levels
Distraction de-escalates conflict without confrontation
Distraction also supports de-escalation and is much better than confrontation when a child is in emotional distress. Trying to de-escalate a child from heightened emotions is difficult. It goes against the fight or flight mode that they are currently experiencing, and reasoning with an angry or anxious child is not possible. Neither is trying to discipline them.
It’s important that you remain calm and not get caught up in their emotions regardless of what they say or do and to implement distraction techniques as early as possible before the emotion completely overwhelms them.
But before you throw a distraction tool at them, be sure to listen to them, acknowledge and validate their feelings, tell your child what you want them to do rather than what you do not want them to do; for example, ‘I want you to sit down’ rather than ‘stop arguing with me’.
Also, if possible, give them choices. It’s good practice to have more than one distraction tool or method and they can decide which one they believe will work for them at that present time.
Having a few self-regulatory tools such as play-doh, slime, or ‘calm down bottles’ are great for distracting children away from negative thoughts and emotions. Squeezing a stress ball or playing with play-doh sends soothing sensory signals to the emotional side of your child’s one brain and effectively calms it down.
My student using the 'calm down bottle' I keep in my classroom for when she needs a mindful moment. Watching the glitter soothes their anxiety by activating their senses.
Distraction helps build a child’s resilience
When a child is engulfed with anxiety and worries, it’s so easy for them to get caught into the trap of overthinking which sends them into an anxious frenzy with no solution in sight, which then inevitably leads to a low mood.
This can quickly become a habitual pattern if children aren’t given strategies to identify and regulate these negative thinking patterns. Using distraction strategies such as writing down their worries, listening to music, or practicing a mindfulness technique, will support them in developing the skills, knowledge, and tools they need will support them in being able to calm themselves down and self soothe.
Distraction is such a simple, yet powerful strategy for instantly calming down overwhelming emotions, improving moods, and teaching children how to be resilient when faced with problems or situations that are likely to cause them to feel anxious or angry - essential tools they need for self-regulating themselves in adulthood.
But what do you do once the child has calmed down and successfully self soothed?
Follow up: Address the emotion or behaviour
Be sure to address the anxiety, worries, or anger they felt. First of all, your child needs to understand and identify their emotions before moving on to communication or activities that promote solution-focused thinking.
Addressing engulfed emotions in a playful way and coming up with solutions not only minimizes their anxiety around feeling the emotion in the first place, but reiterates that all feelings are normal and important and there are practical ways and solutions they can use to help themselves out of feeling ‘stuck’ in overwhelming emotions.
Using tools that support you in developing positive daily habits in your children can make such a difference in how they handle their big emotions. Practicing gratitude, identifying and talking about what happened during the day, differentiating what is in and out of their control, and knowing that they have uninterrupted time with you every day to talk about their feelings sets a foundation for resilience, self-confidence, and high self-esteem.
Developing positive daily habits such as checking in with your child can help them regulate their emotions, identify solutions and build resilience
In summary, distractions are a great way to diffuse and calm big emotions in children and support them to endure difficult experiences, eradicate negative thinking, and strengthen their ability to tackle new challenges. However, it’s important to regulate the use of distraction methods and ensure that they’re not being used as an escape from an uncomfortable reality or to suppress unaddressed emotions - that’s why following up with your child once they are calm is key.
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- Samantha Cleaver