If you or your child has had anxiety, anger, or other dysregulation, you may be familiar with “grounding techniques,” mindfulness exercises that help calm the nervous system. You can name objects, check in with your physical state, or use physical “tricks” such as the “butterfly hug” or by using ice to help hack your body from the outside in. Another grounding technique is called “anchoring,” and it’s a personalized way to unlock your calm-down skills. One anchoring method that has proven successful involves using your own memories to help you come back to yourself, calm down, and feel better.
How to anchor with a memory
During a panic or anxiety attack, you might feel unmoored from your true self, insecure, and, frankly, miserable. Using a memory from your own life can help you snap out of these negative feelings. “The most powerful anchor is a memory anchor,” says Dayna Abraham, a teacher, parenting expert, and author of three books including Superkids Activity Guide to Conquering Everyday, Sensory Processing 101, and the upcoming Calm the Chaos: A Failproof Roadmap for Parenting Even the Most Challenging Kids, based on her popular workshop of the same name. “Because memories are so personal and evoke all the senses, they are the quickest way to settle the nervous system,” she says.
When used as a calm-down technique, “Having a grounding memory counteracts these other triggering thoughts that might race through your head when you feel unheard, non-important, or in danger from your child’s behaviors,” Abraham says. The trick is, just like in Peter Pan, to think happy thoughts. Simply thinking of a time you were happy might do it for you, but Abraham says you should shoot for a memory that includes images, smells, sensations, and multiple senses, or “Something that makes you smile or sigh in relief just thinking of this moment in time”—and that you can easily imagine when you close your eyes.
Don’t wait until you’re upset to try incorporating a memory anchor. Practice during moments of calm, when you are doing everyday activities. If you feel like you’re forgetting to practice or think you don’t have time, Abraham has a unique solution: train yourself in this method while you pee. Everyone has to use the bathroom multiple times a day, and you don’t really have anything better to do at that time. Then, in a tense moment, “your brain jumps into action immediately with stop, breathe, anchor.” You’ve practiced your grounding technique like an actor practices their lines and are ready for the “performance” when the time comes.
How to use the method as parents
It’s important to be good at this skill yourself so you can keep your cool during meltdowns or tantrums and avoid emotionally flooding around your kids, freeing you up to parent. Sometimes our kids can be frustrating and it’s hard, in a difficult moment like a tantrum, to connect with them in a loving way.
To use the anchoring method on yourself, pick a memory of you and your child. “This is typically a memory of you and your child during a happy, connected moment that reminds you and your brain that you both love each other and are, in fact, connected—even though in the present moment it doesn’t seem like it,” Abraham says. Using a kid-centered memory, “allows you to enter the situation with more empathy, compassion, and patience because you are grounded in this inner knowing that your child is in need of your help and not out to get you.”
Some of her suggestions for good anchors include:
- The first time you held your child.
- The first time your child hugged you.
- Holding hands with your child at a peaceful time.
- The time your child won the school art fair.
- Your children playing together without fighting.
How to teach your child to use memory
It’s important, first and foremost, to use this technique yourself before attempting to teach your child. “By modeling these anchors, and modeling the calm that can come from using them, we make it much easier for our kids to experience the security that they need to begin to calm themselves,” Abraham says. She says to say your anchor outloud when you use it, such as, “I’m thinking of cuddling you before your nap when you were a baby.” Establishing a safe, calm base in yourself fosters a positive relationship with your child, even when they are dysregulated.
It’s a complex strategy. “Children’s brains are still developing, and being able to access these skills is something that takes time and practice,” Abraham says. However, in practice, she has seen kids use it not only with their parents, but with siblings and at school.
Teach this method to your child during calm, happy moments, like when they’re in the bath, in the car, or while playing. Bring it up in a collaborative way. You can try saying, “I’d really like to try this new tool I learned that could help us both stop yelling. Are you interested?”
Have them answer questions such as, “How do you know you need to calm down?” “What does your body do to tell you that you are upset?” “When will you know how to use your tool?” Then have the child draw what comes to mind for each step of “Stop, Breathe, Anchor,” Abraham says.
Have them brainstorm some memories that bring them joy. Practice many times during peaceful moments—not during tantrums. Only when they’ve mastered the technique while calm will they be able to use it when upset.
If it’s not working yet, go back to modeling. “If your child is resistant, don’t lose hope,” Abraham says. “It simply means that you using the tool will be your best course of action for now while you build safety and belonging. In time, your child will start to notice how calm mom or dad is and how well this tool works.” Soon, they may be willing to try again for themselves.