How to help kids cope with their feelings
by Chantal Bufe
There are many moments when - even as adults - we struggle to identify our emotions. When we are in a particular situation (pandemic, anyone?) that evokes a specific response in us, and we find ourselves having to think twice (thrice? four times?) about what exactly it is that we are feeling.
And sometimes, our emotions remain a mystery altogether. And that's ok.
But, if we grown-ups can grapple with identifying our emotions more often than not, imagine how hard it must be for children - who usually lack the vocabulary as well as the maturity (or rather life experience) to name their feelings correctly? How frustrating and isolating must that feel?
I have noticed my children living through a whole lifetime of emotions during the past unsettling months, with each one of my children frequently displaying a different response to a similar sentiment than their sibling.
I have also noticed that my children frequently did not understand why they reacted a certain way (once we talked about it afterward), and I came to realize that this was because frequently they could not precisely label that big, small, or in-between feeling that had triggered that particular response.
And if our children struggle to identify some of their feelings, how are we, as parents, able to support them? Through everyday life? Let alone through a pandemic that forces our children to unlearn behaviors and belief systems that they have known since birth while having to adopt a whole new set of scary rules (masks), confining (lockdown), and emotionally painful (social distancing) in many ways.
So where to go from here?
As I searched for better ways to help my children identify (and deal with) their feelings, I looked to the experts: teachers. As professionals, how do they encourage their students to build an emotional vocabulary to communicate and cope better in school and life?
And I came across one particular modus operandi that Josèphine's teachers set up in second grade to offer emotional support: the so-called 'take-a-break-corner' (also known as the 'calm-down-corner').
It includes an 'emotions chart,' which helps students better identify what they are feeling. This may seem trivial to adults but can be an actual eye-opener for children who will discover that what they are feeling is... normal.
Charts like these are available online (we like these resources created by teachers), and depending on age, they range from displaying the basic eight core emotions (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust) to including more complex feelings, such as pride and shame, and many more—a loving and playful way of discovering emotions, especially for younger children.
Most importantly, the 'take - a - break - corner' also offers the children a course of action that guides them through what to do next and helps them think about making different choices. Charts like these are easy to create for your kids at home (you can personalize them with colors and names), and they look somewhat like this:
First, the child is encouraged to calm down:
✰ how do you feel?
(see the 'feeling chart')
✰ try a calming choice.
(this includes breathing deeply - here's a great technique, drinking a glass of water, or the very effective punching of a pillow)
✰ are you calm enough to think about it?
(no, → try other calming choices;
yes, → start thinking about it)
Then the child is asked to think about:
✰ what happened?
(what did I do?)
✰ why did it happen?
(why did I do it?)
✰ could it have been prevented?
(no, → go back to thinking about it/ talk to someone about it;
yes, → how could it have been prevented?)
✰ what could be done differently next time?
(taking a deep breath, talking to someone about it, counting to 10)
Lastly, the child is motivated to take responsibility and return:
✰ How do you feel?
(are you feeling differently/ better than before?)
✰ Do you need to repair a relationship?
(do you need to apologize?)
✰ Do you need to clean up a mess?
(do you need to help anyone?)
✰ Are you ready to return?
(what have you learned?)
Why these visuals work for us:
We find this exercise helpful when one of our children is 'stuck' in a big feeling (anger, frustration...you name it). When their minds race, their hearts close, and there is seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.
That's when the visuals come in. By seeing - in a precise order - what action they could take next (if they so choose), our kids find it easier to calm down and open up to a solution that could help them feel better, help them find the light.
By doing so, whenever there's a need, they are starting to understand that dealing with emotions is a process that requires time (and worse...patience!). First, there is the feeling; then there is the response, then there is the consequence.
Our children are learning that, sometimes, this process can be easy, joyful, and quick, and other times, it is more complex, painful, and slow. And yes, they realize that one of the consequences can involve having to apologize, which can be challenging. (And the sooner our kids learn that an apology is a sign of strength rather than weakness, the better).
Moreover, these visuals help our children process their feelings (and responses) without taking directions from us, without our interfering! They are encouraged to think, solve, and respond independently and at their speed. This is significant as our children learn to self-regulate (while self-discovering). By doing so (trying, failing, learning, and trying again), they are sharpening their intuition and understanding that it's always best to go within and listen to that inner voice rather than relying on others.
What else can parents do?
Create a trustworthy environment
When there is a safe space for emotions, our children will feel more comfortable expressing themselves without being judged, dismissed, or mocked. Problems that may appear minuscule to adults can lie heavily with children, so it is essential to get them out in the open. And if your child does not open up by themselves and you get no more than the 'I am ok' (which is a frequent reply I receive from my son), there are some creative ways to elicit information.
Games, such as feelings and dealings or books, are an excellent tool to encourage conversation. Among our kids' favorite books that deal with emotions are All about feelings, What should Danny do? My feelings and me and A little spot of anger.
Writing, drawing, or coloring is also a fantastic tool. There are tons of drawing exercises online; we especially like this one by Sesame Street in Communities because it involves arts and crafts and the possibility of discovering the various emotions more intensely. (If your kids like Sesame Street, check out their many special activities, all dedicated to Exploring Emotions.
Model a positive attitude
Undoubtedly, it also helps when parents model a healthy attitude towards feelings. When we, as adults, name our feelings and positively and swiftly deal with them in front of our children, they get a chance to observe that emotions are a part of daily life and that it is worth dealing with them promptly to avoid prolonged pain and that 2) there is no shame in having/sharing/ talking about feelings. Everyone feels. Even gown-ups. Even mum and dad.
Finally, there is praise. To reinforce the importance of identifying and sharing emotions, we need to commend our children every time they do so. Our encouragement will mirror and underpin the truth that our emotions are the key to human connections and more profound and meaningful life experiences.
When children learn to identify, communicate, and cope with their feelings at a young age, it will also be easier for them to comprehend others' emotions (and responses) as they grow up. Instead of ignorance, they will feel compassion. They will be able to communicate with sincerity and kindness and act accordingly. This will allow them to experience more positive and stable relationships throughout their lives, whether with co-workers, friends, or loved ones.
PS: how to get your children to (really) talk about their school day
(Photo: Chin le Duc/Unsplash)