I’ve already written an article for SENsational Families about strategies to manage anxiety – it’s something most of us are experiencing daily in this current situation.
However, I thought I’d add some additional information about emotional regulation, in other words how we deal with our feelings generally, recognise when they’re becoming out of control and what we can do to change them. Most of us have developed strategies to help us cope with difficult feelings, some healthy, such as exercise, mindfulness, talking to friends. If we’re all honest though, we probably have some less healthy ones as well, such as changing our mood through activities such as shopping or sex, or through use of substances, be that sugar, caffeine, alcohol or drugs. I’m not judging! I have a fairly sizeable gin collection, but these strategies can become problematic if we become too reliant on them.
Children have to learn these strategies. Babies are born totally unable to regulate themselves and they learn to it gradually with the help of their parents/carers who do it for them to start with, think rocking and cradling. Toddlers are starting to learn to do this for themselves but are still quickly overwhelmed by difficult feelings and it’s ten times harder to do this when they’re tired, hungry or overwhelmed by excitement. The results are usually meltdowns or tantrums.
So how do we teach children to self-regulate? The most important thing we can do is to help them develop an emotional vocabulary. Children need to recognise how an emotion feels in their body and what it means, they also need a word for it. To do this they need to be immersed in the language of feelings. This can be taught in a range of ways. A simple start is by parents noticing and describing what’s happening. So, an example might be ‘I can tell that you’re getting worried. I can see that you’re tapping fingers lots and I wonder if your tummy feels a bit different? I wonder if that’s because X is late coming home and you’re worried about where they are and if they’re okay? ‘ You can also provide information about how you are feeling - ‘Oh no! I just broke my favourite mug. I’m really sad because X bought it for me, and I really loved it. I feel like I want to cry.’ You can also comment on characters in tv programmes, films and stories. ‘I think that boy must be really angry, look he’s kicking that tree. I think that’s because when you’re really angry you feel like you have loads of energy inside your body that you need to do something with’. Observations like these pave the way for further discussion. How does it feel in your body when you’re feeling X? How do you know you’re happy?
Sometimes it’s really difficult to express this information in words so use whatever creative medium works for your child, drawing, music or dancing! Another good idea is to draw body maps (either a blank body outline that can be coloured/drawn on) or if you’ve got enough paper (old wallpaper works well here) you can draw round your child and then label and colour accordingly. Examples might be drawing a big buzzy bee in the tummy for anxiety or whizzy arrows for excitement all over the body.
This may well need to be adapted if your child has additional needs. Non-verbal children can use pictures, and that’s a good starting point for younger children too. If your child has special interests can you find pictures that might link? I’ve made emotion cards for clients linked to characters such as Pokemon and Paw Patrol in the past. These can really simple – see below.
They can be turned into cards or charts, whatever works best for your child.
Obviously, there are a huge range of emotions. Start with the basic ones and work forward from there. The four core emotions are happy, sad, fear and anger. If your child is capable of recognising more then this wheel is a really good tool:
As children become more advanced it’s worth noting that we can feel conflicting emotions and that’s okay. Children (and some adults!) struggle with this concept.
A final note about children on the autistic spectrum
Often these children really struggle to recognise sensations in their body. They can’t tell you where they feel stuff or indeed if they do. This is why they can fail to recognise that they’re hot, hungry or needing the toilet. This sense is called interoception. The following strategies can be useful:
- Yoga Mindfulness (both mindfulness and yoga focus on the body and what’s happening)
- Matching emotion words to picture
- Breathing exercises that focus on what’s going on inside our bodies
- Social stories
- Body maps (see above)
This is a big topic and there are some good books out there that discuss this in much more detail.
Another tool for self-regulation of anxiety is something called tapping, your may have heard it referred to as EFT. It’s based on tapping pressure points on the body (similar to those used in acupuncture). Up until fairly recently no one has really been sure why this works although science has proven that it does. There’s some really interesting work coming out now on one of the most major nerves in your body, the vagus nerve, and there seems to be some links between this and the acupuncture points which may well explain this technique’s effectiveness. You can download an app called ‘The Tapping Solution’ and there are currently some free sessions in there for Coronavirus Anxiety for different ages.
Note some of the tapping points are on the face so please wash your hands before and after.
The current circumstances that we find ourselves in are scary. If we are unregulated ourselves, our kids pick up on it and we tend not to handle our them as well as we would like. The video below is about a technique called Havening which is also really effective at reducing stress and anxiety:
If you’ve ever wanted to explore meditation for yourself but haven’t got around to it, I can’t recommend the app Headspace enough and there’s currently lots of free sessions in there as well.
For further ideas and activities please like my page on Facebook – Changing Behaviour with Emma Whymark. I post lots of relevant content on there regularly. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an ex-SEN teacher and was an advisor for County on behaviour. I’m now a private therapist, education consultant, trainer and a foster carer for Norfolk. I also have two adult sons, the youngest being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and dyslexia when he was eight. Feel free to ask me for help and advice either on the page or in Messenger and I’ll do my best to help if I can.