Regulating Emotions in Children (and Yourself) During Periods of Great Stress
With our schools closed and not knowing exactly when they will be reopening, us parents of school-aged children are on the precipice of adding "World’s Okayest Home School Teacher" to our resume. Parents, this, while juggling your own job as you work from home, being with your partner at home as they work from home, possibly caring for your parents, and/or caring for newborns or toddlers. Things feel doubled or tripled if you are in the medical field or have been impacted directly by COVID-19.
Whew. Take a Breath. Cut yourself some major slack. A lot of grace, patience and kindness, is what I want you to offer yourself and your nervous system. This is a time for holding everything in the world gingerly and gently, including yourself.
About 1.7 million American students are home schooled and due to the COVID-19 outbreak, that number is about to get a lot higher, at least temporarily. It's all going to be OK and it will all get worked out. We now have so much MORE on our plate, even though we're stuck at home. My family has even put on our schedules Physical Education with activities such as kids yoga, free dance lessons, streaming dojos, and daily workouts by a PE teacher. I am certain that your schedule includes some combination of Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmetic. I'd like for you to add a 4th R to your daily schedule: Regulating Emotions.
No doubt global anxiety is sky-rocketing right now. If you're feeling stressed about COVID-19, know that it's possible your kids are too. You need methods and structures in place to manage the strong emotions everyone in your family is feeling.
I know, you're like "whaaaaa"? Another thing to do with my kids? I thought you said that I should cut myself some slack? You totally should. I also want to let you know that being able to diffuse emotions will keep your child from detonating. Therefore, it will help you too.
Parents, start by making a schedule.
As we navigate and structure our school day, I realize that we have our school day, I realize that we have on our schedule loads of activities for academic work. Even incredible virtual activities to tour the world famous museums, science experiments, weather classroom from news stations, the virtual tour of the Great Wall of China, and the list goes on....there is so much at our fingertips.
But you've still got to keep things structured for the sake your kids and your sanity. Have a plan for the week and structure your kids days. Set a routine and stick to it. Your kids will feel safer and more at ease knowing there is a plan for each day.
Everyone in the household should keep a journal.
One activity that my children are participating in (and my husband and myself too) is daily journaling. Our kids are watching us and learning about how to respond to stress and uncertainty, so engaging in journaling with them would be extra credit points for sure.
But keep in mind for journaling - NO ONE IS TO READ THEIR EMOTIVE JOURNAL WITHOUT PERMISSION. In this way, journaling provides the opportunity for them to:
EXPLORE AND IDENTIFY EMOTIONS
EXAMINE THE PROS AND CONS OF SOMETHING IN ORDER TO BE MORE DECISIVE
LOOK MORE CAREFULLY AT THEIR THOUGHTS ABOUT SOMETHING AFTER THE IMMEDIATE SITUATION HAS PASSED
GAIN SOME INSIGHT INTO THEIR OWN AND OTHER PEOPLE'S MOTIVES
SEE THE POSITIVES AS WELL AS THE NEGATIVES
PLAN OUT DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS AHEAD OF TIME
WRITE OUT FEELINGS (or draw)
A feelings journal is a great way to help a younger child build an emotional vocabulary. It can be done in a few ways. Your child can identify his/her current emotions, draw a picture and label it, choose a feeling from a feeling poster or wheel to write and draw about or learn a new emotion to draw and write about. I’ve included an emotions wheel that I, like Goldilocks, love to find baby bear’s juuuust the right word for what I am feeling.
The power of laughter.
Another activity the Atkinson household is adopting is to remember that the power of laughter can be healing. Locate a funny video to watch or share memories you and your family have experienced together. I’m having the girls share a funny video or story or joke with us everyday as part of “school”. It's important during emotionally heavy times to take the time to be light, silly, goofy, and FUN.
Finally, I leave you with some words of wisdom.
I have asked trusted local friends and colleagues (I’m about to name drop) what activity they would encourage for emotions class. Here's some extra advice from some of fabulous mental health and child development professionals:
"Write letters or note cards to loved ones letting them know how much they mean to you and how much you care about them."
"PLAY. For children under the age of 9, play is thought to be their natural language. Our children need space to process their emotions through play. Get down on the floor with them; don't direct the play - allow them to control their own play. Try to reflect what they are doing and feeling in order to help them feel understood and connected. Sometimes their play might be sad; don't try to cheer them up. Instead, just reflect what they are feeling. This is the best way for a child to express their emotions and make sense of their world. It's okay to have more than one emotion at a time; you can be scared, anxious, and grateful for these moments."
"Maybe most importantly, get curious with your kids about how they are feeling right now. Validate whatever feelings they express without trying to fix or minimize them. As so beautifully expressed in one of my favorite children's books, "Just listen and hold space for their feelings". PS - This is so much easier said than done, but our kids need to feel heard, especially during these hard times."
"I think the best support in helping our kids to feel safe is that we as parents have it under control and are protecting them. Remind your kids that sometimes there are things we just don't understand, but this is a shared experience and we will get through it together as a family."
I don't know about y'all, but I am wanting an apple on my desk (or apple strudel and a coffee, really) and I can't wait for summer vacation. Wait...
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About the Contributor:
Barbie Atkinson is a bilingual psychotherapist and licensed professional counselor. Her philosophy is inspiring change in honoring autonomy while enhancing strengths. She founded Catalyst Counseling to offer men and women a chance to really feel seen, heard and ask them questions they hadn't considered before. She is not your Mama’s therapist! Her One-Size-Can't-Possibly-Fit-All approach is refreshingly human and personal. Women navigating life transitions, including the wild new world of momming, is a passion of hers and of her therapists.