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Little girl in rocking chairEver wonder why rockers and swings are so popular with children? Or why music really can “calm the savage beast’? It’s because the brain needs rhythm for emotional control. Well balanced, “Steady Eddie” people may seem to be impervious to stress, but the truth is, they just have better rhythm. They know how to harness the power of patterned motor movement to regulate the sensory networks of the lower brain. As a result, they maintain a comfortable level of arousal, even when faced with challenging or difficult situations.

This mind-body connection is an important one to teach children. No amount of verbal argument or contingency reinforcement can control the subcortical structures that trigger the “fight, flight, freeze” response. They can only be managed through rhythmic movements like walking, dancing, drumming, singing, or meditative breathing.

So the next time you’re trying to de-escalate an angry child or calm an anxious, tearful one, try humming a soothing melody, or taking slow deep breaths. The rhythmic nature of these activities will speak directly to the sensory networks of the child’s brain, and return them to a more tolerable level of arousal. Once the child is feeling better, point out how calming repetitive movements can be. Encourage them to pick one to use whenever they feel stressed or out of control.

[For more information about using repetitive motor movements to foster self-regulation check out Bruce Perry’s March 8, 2013 presentation at UCLA’s “How People Change” conference.]