In our guide on Creating Effective & Inspiring Play Spaces (you can download it for free here), we had briefly introduced our calm down corner. Amazingly, I’ve had so many questions (a barrage really!) from parents on our calm down corner, so I thought I would spend some time talking about how it serves as a positive tool in regulating emotions, and how to create one!
First, a little backstory...
We set up and introduced the calm down corner to our boy T back in Dec 2018, when he just turned 3 years old. I’ve heard about calm down corners (sometimes known as peaceful corner, chill-out corner, quiet corner) for a while now, but truth be told, was never truly bothered to set one up. T is a relatively gentle and mild-mannered boy, he didn’t have much tantrums – they were mostly short emotional outbursts which were really easy to manage and seemingly only occurring at home (never in public). I honestly thought my husband and I had this in the bag!
When he turned 3, coupled with the news of a 2nd baby coming and me being pretty much out of it (nauseous, exhausted) and not able to spend time with him like I usually do – he started throwing 30 mins (at least) long meltdowns. Sometimes they go up to an hour. They were triggered by the slightest things and could happen anywhere and everywhere.
We were feeling helpless on how to manage them. We implemented every technique/principle we have learnt about RIE and Respectful Parenting - acknowledging his emotions, showing him empathy, offering him hugs, and trying to talk him through them. Nothing worked. These meltdowns went on for more than a month, on almost alternate days. It was causing us some sleepless nights because we were so bogged down by how to go about helping our little boy.
I remembered stumbling upon calm down corners, so I read up and did some research (yes, I’m a ‘Google’ kind of mom!) on them. And in end Dec 2018, I told my husband “We need to set one up for him”.
We were skeptical initially – how do we get a 3-year-old to understand the concept and intent of the calm down corner, so the corner can work effectively for all of us?
His calm down corner
It’s been 3 months now since his calm down corner was set up, and it turned out to be a pivotal point in our parenting journey. It works amazingly, I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am to whoever invented this. It truly changed our lives, and it changed our relationship and dynamics with T too. So, I would love to share how we implemented this, and our learnings along the way.
Before I get into details, I want to emphasize on the following, and set the right expectations:
- What had worked for us, might not necessarily work the same way for you and your child. At the end of the day, you know your child the best (quirks, emotions, moods and all), so do create and introduce the calm down corner in ways which you know would appeal to your child.
- We are a Respectful and Mindful Parenting kind of household. Naughty corners do not work for us, and are not in line with what we believe in. Do note, a calm down corner is not the same as a naughty corner.
- Creating a calm down corner is just one of many positive tools to help manage tantrums and meltdowns. It’s not the one and only. There are many resources out there on such tools and techniques.
- Some parents believe time in works best for their children, some believe in time out. You can implement both time in and (positive) time out in your calm down corner. I talk more about this in the second last section of the blog post.
Intent of a Calm Down Corner
The calm down corner is your child’s safe space.
It is his corner, not yours. He has full prerogative on whether he wants to be in the calm down corner, when he wants to be in that corner, and when he’s ready to come out from that corner.
So, what's the intent of a calm down corner?
- It serves as your child’s safe space.
- It’s an area where your child can choose to be alone if he wants to or choose to snuggle and cosy up to the parents if he wants to.
- It’s an area for him to calm down and regulate his emotions.
- It’s an area for the parents to talk him through his emotions and help him understand the situation which had distressed him (only when he’s ready for you to talk to him!).
- It’s an area which your child feels proud of, and feels good being in.
Keeping in mind the above intents, mindfulness of the parents in relation to the calm down corner plays a huge role in ensuring the corner works effectively.
Mindfulness in the Calm Down Corner
- Don’t order your child to go to the calm down corner (or order him to come out from there). By doing so, you’ve turned the ‘calm down corner’ into essentially a ‘naughty corner’. It’s no longer HIS safe space.
- Don’t enter the calm down corner when your child is not ready for you to be there with him. Remember that this is his area and his space. If he wants to be left alone, leave him alone till he’s ready.
- Be more mindful of your tone and words if you’re disciplining him in his calm down corner. Note that disciplining here is very different from punishing. Disciplining means helping him differentiate what’s right vs wrong, talking him through his emotions and mistakes, and making him understand the natural and logical consequences (I talk more about this in our Respectful Parenting blog series here, do read through so you can understand the difference between disciplining and punishing) he needs to bear. Being more mindful of how you discipline your child in the calm down corner, will help him associate the calm down corner only with positive feelings and not negative feelings.
