A blog written by Rhiannon Philips-Bianco
Social isolation. Lockdown. Remote learning. Constant changes. Tension. Uncertainty. Fear.
Even adults don’t know what’s going on.
With the impact of Coronavirus hitting Europe hard, you may find that your child is struggling to cope with their emotions. This is completely normal and there are many ways in which parents can support them. We found this article that gives practical ideas about how you can do that in the home.
However, you may feel that your child needs more explicit help in learning to recognise and manage their emotions. Perhaps they are easily irritated or angered? Perhaps they become upset when they face a tricky task? Or perhaps they react negatively towards their siblings?
Three strategies to label your child’s feelings
As Suzy Reading, psychologist and author, states: “…people who could label their feelings using rich vocabulary were found to be 40% less verbally and physically aggressive than those who had a tough time working out how they felt.”* The three strategies below aim to help children identify and label their feelings during this difficult time, in the hope that they help you, as parents, create a more harmonious household.
It is important to try these activities when your child is feeling calm and positive as it is very hard to learn something new when under stress.
1. Name it to tame it**
Introduce your child to one of these ‘How Are You Feeling Today?’ charts. Choose one that seems appropriate for their age and emotional development. For a 4-5 year old, four emotions will probably be enough. For 6-10 year olds, the chart with words would help them develop their emotional vocabulary. For those who already express their emotions well, or those who would prefer to do it in another language, use a blank chart so that they can complete it in their own way.
The charts can be used in different ways:
- Three times a day, ask your child to use it to identify the emotions they are feeling and why they think they are feeling that way. Model it too so your child can learn from you. Encourage them to share two or three emotions as it is key they understand our feelings can be mixed. Repeating the exercise throughout the day will teach them that our emotions change over time. This is important as they can be reminded of it when they feel sad, upset or angry and believe those feelings can’t change.
Children’s answers will vary and they will also develop over time, especially if you, or older siblings, are sharing yours too. What is fundamental is reminding them we often can’t control how we feel but we can control how we respond to our emotions.
2. The power of words
An easy-to-do-at-home tactic.
You will need:
- one or two dice
- small sheets of paper or card
This is a great game that helps children express their own feelings using their senses, as well as develop their empathy towards others.
- Ask your child or children to brainstorm a list of words that are often used in your household to describe one another. They will probably be a mixture of positive and negative. When I discuss this with my class, common words are: dumb, kind, stupid, epic, mean, lovely etc
- As a family, write each one on its own sheet of paper/card
- Turn them upside down
- Ask a family member to turn over one card and then roll the dice (start with one dice)
- Using the image below for reference, if they roll a two, ask them: “When someone calls you dumb, what does it smell like?”
- When I have played this with a class, my nine-year-old students have impressed me with answers such as: “When someone calls me stupid, it is shaped like a sharp dinosaur tooth that is pushed hard into my skin”; and “When someone calls me kind, it feels heavy because I feel I have a responsibility to be kind again.” With younger children, answers may be as simple as, “When someone calls me stupid, it smells like poo because it’s yucky.” Every single one of those responses is valuable because it shows a child is reflecting on the power of words on themselves and on others.
- Ask each family member to roll the dice for every word. It will help your child / children understand their own feelings, as well as recognise that others may react in a different way. This develops empathy and can be used to good effect when siblings are arguing. For example, when one insults another you may ask them, “What would it taste like if someone called you that?” or “What do you think it tastes like for ________________ when you call them that?”
- During a crisis moment, when a child is very upset, it may well become easier to ask them what the feeling smells like or how heavy it is on their shoulders, rather than get them to explain their emotions in words. It’s a crucial step in self-expression that will develop the more often you play the game and the more often you refer to it during tricky moments.
- Once your children have become confident with this, they could develop the game further. This is where the second dice comes in. You could create your own list, numbers 1-12, and add things like sound, temperature, brightness etc.
3. How does it feel in your body?
Teaching children that mental health is intertwined with physical health is essential. The earlier they learn to recognise how their emotions feel physically, the easier it will become to identify them and cope with them. The following could be done as a structured activity but is often more effective in the moment, when strong emotions are being felt.
- Next time your child is particularly excited or happy, ask them to lie down in a comfortable spot.
- Explain that we feel emotions physically and give an example yourself. E.g. When I am nervous, I feel butterflies in my stomach.
- Lie next to them so that they feel even more connected to you. Guide them through a body scan.
- Start with the head and ask them to describe how it feels. My students have used words and expressions like light, dizzy and floating high in the sky.
- Move on to their tummy and ask them again what they can feel. Having posted random acts of kindness around our school, one boy said: “I felt butterflies in my tummy. Not the nervous ones like when you are worried, they were dancing, happy ones.”
- Having done this a few times during positive moments, try it out when your child is struggling emotionally.
- Before you begin, ask them to place their hands on their belly and to take a deep breath in through their nose for three seconds, hold it for four seconds and breathe out through their mouth for five (do this together, rather than give them these instructions). If they do this a few times, it will calm them down enough to ‘listen to their body’.
- I did this with one girl who was restless and agitated because she was finding some classwork difficult. She struggled to describe how her head and tummy felt but she was very clear about her legs: “My blood feels fizzy and it’s rushing through my legs.” That was enough to tell me that a good run around in the playground would do her good. And it did. Ten minutes later, she was calm and ready to learn again.
I know how frustrating it can be trying to teach children at home; I am a mum as well as a teacher! Moments when sibling tension is high, or frustration with schoolwork has reached its peak, can often spiral out of control.
Bad feelings will become manageable
By trying these activities when your child is feeling good, you will have something to fall back on during tricky moments. As I tell my students all of the time, that doesn’t mean bad feelings will disappear but they become so much more manageable when we can identify, explain and use strategies to deal with them.
Rhiannon Phillips-Bianco is a Year 4 Class Teacher and ‘Wellbeing and Mental Health Leader’ at Junior School Leidschenveen at The British School in The Netherlands, as well as a mum to twin teenagers.
She has written a series of blogs on Student Mental Health and Wellbeing within the BSN.
Junior School Leidschenveen became one of the first British School in The Netherlands campuses to undergo the Healthy Schools self-validation process, and be awarded the Healthy School status.
* Stand Tall Like a Mountain by Suzy Reading
**The “Name It To Tame It’ concept from Dan Siegel, professor of psychiatry and author