One of the primary reasons that kids and adults come to therapy is that they have a hard time coping with big emotions. Many adults think they or their child should already know how to process emotions. They may believe there’s something wrong with them because they can’t deal with feelings of sadness, anger, or fear. However, often times kids (and adults) haven’t had sufficient opportunities to learn how to effectively respond to strong emotions. It’s no wonder that they struggle with coping day to day. The good news? You and your child can learn to transform big emotions with practice.
Are emotions really necessary?
Many kids (and adults) believe emotions reside in our brains. In fact, emotions are experienced in the body. The physical sensations in our bodies are interpreted by our brains as feelings. Consider this: The symptoms your child experiences when they are anxious (sweaty palms, rapid heart beat, tense muscles, etc.) may be the same as the sensations they experience when they are excited. Their brain just interprets them differently based upon what’s going on in the child’s environment.
In modern day society, certain feelings, like anxiety or fear, are labeled “bad” or “negative,” whereas other feelings, like excitement, are considered “good” or “positive.” Often children and parents treat big emotions as something to be avoided. Other times, people simply do not see a need for them.
In therapy, we let children and parents know that all emotions are okay… and needed. We help families understand that emotions provide us with useful information that allows us to act in appropriate and helpful ways. For instance, worry may encourage us to put on sunscreen before we head to the beach, or prepare for a big test the next day.
How can we process big emotions?
Because emotions live in our bodies, we need to direct our attention to our bodies when we feel a strong emotion, and listen closely. This goes against many people’s instinct to try to sort out the thoughts swirling around their busy minds. Our culture conditions us to pay close attention to our thinking. Sadly, our bodies are sometimes forgotten. Isn’t it a bit frustrating when you try to battle your racing thoughts or address a child’s distorted thinking using logic, and it doesn’t tame the emotions raging inside?
Human beings have an innate drive to figure out what their organism needs and to meet those needs. Breathing techniques may help you and your child calm down and reconnect to your bodies. Sometimes breathing allows people to calm down enough to figure out how they need to take action or what they need change.
But sometimes breathing is not sufficient. Often it takes a bit more work to figure out what’s underneath the strong emotion that’s wanting to be heard.
You can help your child understand their emotions by having them regularly practice deep listening. It may help to have your child lie down and close their eyes. Encourage them to allow their breath flow in and out and notice the sensations in their bodies with a kind curiosity. Ask them questions like, “If the sensation in your body had a color, what color would it be? If it had a shape, what shape would it be? Is the sensation large or small? Hot or cold? Rough or smooth? Light or heavy? Is it moving in a certain way or is it completely still?”
Then invite your child to draw out the sensation and talk about it. Maybe the sensation has something it wants to say— or not. If not, that’s completely okay. Often times words are not needed.
Children may also want to use their body to make the shape of the sensation inside. Or move like the sensation is moving inside. Exploring body sensations using all of our senses and/or different artistic modalities helps make emotions more visible or tangible and a bit less scary. With practice, children will begin to get to know their emotions and what their bodies are trying to tell them. This approach works well for children of all ages, and adults too!
Making a plan
To help your child manage reactions to big emotions, it may help to create a 5-point scale. A 5-point scale allows you and your child to break down a behavior pattern in a visible way. For instance, maybe your child typically starts off calm (level 1), then gets anxious (level 2), then cries (level 3), then gets angry and yells (level 4), and then shuts down (level 5).
Mapping out on paper the behavioral progression that occurs is the first step. (Your scale will be specific to your child’s situation.) Then you can brainstorm together and figure out what your child needs to cope when/if they reach each level you’ve identified. For instance, maybe when your child cries (level 3), they need a hug, or to sit next to you in silence while they calm down, or to calm down on their own in their room. Write down the needs you and your child identify beside each level on the scale.
Ask your child if and how they might want you to remind them of the plan when they get triggered. When your child starts getting upset, try out the plan. When used consistently, a 5-point scale can help your child transform big emotions, and break free of old behavioral patterns.
At Intuition Wellness Center, we specialize in health and wellness services for children, young adults, and their families. If you think you would like some extra support, we’re here for you.