No two kids are the same, yet many parents fall back on the same habits to calm or distract their children (think: a "treat food," a new toy, or an engaging game). There's a reason these tropes work to turn your kid's frown upside-down, but when a child is feeling riled up or anxious, the best thing you can do is help them regulate their emotions. One thing that can aid in that: a calming movie!
What you play on the TV to settle your kids down when you need a moment (or several) of peace — or when you need to get work done at home — can actually play a large role and act as a helping hand in mitigating stressful or high-energy times in your household. So, while it's true that screen time shouldn't be your automatic response to calming your child, it's not a bad idea either.
What It Means to Feel Calm
The first thing to remember when it comes to calming your child — and maybe parenting in general — is that every kid is different. "What might be calm to one child might be different for another based on just who they are, what their personalities are, but also their neurotypical-ness or atypical-ness," says Jennifer Thompson, the executive director of the New Jersey Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. Still, one commonality is that children feel and behave better with structure. "They thrive and feel most secure and calm, and exhibit calm behavior, when they understand the rules and the boundaries," Thompson says. When structure and supervision are in place, it "gives them the safety to be who they are and explore safely."
How to Help Children Calm Down
When a child is feeling stress or exhibiting excess energy, calming them means soothing their emotions and physiological state, according to Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist specializing in parent-child relationships and the author of 15 Minute Parenting and Why We Play. "When we want to calm children, one of the ways we trigger the subsystems of our brain that are associated with emotional regulation is using rhythm and synchrony," Fortune says. This may mean holding your child's hands and guiding them through swaying or tapping motions. Another way to instill calm is to change their field of vision and ask them to identify five things they see, four things they can touch, three things they can smell, and so on, to engage their senses.
When you're in a pinch and need to soothe your child so you can take a meeting or prepare for company, you can pair these calming behaviors with a film. That might look like sitting with them for at least the first 15 minutes of the film to set the tone and facilitate their watching by cuddling them or asking questions about the storyline. Another way to keep them calm while watching is to assign them corresponding activities. Harking back to the five senses, providing them with a list of objects to look for and check off as they're watching, or telling them to draw a picture of their favorite character are both ways to keep them feeling calm.
Once they're engaged, you can leave them to watch while you get your work or chores done and plan to debrief with them at the end of the movie.
How to Choose a Calming Movie
Again, every child is unique, so some movies that seem harmless could upset your child if there are themes or plot points they're sensitive to. Because of this, the best thing you can do when selecting a movie is consider what's going on in your child's life — maybe Coco isn't the best idea for a child dealing with a loss in the family, for example. "That's why I also think using a familiar movie that you know they've seen, you know they're familiar with the content of what's in it — the familiarity is going to be reassuring to both of you," says Fortune. Choosing a film you've at least seen is a great precaution to take, too.
When you're seeking out new movies, avoid anything with violence or trauma plot points, such as parental divorce or the death of a pet, that may be upsetting. Also, stray from films that feature a lot of energizing action, even if it is something they can emotionally handle. "If you're hoping they're going to sit still and calm down with us, and it has an exciting sword fighting scene, then they're going to be jumping up on your sofa," says Fortune. "It may actually affect the exact opposite of what you had hoped."
Still, the movies don't need to be boring. In fact, choosing ones with an upbeat soundtrack may be engaging for a child that enjoys singing, humming, or bopping to music. Other elements you can look for are films that show a range of emotions that the characters process, ones with muted or primary colors, and ones that show children adventuring and triumphing. These qualities may help your child not only feel calm but empowered.
Calming Kids’ Movies to Cue Up
- Mary Poppins (1964)
- The Little Prince (2015)
- Ponyo (2008)
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
- Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin (1997)
- Paddington (2014)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Frozen (2013)
- Moana (2016)
- The BFG (2016)
- Inside Out (2015)
- Alice in Wonderland (1951)
- The Adventures of Milo & Otis (1986)
- Wall-E (2008)
- The Gruffalo (2009)
- Thomas & Friends: The Adventure Begins (2015)
- The Peanuts Movie (2015)
- Song of the Sea (2014)
- Stick Man (2015)
- Maya the Bee Movie (2014)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- Encanto (2021)
- The Lego Movie (2014)
- Clifford the Big Red Dog (2021)
- Secret of the Wings (2012)
- DisneyNature’s Oceans (2009)
- A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)
- Cars (2006)
- Soul (2020)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
- Babe (1995)
- Walt Disney Animation Studios Short Films Collection
- Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017)