- Don't shame him in front of others about his calm down corner. Telling your families or friends in front of him, “oh that’s the corner he goes to when he does something wrong” would firstly make him feel ashamed about his calm down corner, and secondly remove that safety net he has in his calm down corner. Instead, say “oh that’s his calm down corner, it’s the corner with all his favourite things, he goes there when he wants to be left alone”.
Creating a Calm Down Corner
You need to first find an area in your house to set up the calm down corner. Below are some considerations:
- The area needs to be safe and child-proof. Please remember that your child might be throwing tantrums in the calm down corner. You do not want your child to be hurt in the area.
- The calm down corner needs to be set up in an area which is not a common area in your house. For eg, try not to set up the calm down corner in the living room where the rest of the family members are. Remember that this is the corner where your child wants to be in when he’s feeling emotionally overwhelmed. It needs to be in a private area, away from everyone else. His bedroom or the play room might be good places to set up his calm down corner.
- The area does not need to be huge, it can literally be a small cozy corner in the room.
His calm down corner set up in a corner of his bedroom
Next, set up the calm down corner with your child. Involve your child in setting up this corner, so that he truly feels like it’s his own.
- Place some cushions or pillows in the area to create a cozy feel about it. They also come in handy in providing some cushioning if your child tends to throw himself around during a tantrum or meltdown.
Soft toys and cushions in his calm down corner
- Get your child involved in choosing his favourite soft toys to be placed at the calm down corner.
- Get your child involved in choosing what kind of items he wants to be placed in the calm down corner – it could be his favourite toy, it could be his favourite book, it could be loose materials.
His small box of some favorite items
What's in his box of favorite items
- Place a few items there which you think can help him feel better or calm down. I call these ‘emotion-regulators’. Here are some suggestions:
- Bubble wrap
- Fidget toys
- Sensory bottles (Click here to find out how to create one)
- Music player
- Stress balls
- Abacus? (This is not common, but it works for us!)
- Drawing/writing materials
Our emotion-regulator: An abacus set from IKEA
- Place a few items there to help him identify and differentiate the different kinds of emotions he might be feeling. Let's call these "emotion-identifiers". Here are some suggestions:
- Mood cards - You can simply print or draw different expressions (happy, sad, angry etc) on cards, and laminate them.
- Emotion cubes - I share more about these and how to create these below in the last section of the blog post.
- Figurines - Here, we use the 'Sadness' and 'Anger' figurines from the movie "Inside Out".
Our emotion-identifiers: Sadness and Anger figurines, and Emotion Cubes
Lastly, introduce the calm down corner to him. By this point, he should be feeling excited about the corner, especially if he was involved in setting it up with you.
- Introduce the calm down corner to him when he's calm. Tell him “If you’re feeling sad or angry or weird, you can come to the calm down corner to feel better”. Or “Sometimes I know you want to be left alone, if you do, you can come to the calm down corner here, and we will leave you alone until you’re ready to talk to us”. Or “This is your space, your corner. Mummy and Daddy will not enter your calm down corner, unless you want us to”.
- Point out the different items you have in the calm down corner. “Here’s your favourite toy”, “Oh look, these are the soft toys which you chose”, “Here’s your blanket” etc.
- If you have ‘emotion-regulators’ in the calm down corner, show them to him, and teach him how they work.
- Introduce emotions to him using the emotion cubes or mood cards you have. Bring him through each emotion so he can identify them whenever he’s going through them.
- Whenever we have families or friends or his playmates over, we would always ask him in an excited way “Oh remember the calm down corner we set up together for you? Do you want to show it to them?” This enables him to feel proud of this little corner, so it elicits positive feelings in him.
It’s important that you introduce the calm down corner in a positive way to your child, so he feels good about this little cosy corner of his.
Implementing the Calm Down Corner
One of the common questions I get is, how do you get your 3 year old to go to the calm down corner?
We do not get him to go there. We ask him and we prompt him, but it is entirely up to him on whether he wants to be in the calm down corner.
