Experiencing emotions is a vital part of being human. Emotions give us information, motivate us and prepare us to act, and give others information about how we are feeling. However, emotions can also be difficult to handle, particularly when the intensity of the emotion grows beyond what we can easily manage, as well as when they are more painful emotions like sadness, anxiety, shame, or guilt. When painful emotions become very intense (i.e., become “big” emotions), they tend to lead to impulsive behaviors, hard to control emotional thoughts, and intense physical sensations, such as tight muscles, an upset stomach, or a headache. Learning to manage painful, big emotions and particularly, to catch and soothe those emotions before they get too big, is an important ability for children to develop. Read on for tips on how to teach your child to handle their big emotions. Name and Normalize Big Emotions We all experience emotions and they are important and helpful - even when they are not easy to experience. Teach your child that we all experience emotions and that they are important and helpful - even when they are not easy to experience. Brainstorm together about the emotions they experience and how they might be helpful. For example, feeling a little nervous before a test motivates them to study. Feeling guilty after saying something unkind reminds them to be more gentle in the future. Crying when they are sad lets an adult know that they might need help or want to talk. If your child is not sure how to tell the difference between emotions, link emotions to body sensations. For example, anger often shows up as heat in the body while anxiety often causes tight muscles including tense, hunched shoulders and fists or a clenched jaw. The next time your child is experiencing an emotion, gently ask where they are feeling it in their body. This, along with practice noticing and naming emotions, is a foundational step of emotion awareness and regulation. Teach Coping Skills Teach your child a few simple coping skills to soothe their big emotions. It is helpful to match the skill to the intensity of the emotion being experienced as different skills help with different levels of emotional intensity. Kids also often benefit from a visual, such as an emotional thermometer where small (i.e., less intense) emotions are on the bottom part of the thermometer, medium are in the middle, and big are on the top. A helpful coping skill for when emotions are less intense or “small,” is to practice helpful “self-talk.” This skill can be adapted depending on the situation, but the basic approach is to acknowledge that you are having a tough time and to encourage or coach yourself as you would a friend in the situation. For example, if your child is struggling with homework they might say “this is really hard! At the same time, I’m doing my best and can ask my teacher for help tomorrow.” As another example,Read More
About Julia Martin Burch, PhDJulia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.
"Getting back to normal" is something most of us have been looking forward to. It sounds great in the abstract, but actually returning to in-person activities after experiencing a year of COVID-19 social distancing could be stressful. Dr. Julia Martin Burch shares insights and tips to ease your child's transition back to in-person activities. As vaccines roll out across the world, children are preparing for the return to in-person activities, including school, extra-curriculars, large family gatherings, and play dates, among many others. For many kids, this will be a welcome change as a return in-person activities means fun playing with friends, easier learning, and well-known routines and traditions. Yet the return to in-person activities- particularly mandatory school- also brings a host of worries and uncertainties for children and parents alike. In particular, many introverted or anxious kids have come to feel more comfortable staying home during the pandemic and have had few opportunities to practice getting out of their comfort zone. It is crucial to help all kids prepare for the return to in-person activities but is particularly important for kids whose shy or anxious temperament may make this a particularly big shift. Luckily, parents and caretakers can do much to help prepare kids for the upcoming changes. Re-establish routines Children thrive with predictable routines and feel empowered when they know what to expect. Several weeks before your child’s activity starts again in person, get them ready. For example, to help your child prepare for a return to in-person school, start to slowly shift your child’s morning schedule. This can include gradually waking up earlier to allow for time to get dressed in a school-friendly outfit, eat breakfast, and have time to get to school. Consider introducing some grounding, calming rituals into the day to help your child (and yourself!) stay emotionally strong and resilient during the upcoming period of transition. For example, you and your child can make a habit of taking 5 deep breaths before sitting down to breakfast, enjoying a quick stretch before commuting to school, or discussing your “high lights” and “low lights” of the day at dinner each evening. Calming rituals do not have to take much time or effort, but offer a predictable opportunity for kids to slow down and ground themselves in a familiar, comforting routine each day. It's also helpful to review your community’s safety policies with your child well in advance and practice the steps they may be less familiar with. For example, you can make a game at home of estimating how many feet of distance are between you and your child. It is also helpful to practice wearing masks for longer and longer periods so they are used to it before returning to activities where they will need to be masked full time. Talk about it Well intended parents often avoid bringing up topics that they worry will make their child anxious. However, an open conversation gives kids a chance to air their concerns and get answers toRead More
Transitions Can Be Hard A child’s life is full of transitions. Most of these are small and occur daily, such as shifts from home to school or from play to responsibilities. Around the winter holidays children typically face a series of much bigger transitions including from school to home, routine to down time, and back again over the course of just a few weeks! This annual period of upheaval in routine is further complicated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children typically only have to transition in and out of school around the holidays; this year many children have been shifting between in-person, remote, and hybrid learning almost all year. These changes can be taxing to many children and may make them more vulnerable to struggle with the upcoming holiday transitions. Luckily, there are several simple steps that parents can take to help their child prepare for and skillfully adapt to the many transitions of the season. Talk About It Well intended parents often do not mention upcoming transitions to children with the noble intention of sparing them potential stress. However, kids typically do best when their world is predictable, and they know what to expect. Discuss the upcoming transition with your child during a calm moment. Review what will be different and check in on how they are feeling. For example, a parent might say “In two days your winter break will start! That means you will not go to school. You will be home with grandma at first and then with me. It will feel pretty different than a normal school day. How are you feeling about that?”. If your child shares worry or uncertainty, validate their feelings. Additionally, allow time for them to ask questions about the changes. When you answer the questions, express confidence in their ability to handle the transition well. Create Routines Transitions often feel stressful to children because of their inherent unpredictability compared to normal life. Even when the new activity is something fun like making cookies or going sledding, day after day of unpredictability can wear on children. Whether going back to school after a holiday break or from to remote learning from in-person, look for opportunities to make the days as predictable as possible for your child. Talk with your child about how they want to spend their time. Though holiday break days can and should have more flexibility than normal school days, try to stick with a relatively consistent schedule that includes similar sleep, meal, and movement times each day. It’s also important to build time for relaxation and soothing activities like a “mindful minute” during each day. Try to help your child find a balance between being over- and under-scheduled. As you and your child collaboratively make their schedule, get specific about what they will do independently during the day and what they need your help with. Breaks can be a great opportunity for kids to practice taking on new self-care tasks with more independence. This will makeRead More