Expressing Emotions: How to help your kids express and manage feelings in times of crisis
Feelings…we all have them, and if your family resembles mine at all, we are experiencing a lot of them in our current state of national pandemic crisis! I personally have felt anxious, annoyed, grateful, frustrated, and exhausted...and that’s all in just the last hour! Dads are home, kids are home, and mom is now school teacher, cafeteria lady, house cleaner, and entertainer extraordinaire. These times are truly uncharted territory. My heart breaks for children missing their friends from school and the fun of all of the end of the year activities. I feel for seniors that are mourning the loss of prom and graduation. I hurt for brides and grooms who have to reschedule their weddings and for family members who can’t sit and hold the hand of their loved one that is in a hospital room all alone. We are all wondering, how long will all this last? While we know that staying at home is saving lives, it’s hard to not feel the loss of what life used to be, and we all need to be reminded that it’s okay to grieve because man, this is hard!
In times of crisis we all respond differently.
In times of crisis we all respond differently. Some of us find ways to laugh in an effort to cope with the stress of quarantine, while others hoard groceries and toiletry items in an effort to feel safe and secure in a time that is anything but normal. Crisis of any kind leads to a range of emotions. We all process our feelings differently based on our differing personalities, and it’s often difficult to find common ground within our family system when we are all trying our best to emotionally survive in the midst of trauma. Whether you express your feelings boldly or like to keep your feelings to yourself, the truth is, if we don’t deal with our feelings, our feelings will begin to deal with us and can lead to unhealthy ways of emotional expression.
This is especially true in children. Children in crisis communicate through behavior more than through words. Behavior changes are a good signal to you that your child is possibly feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed and needs help in processing those feelings. Common behaviors children exhibit in times of crisis might include excessive irritability, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, clinginess, emotional outbursts, or physical complaints. If you are noticing these changes in your child, I wanted to share with you some activities to help your children appropriately express the emotions they are feeling, as well as some activities that can be used to calm children in times of crisis.
1. Feelings Thermometer
I love using a feelings thermometer to help children learn how to not only label what they are feeling but also learn to measure the intensity of what they are feeling. You can find templates online for this activity, or draw your own, but the thermometer I like to use is broken up into six categories: Happy, Sad, Scared, Annoyed, Mad, and Enraged. You can assign a color to each feeling and have the child brainstorm what makes them feel each way. Then talk with them about ways they can “cool down” or positively cope with each feeling. It’s good to post this somewhere in the house where your child can see it and be reminded that, if their feelings are getting “too hot”, they need to be brought down a level.
2. Conscious Breathing and The Five Senses Activity
These two activities are great for our kiddos that are easily worried or struggle with anxiety. When some children experience fear or worry, their thoughts might become excessive and they need to learn coping skills that bring them back to the present and slow their brain down. Conscious breathing is a great tool for all children to learn. I personally love the 4-7-8 method. Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Repeat this two or three times.
The Five Senses Activity is a grounding activity that also is used to help children focus on the present. When a child feels anxious, have them focus on something in the room they can See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Touch. Or you can even simplify it and say, "Tell me three things you can see that are red", for example.
3. What Can I Control?
This activity is great for older children or adolescents. Making a list or creating a visual of what is in our control versus what is not in our control is very helpful in calming our fears or anxieties. Have your child trace their hand on a piece of paper and within their hand have them write down what they are in control of. On the outside of their hand, have them write down what they cannot control. This might include sickness, weather, other people’s behavior, just to give you some examples. As they begin to see what they can control and what they can’t, dialogue with your child ways they can respond to what is out of their control in an effort to relieve stress or pressure in those specific areas.
4. Art and Play
These last two strategies are pretty simple. Having a child engage in drawing, role play, creative play, and storytelling are great ways to find out what a child is feeling inside. Listening to their conversations and validating their feelings will help a child to feel safe and secure in trying times.
Feelings are a part of everyday life. In crisis, our feelings are magnified and take more effort to control. If you notice that your child’s feelings of anxiousness or sadness are becoming more extreme and interfering with daily activities, then that is a good time to reach out to a counselor or your pediatrician for more direct help. It is important to never belittle your child’s feelings or tell them there is nothing to worry about. Let your children express emotion and share ways that you have often felt the same feelings in times of uncertainty and stress. Empathy and grace bring connection, and connection is something that we all can use more of in this time. Join me next week as we talk about the important role that routine plays in times of crisis.
Expressing Emotions is Entry TWO in Sanctuary's blog series, Calm in Crisis, with licensed counselor, ministry wife, and guest blogger Karmen Wilson. Share with us in the comments about how your children and/or grandchildren are expressing their emotions during this season of pandemic crisis.
Karmen Wilson has been a Licensed Professional Counselor for 12 years and worked as an elementary school counselor for ten of those years. She and her husband Cameron have been married for 11 years and have served in a ministry staff role, off and on, throughout their marriage, totaling about six years--Cameron in production and Karmen in teaching and small groups. The Wilson family recently moved to Los Angeles, CA where Cameron is the Production Director for Vintage Church. Together they are both passionate about following God's call on their lives and creating authentic relationships and community through church. In their free time, they keep busy playing cars and going to parks with their vibrant two-year-old son, Jaxson. They also love going to the beach and driving around, finding cool restaurants and attractions in L.A.! Karmen has a passion for helping individuals in the areas of self-discovery, healing past hurts, infertility, marriage, and parenting. She can be reached via email for consulting and coaching.