Again, let me emphasize that the calm down corner is not a naughty corner. It’s not a corner that we design to specifically discipline him. It’s a corner we design to allow him to regulate his emotions if he feels overwhelmed. Sometimes disciplining happens there, sometimes it doesn’t.
At the start, he sees the calm down corner only as a cozy corner filled with his favorite things. It takes a while for him to understand the actual intent of the calm down corner. Each time he throws a tantrum or does something wrong, we would ask or prompt him to go to his calm down corner. Slowly, over time, he began to associate certain situations with the calm down corner. Now, he usually initiates going to the calm down corner himself, whenever he feels upset, frustrated or angry.
Let me illustrate what happens with the calm down corner in our home:
He started to display signs of the onset of a full-blown tantrum (raising his voice, some sobbing etc). We knew a full blown tantrum or meltdown is coming.
Us: Travis, I can see that you’re upset (or angry). Do you want to go to your calm down corner to feel better?
(At this point, if he says yes, he would make his way there himself)
T: No, no no!
Us: I think you will feel better if you spend some time in your calm down corner. Do you want to give it a try? You can choose to walk there by yourself, or you can hold our hands and we will bring you there.
(He walks towards his calm down corner which is in his bedroom. We are careful not to enter his calm down corner at this point, since it’s supposed to be his safe space. So we usually stand at his bedroom door first.)
Us: Do you want us to come into your calm down corner with you and give you a hug to make you feel better?
(If he says yes, one of us will go in, not both. Two parents at the same time might be overwhelming if he’s already feeling these big emotions.)
T: No (this is usually his response)
Us: Okay, we will be outside, can you call out to us if you’re ready to talk to us?
It takes him about 15 mins on average to calm down if we leave him alone. After which, he would call out to us, and one of us would join him in the calm down corner.
When we join him in the calm down corner, that’s when we try to talk to him.
Us: Are you ready to talk about what happened just now?
If he says yes, we talk to him.
We helped him identify the emotions he was feeling (using the emotion-identifiers as tools), and we asked him what triggered those emotions. If he had done something wrong, we explained to him why he shouldn’t have done that, why his actions had upset us, and the natural/logical consequences he needed to bear because of his mistakes.
Once he has calmed down and he’s ready to leave the calm down corner, we fully expect him to carry out the natural/logical consequences of his mistakes. This is when and how disciplining happens in our home.
Sometimes he would say no to the question above.
That’s when we know he’s still feeling emotionally overwhelmed, and he needs more time. So we would create, what I call, a quiet connection - cuddle with him, calm him down using the emotion-regulators and his favorite items in the calm down corner, read some books. And when he's ready to talk, we talk and we discipline.
The above scenario works 80% of the time, I would say.
The key for us is to catch him at the onset of a tantrum so we can intervene in time.
Sometimes, we are too late and he goes into a full blown tantrum. When a child this age goes into a full blown tantrum, all reasoning goes out the window. We would sit and wait till the tantrum dies down slightly and he’s no longer hysterical, before we carry out the above conversations with him.
Time In vs Time Out
The traditional time out is when a child is told to go somewhere (like a chair or facing a wall), alone for a determined amount of time. Often parents are told to withhold attention and ignore any cries or requests from the child when using a time out.
Although the time out tactic can potentially prevent a behavior from occurring in the moment, it can also make children feel abandoned, rejected, frightened and confused. Time outs are vastly popular and are preferred to harsher traditional discipline tactics like spanking.
However, time outs do not actually help children learn to regulate their emotions or help them learn right from wrong. Often, time outs lead to more power struggles over time.
Some clues that time out is not actually working:
- You feel the need to place your child in time out daily, sometimes hourly.
- When the child is in time out, he repeatedly asks when he can get up.
- When the child is running away at the mention or threat of time out.
- You feel the need to place your child in time out for every thing they are doing “wrong”.
- When you find yourself using time out for the same offense over and over again.
- You get angrier and angrier as you struggle to get your child to stay in time out for the determined amount of time you had requested.
What are the alternatives to Time Out?
Time in, or positive time out.
We implement both techniques together with our calm down corner.
How do we carry out time in?
If you had gone through the above scenario I illustrated, time in is when T allows us into his calm down corner to sit with him. We would hug and cuddle him, and carry out some quiet activities together to form that connection before we discipline him.
