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Coping With “Big Feelings”

Naming difficult emotions and the events that cause them is the first stage in teaching children resilience. Big feelings are abounding in response to alterations in our lives caused by the pandemic: frustration, anger, fear, loss, irritability.

One creative idea proposed to help children (and adults) cope with all the changes we are undergoing is to make them conscious by writing them down and creating a chart that depicts visually what’s different now and what’s the same.

The first column might list things like 1) can’t play with friends, 2) had to stop sports camp, 3) missing out on going to Tahoe, 4) mom and dad working at home, often can’t play. Then write the aspects of life that are the same: 1) mom and dad finish work at 5, 2) still eat breakfast at 7, 3) go to bed at 8, 4) have pizza on Fridays. You can brainstorm what items to put in each column and talk about the feelings involved, especially those in response to items in column one.

Recognizing feelings and naming them is the first developmental step in learning self-regulation. Resilience involves being able to tolerate big feelings, but interestingly, we can’t handle difficult emotions without first being able to name them. The old ways of teaching children to manage intense reactions were to punish the behavior with no discussion of what’s causing it, to distract children, or to talk them out of their responses. Yet none of these methods develops children’s abilities to deal with challenges in a resilient way.

Our job is to stay aware that many behaviors happening right now are the result of the unprecedented demands placed on all of us. It’s natural that bursts of anger and aggression would be occurring, and though we have to set limits, taking the time to talk about underlying feelings teaches self-regulation. It’s a way of creating compassion for our children and for ourselves.

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