The global pandemic and lockdowns on top of all the usual life challenges can affect children just as much as adults. To mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Catherine Lynch provides six stepping stones, and free downloadable resources, to help parents support youngsters to develop good mental health.
1. Name emotions and feelings
Until someone has the vocabulary associated with emotions and feelings, they will not be able to explain how they feel or identify how others are feeling. Name emotions when your child experiences them, it might feel like you are stating the obvious, but you are giving your child an important tool to becoming emotionally intelligent.
2. Explain the physical sensations linked to emotions and feelings
Help children to recognise how different emotions present in their bodies. Do they normally feel a bit sick when they are anxious? Do their shoulders feel tight when they are stressed? Do they become very busy when they are avoiding something? By helping them notice these physical representations of emotions they will begin to recognise when they are starting to feel something and might be able to react before their brains get flooded with the stress hormone cortisol.
3. Understand when and why a feeling or emotion is felt
The better children become at naming and spotting their emotions the easier it will become for them to notice the triggers for their emotions. If they always get a knot in their stomach on the way to school and know it is because they feel anxious you can start to explore where the anxiety comes from. Are they worried about the moment of goodbye, is it walking into a formed group of people or is it something else? By pinpointing the cause of the feeling, you and your child will be able to understand it better.
4. Develop strategies to regulate emotions
When you and your child are able to notice, name and understand the source of a feeling or emotion you can begin to work out ways to help them regulate. Is a big calming and focusing breath needed? Or maybe a few star jumps? There isn’t one route to regulating the child’s emotions, what works best for your child will be something you need to figure out together.
5. Maintain boundaries to keep everyone safe
Rules that maintain safety should be non-negotiable. These will vary depending on the age and developmental stage of a child. When a child is feeling a big emotion, their brain will not be working in the same way it does when the child is calm. Expectations and language may need to be adjusted to help the child stay safe. Rather than seeing a rule as something that a child should be punished for breaking, work with your child to help them succeed in staying safe and maintaining the boundary.
6. Relate with your child
Once they have calmed down and are able to listen, empathise with your child. Talk to them about a time you felt the same way and what happened. This will help them to understand their own feelings and feel like you understand and care about them.
Here are a few practical examples of the steps
Name, explain, understand, regulate, boundaries, relate
- “I can see you are really excited.”
- “You can’t stay still!”
- “I am wondering if you are excited about seeing your friend.”
- “Take a deep breath with me.”
- “I can see you are finding it tricky to stay close by. Hold my hand as we cross the road to keep us safe.”
- “One time I was so excited I had so much energy that I thought I might be able to fly.”
- “I can see you are really angry.”
- “Your face is scrunched up and your fists are clenched.”
- “I am wondering if you are angry because someone didn’t let you play.”
- “Take a deep breath with me.”
- “I cannot let you hit me. If you need to get your angry out try hitting this cushion or blowing away the clouds in the sky.”
- “Once I was so angry I wanted to throw everything I could see but your grandad helped me calm down by giving me play dough to squeeze.”
- “I can see you are really sad.”
- “Your eyes are hidden and your shoulders are hunched.”
- “I am wondering if you are sad because it is time to leave.”
- “Would you like a hug?”
- “It is ok to feel sad. We need to go home now to have dinner.”
- “I sometimes feel really sad about things ending too. Shall we make a plan to come back here again?”
As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so make sure you are getting the support you need to help you support the people around you.
Catherine Lynch is an experienced teacher, play therapist and senior manager at PlanBee, which creates teaching resources for primary school aged children (aged five-11).