As this week has shown in a shocking and tragic way we live in a world where awful things happen. Yes, it is also a wonderful world but there are times when either at a personal and individual level, through illness bereavement or numerous other traumas or at a wider societal level (within which there is of course individual trauma and loss) through brutal attacks or violence or at other times through natural disasters like floods we need to ‘manage’ our emotions. Like any other personal skill we can only become adept at doing this if we have learned how to and had the opportunity to practice, though hopefully not through situations as extreme as we’ve seen this week.
But what do we mean by managing emotions? Sadly I think for many this has come to mean simply denying them. Being aware that we feel them then drawing on our stiff upper lip and squashing them right down inside. In my experience that is like trying to keep the lid down on a pan of boiling water. It might work for a while but the likelihood is it will ‘boil over’ sometimes when we least expect it. Managing emotions is a process. One that involves acknowledging and expressing the emotions, then developing and learning to use strategies that help us process the emotions in a helpful way. By this I mean not suppressing them or dwelling on them but being able to move forward at the right time. This can go on throughout our lives and as we mature we may refine the strategies we have for managing our emotions, things that might have caused great consternation to us as youths may not have the same impact when we older, for all sorts of reasons, but in part probably because we become more adept at dealing with ourselves.
Obviously it is important that children and young people learn these skills too and parents, carers and teachers all have a role to play in imparting and re-enforcing the essential messages. Below are the steps which I think are essential for adults to take to help children to learn about emotions and effectively deal with them. It is important as in all areas of learning that information and support is given that is appropriate to the age, stage and personality of the individual child or young person. It is perfectly possible for most of the steps below to be delivered in a formal class or small group based way by a teacher. But it is also possible for parents or carers to have these conversations either individually with a child, or with a sibling or friendship group.
1 Develop a shared language
This can start very early by identifying emotions, ‘sad’ and ‘happy’ might be the first and as children grow we can identify others, anger, disappointment, frustration, fear, or excitement etc. Knowing the word to describe an emotion or feeling is key BUT there also needs to be a shared understanding of what we mean by the words and this also need to be linked to what we might feel in these different states, butterflies in our tummy, or our heart racing. It is a body of knowledge that can grow and an understanding that can deepen as the child grows. It can be taught explicitly but it can simply be conversations between individual, a parent and a child for example, a teaching assistant and student who they are working with.
2 Use this to have dialogues about emotions
When the above has started to happen, and remember that no two children will be the same in their understanding, parents are individuals as are children so each situation will be different. Also we all know that being presented with a learning opportunity does not mean that learning has taken place. But when there is a shared language, however limited, then meaningful dialogue about emotions can begin. This is where the adult can lead, often by asking a question, ‘I wonder if you are feeling sad about …..’(or angry or disappointed or whatever your best guess is). Or perhaps when it is more obvious ‘I can see you are angry about…. So maybe it would be good for us to go for a walk?’ Similar dialogues can be initiated in response to stories, poems or the experiences of others.
3 Note how you manage your own emotions and in particular the strategies you use
The way you can suggest things to do is by first being clear about how you manage your own emotions. What do you do to calm down if you feel angry? Or if you are worried? Do you go outdoors for a walk or a run, have a rant while someone listens, try a few deep breaths, spend time listening to music, go and kick a ball, or do some mindful colouring. Clearly as an adult there are some things you might do – going out alone for a run, or even having a stiff drink, that you couldn’t suggest to a child but as long as it is appropriate it is easy to suggest things. if they work for you there is a chance that same strategy, or a version of it could work for the child.
4 Be appropriately open about your own emotions and strategies you use
‘When I’m disappointed I find it helps to ……’. Whether or not they use the strategy at the time, you are still planting an idea and acknowledging the validity of what they are feeling. Working in schools with students with social emotional and mental health needs I would always have colouring and drawing available – I wouldn’t always suggest it, I’d just acknowledge that they needed space to calm down and say I’d just sit with them. Then I’d start to colour myself and on many (but not every) occasion after a short time they’d come over and join in. At other times I might explain that I find music helps me and offer this or when the situation made it possible that a walk outside could help me calm down and offer it to them. reading aloud can also be a good strategy with a child, I’d say don’t worry about listening I’m just going to read because it helps me – but very often they would end up listening.
5 Seize opportunities for teaching and learning as they arise
In most schools this topic comes up on the curriculum, the physical changes in science and others in different curriculum areas but there is nothing quite so effective as seizing the moment something distressing on the news, or maybe something that has caused concern locally or for younger children perhaps the death of a pet. Any situation where emotions are heightened can be used to have guided conversations about the ways we manage our emotions. As parents the same applies – maybe after watching a movie there can be times to talk about the ‘emotional’ issues it may have raised.
6 Create opportunities when in the right environment
Seizing opportunities as they arise is good practice but of course it isn’t always possible or appropriate to do that so at other times you need to hold the ideas until the environment is right. But what is the right environment? Often it is one that is not too intense but affords some privacy, perhaps a walk, or even a journey in the car. Some children find it much easier to talk about things that matter when they are not sitting face to face and when there can easily be a distraction if they need one. Easy to create for parents not always so easy for staff in schools but there are always those times when children or young people end up being supervised out of class, often as a result of something that will give us the chance to introduce conversations about emotions. As adults we need to be sensitive but also prepared to initiate those conversations either in response to real situations, maybe they’ve just been hurt by another child who was angry, or in response to stories, drama, topics in class, films or other media.
7 Model the desired behaviour
We all know that children learn by watching us. As an adult we will be watched and what we do as well as what we say will be noted. Do we get angry and shout? They will notice this. Do we get quiet and grumpy but tell everyone we are fine, they will notice this too? Providing a commentary, sensitively and appropriately can help children and young people – it gives them a framework. It doesn’t mean we need to bare our souls but we can explain that we felt cross about something but told someone else, had a coffee, went for a walk and feel better now. It is also good to apologise when we haven’t got it right, by saying for example that we are sorry if we shouted, (or whatever) but we were feeling frustrated by something, and explain that the shouting wasn’t right or fair and next time we’ll try and remember to use a better strategy, what this is can then be discussed.
8 Repeat all the steps above
Learning takes practice and let’s be honest we get plenty of practice with emotions as we can be faced with a whole barrage of different emotions every day. By having conversations about emotions we are acknowledging them and validating them for the child. That doesn’t mean we will agree with the way they express them and we may teach them other means of expression, and we may give context to their feelings, some things are not as important as others even though they cause strong feelings at the time, for example. Whether as parents or staff in school, carers or grandparents even older siblings, thankfully there will be plenty of opportunities to have those learning conversations about emotions and how we can learn, and go on learning how to manage them in ways that are helpful and healthy. Over time this is one of the many ways we can play our part in promoting positive mental health.
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