Dealing with difficult emotions
During this year’s Dying Matters week, we continue to find ourselves in lockdown. Many of us are experiencing a heightening of emotions due to feelings of loss as we are unable to see our families, friends and colleagues, as well as imposed restrictions on participating in our usual routines and social activities and an enforced lack of control over our day-to-day lives. For those who are recently bereaved, this may add to the complexity of grief as routines are disrupted and normal social and support networks are no longer at hand. Children and young people may be feeling frustrated and isolated at having to stay away from their schools, clubs and social activities. ‘Tantrums’ or ‘meltdowns’ in young children are their way of communicating discomfort or distress and may increase in frequency. Anxiety, anger or sadness in older children and young people may become more prevalent. As parents and caregivers we have the desire to protect our children and it is our instinct to step in and make things right again. However, when someone close to us has died, and especially right now during the Coronavirus pandemic, there is little we can do to change our circumstances. What we can do, however, is teach our children emotion skills and self-regulation strategies, not only for them to use during these difficult times, but also to carry with them throughout their lives, helping to build resilience and tolerance to life’s challenges or distress, strengthen future relationships and support cognitive and organisational skills.
It is important for us – young and old alike – to learn that self-regulation is about managing our emotions, as opposed to not feeling them. This helps us to understand that whatever we are feeling is ok, normal and completely valid. You may have children and/or teens who are already competent in recognising and expressing emotions, and of course that is great! However, for many people (of all ages), emotion recognition and expression has yet to be mastered. Naming emotions and learning that they are all valid and have a purpose – even fear and anger – is essential and can feel liberating. It is beneficial to speak regularly with older children and young people about their feelings and self-regulation. This video may also help when talking to younger children:
For younger children or those who find it difficult to recognise emotions, there are some simple strategies that may help. Feelings Faces and Emotions Bingo, for example, can be used as a tool to label emotions, and can be followed up with activities suitable for responding to them. Free resources such as these are available to download online on sites such as Twinkle or you can make your own if you prefer. You can also find suggestions on our social media pages, such as Monday’s post on creating an emotions collage.
As parents, we are best placed to be attuned to our children’s emotional state and to help them to find explanations for their feelings and behaviours – even helping them to label the emotions in the first instance. We can then validate their emotions, helping them to understand that it is ok to feel whatever they are feeling and teaching them that their emotions do not define them – they merely experience the emotions, and those emotions will pass. Reassuring touch, soft eye contact and gentle, soothing tone of voice are all known to help in the hormonal control of emotion regulation. We can also model self-regulation by talking about our own emotions, whilst maintaining a calm, open and empathetic response to our children’s needs and behaviours. This, of course, is easier said than done when we ourselves are anxious or struggling, so it is of equal importance for us to practise self-care.
Older children and young people may already have the language of emotion and may only need an empathetic listening ear. Sometimes, offering advice or solutions can inflame the situation and lead to further frustrations. It is essential to ask if we are needed just as a listener, or if our help or opinion is required, instead of trying to fix their problem. Teaching and practising coping strategies when children are calm and settled is important so that the skills may be put into practice more readily at times of distress. Below are a few things you may wish to try.
Using our breath is one of the most effective ways to calm our minds, lower our blood pressure and help our bodies to relax and there are many techniques we can try.
· Belly Breathing
Lying on the floor with their favourite soft toy on their stomach, the child pushes the toy up with the belly muscles as they breathe in, allowing it to return down slowly and gently as they control the breath out. This is also a lovely video with an another option for younger children:
(by Sesame Street)
· Finger Breathing
Holding up one hand and using the index finger of the other, the child slowly traces the shape, breathing in on the way up each finger and breathing out on the way down until feeling calmer.
· Box Breathing
Visualising moving around the edges of a box shape, breathe in through the nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale through the nose for 4 and hold again for 4. This can be repeated until the mind feels calmer.
Mindfulness and visualisation
Older children and young people can be taught simple mindfulness and visualisation techniques such as picturing their favourite or safe place, or imagining sitting on the sea shore, breathing in as the waves slip onto the beach, breathing out as the tide rolls back out again. Apps such as ‘Headspace’, ‘Calm’, ‘Smiling Mind’ and “Moshi: Sleep and Mindfulness’ are great tools to help with this. Younger children may also enjoy this mindful visualisation exercise
Rhythm Music and Movement
Songs and nursery rhymes with repeated movements are effective mind-calmers for young children. Older children and young people may prefer to dance, listen to a music playlist or play an instrument. Drumming is an effective rhythm technique for emotion and stress release, as is any form of exercise, from cycling to running to pillow-thumping. PE with Joe Wicks has been extremely successful with families during lockdown, but for those who prefer a gentler and more calming approach, there are online yoga classes and videos for all ages. This is a really great, short, (only 5 minutes) calming yoga sequence for kids of all ages:
and the following is a lovely whole-body stretch for children:
Obviously, craft and colouring, obstacle course and fort making, journaling, scrapbooking and reading are all great ways for people of all ages to distract themselves temporarily from rumination or distress, allowing time for the mind to calm and clear and for emotions to be processed.
creating a calm tool box
Together with your child, you could decorate a shoe box, or use a bag of choice, to hold items known to soothe your child at times of distress. You could include for example, fidget toys, a bottle of bubbles, a calming glitter jar, a diary and pen or pencil, a favourite book, a favourite soft toy, a scented candle (for older children or young adults), photos, a colouring book and pencils or crayons, Lego® bricks or Meccano®. Keep the Calm Toolbox in a place that is easily accessible when calming tools are needed.
Above all, we should remember that we all experience grief, loss and challenging emotions in our own unique way but hopefully you will have found something within this post that may be of some help to you. But also we should not underestimate the importance of human connection and safe relationships in helping our children and young people to learn to process and manage difficult emotions. For further information, you may wish to take a look at the following websites. However, if your child continues to struggle to manage, or becomes overwhelmed by, their emotions, please do seek help and support from your GP.