How Does a Drink of Water Equal a Calmer Child?

This past week, it was my honor and privilege to attend and present at the Child Trauma Academy’s 2nd International Symposium for the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics held in Banff, Canada. Three colleagues joined me as we immersed ourselves in some inspirational and eye-opening workshops, each providing ideas and approaches for caring for children and families, especially those impacted by trauma.

One cup of cold water can make a difference

While listening to my colleagues Kathy VanHorn and Josh McNeil from Lakeside School present their training called Neurologic,* I was reminded of a simple concept for helping children (and adults) be calmer and more regulated—especially during times when they are on the verge of melting down (or have actually gotten there) Invite them to drink cold water.

I first learned about the concept of cold water as a way to help a child calm from Working With Traumatized Children: A Handbook for Healing by Kathryn Brohl, published in 1996. In it she states she and her colleagues had noticed a calming effect when having upset children drink cold water. Yet, Brohl and colleagues were not clear as to why this happened.

However, in presenting Neurologic, Josh shared some important biological explanations for this phenomenon:

  • When we drink water, we swallow in a rhythmic pattern which helps us return to a level of regulation.
  • It also helps our breathing because the brain needs to shift to keeping us from choking while we are swallowing. This brain response is a kind of a diversionary tactic from whatever is causing agitation toward a return to a calmer brain state.
  • Further, children can become agitated when they are dehydrated.

There is a lot you can read on the Internet about the importance of hydration, such as the following article from the Daily Mail, which states “Mild dehydration can alter a person’s mood, energy level and ability to think clearly, according to studies at America’s University of Connecticut. Even mild dehydration – 1.5 per cent loss in normal water volume in the body – that can occur in the course of our ordinary daily activities can degrade how we are feeling.”

So how much water do children need?

The following chart is from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

Kids Total Daily Beverage and Drinking Water Requirements

Age Range Gender Total Water (Cups/Day)
4 to 8 years Girls and Boys 5
9 to 13 years Girls 7
Boys 8
14 to 18 years Girls 8
Boys 11

Data are from Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) Tables. Recommended Daily Allowance and Adequate Intake Values: Total Water and Macronutrients.

Think “cold water”

I encourage you to teach children to think about drinking water if they feel themselves becoming restless, agitated or anxious. Also encourage them to notice how frequently they are drinking water each day.

You are also encouraged to think “cold water” when you see a child becoming agitated or disregulated, because the simple act of sipping water has the power to tone down some of the brain’s release of the neurochemicals of hyper-arousal and distress, and can help a child become calmer,and better able to think, process, and stay focused.

Who knew that such a simple act as drinking some cold water could have this kind of powerful impact?

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How aware are you of how much water your child drinks in the course of the day? How close is it to the recommendations put out by experts?
  2. Are you willing to try the next time your child seems disregulated, anxious or agitated to offer him or her a drink of water and encourage him or her to sip it slowly in order to help him or her calm down?

 Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

*Neurologic: a program which offers schools the opportunity to incorporate brain-based principles and practices into their everyday interactions with students.