Time in doesn’t mean that you allow your child to continue with a behavior that is inappropriate. Time in gives parents the opportunity to empathize and connect with the child while waiting for his emotions to be calmed and settled, before addressing his behaviors and consequences (i.e. disciplining).
How do we carry out positive time out?
Positive time out is essentially the child choosing to be left alone.
The key aspect here is, it is the child’s choice, and that time out isn’t forced onto him by the parents. He chooses to be alone in a private corner (in this case, his calm down corner). And we respect that. We give him the time out that he needs, however long that might be. And when he’s ready, we carry out time in.
Positive time out usually works hand in hand with time in for us. Think about the situations where you were really upset or angry at a family member, wouldn’t you want to be left alone for a while to cool down, before potentially talking through it with him/her? It’s the same here.
T almost always requests for time out, before he’s ready for time in. And it works perfectly for us too, the time out also allows us as parents to cool down and think through how we would like to address his behaviors with him.
Now, Let's Talk Emotion Cubes!
To help T identify the different emotions he has, we created these emotion cubes to serve as one of his "emotion-identifiers". We created these together, and through this activity, I learnt a lot from him about how he views his emotions as well.
All you need are some wooden blocks (we got these from Daiso) and colored paint/markers.
Materials needed to make emotion cubes
I told T "Let's make emotion cubes for your calm down corner! We will make a happy cube, a sad cube and an angry cube."
We created the 3 basic emotions - happy, angry, sad - as a starting point. If your child is older, you can also add in more emotion cubes if you want - jealousy cube, scared cube, disappointment cube etc.
I then asked him "What color should the happy cube be?" And he said yellow.
Painting his happy cube yellow
Then he wanted blue for the sad cube, and red for the angry cube.
Painting his sad cube blue
Painting his angry cube red
I found it pretty amazing that he seemed to intuitively associate certain colors with certain emotions, without any prompting from me.
Then we went on to talk about what should go on each cube. I asked him "What makes you happy (or sad or angry)? Let's draw it on each side of the cube."
I find this part of the activity really important, because it's hard to describe emotions to the child in words. A 3 year old might not know how to answer you if you ask "how do you feel when you're happy?".
Changing that question instead to "what makes you happy?" helps him associate certain situations with the feeling of being happy, and hence understand how happiness feels like.
So here's what ended up on each side of his emotion cubes. Some of these were drawn by me, some by him; but they were all based on answers from him on what makes him happy/sad/angry.
What we drew on his happy cube
For the happy cube, he said what makes him happy are:
- Fishes swimming in the waters
- Car honk (yes, that lollipop looking drawing)
- His car toy
What we drew on his sad cube
For the sad cube, he said what makes him sad are:
- Rain ("because I can't go out and play")
- When Daddy takes the airplane for work
- Brightness becoming darkness
- When Mummy and Daddy says no to sweets and biscuits.
What we drew on his angry cube
For the angry cube, he said what makes him angry are:
- Waters without any fishes in them
- When there are insects around the house (he drew flies there)
- Dying flower
- When his car toy is damaged
- When a car near ours has very bright headlights and they hurt his eyes.
Isn't it amazing? I felt like I just took a walk around his 3-year-old mind when he talked about the above - his answers are so genuine and raw.
Making these emotion cubes with him was a really meaningful activity for us.
I got a glimpse into his 3 year old mind and how he processes emotions; which is really important at this age where they feel big emotions but mostly are not learned enough to handle them (hence resulting in tantrums).
These emotion cubes are now sitting in his calm down corner, and it's a way for him to recognize and understand his emotions whenever he's feeling overwhelmed by them.
I hope this blog post (albeit a little long) helps you in understanding how a calm down corner would serve as a positive tool in regulating emotions for your child. This is very much in line with the Positive and Respectful Parenting principles which we strongly advocate on Popsicles and Play.
For more resources on our website, please refer to the below.
On Respectful Parenting Principles
Respectful Parenting Blog Series Part I (click for Part I)
Respectful Parenting Blog Series Part II (click for Part II)
Respectful Parenting Blog Series Part III (click for Part III)
Respectful Parenting infographic (download for free here)
On Setting Up Calm Down Corner
A Peek into Our Play Spaces at Home (click for blog post)
Guide to Creating Effective & Inspiring Play Spaces (download for free here)
Connect with Us!
I would love to hear any opinions you have regarding calm down corners, do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!