This household is always a melting pot of different emotions, with three children there is always something going on from different factions emerging and people feeling left out, to fears about bullying at school and change. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have managed to build a rather lovely library of books to help the children manage these feelings. I’m also becoming increasingly interested in the use of Social Stories to help explain situations to children.This series of five books helps to fill some gaps in the 4-7 year old age range, although I’d argue its useful for older primary school children as well. They also provide a familiar character in the form of wolf (who is good rather than typecast) for children to empathise with.
In each of the stories Wolfgang is faced with a big feeling and his friend spider helps to offer some perspective on it. This is great, and the use of perspective is a very key part of CBT and incredibly useful to learn and if possible embed into children’s minds. The text is engaging and the pictures are visually engaging and modern. These are appealing books for the age group and really have that added value which you want for you every crowded bookshelf.
Avril McDonald is a woman on a mission, ‘I have a bold goal… to give ALL children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their creative potential’. I think she has made massive strides in getting these books published and out there. They are something which every school should have on their shelves. Our favourite is The Wolf and the Baby Dragon which helps children manage anxiety, but there is real value in the others. I’d recommend The Grand Wolf in particular which deals with loss and change which really fills a gap in children’s books, the only other book I can think of dealing with this is the wonderful Grandads’s Island. Be warned though, this one is quite hard to read as an adult as well!
We are very fortunate in that Avril McDonald has kindly written a guest blog for us. I asked her if she could help with an area which i’m currently grappling with for little Ned- how to manage big feelings!
10 Top Tips to help little children manage big feelings By Avril McDonald
It can be a bit of a shock when you realise that your children didn’t come with instructions! You can read books, ask ‘Dr Google’ (with caution) or see your GP to help you navigate your way around managing their physical bodies but it’s not so cut and dried when the time comes to help them manage their emotional bodies! Issues like nightmares, fear of the dark, being left out, change, loss and grief (to name a few) will invariably come up and they will look to you to give them the answers that they need!
Although our world has never been more distracted and stressful than it is right now, it’s also never had such wonderful opportunities (through research and technology) to understand how our brains operate and strategies to help children adapt and thrive. Here are my top 10 tips to help little children manage big feelings:
- Teach children about their brains as soon as you can
You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to lean that at a basic level, we have 2 brains; The ‘Old Brain’ (responsible for basic physical desires, motives and emotions such as the fight, flight or freeze responses) and the ‘New Brain’ that sets us apart from animals. This part of the brain enables us to think, imagine and reason and gives us our sense of self.
Our new brain capabilities can easily be hijacked by our old brain feelings, emotions or desires. The old brain is most useful to us if we can train it using our rational new brain. Young children can be introduced to this concept by imagining that one part of their brain is a bit like a ‘Cheeky Monkey’ and that another part is like a ‘Wise Owl’. Sometimes the Cheeky Monkey can get a bit too excited or if it feels scared or angry, it might want to scream and run away or do things that might hurt other people like hit or say unkind words. The Wise Owl can train the Cheeky Monkey so that when feelings come up, the Cheeky Monkey can stop for a minute while the Wise Owl helps it do something really good with those feelings (even if the feelings are bad).
- Regularly practise calming down
‘Mindful breathing techniques’ or ‘Gratitude Exercises’ are a great way to help calm children down and can be easily accessed on the internet. They release happy hormones (e.g. Dopamine) and reduce stress hormones (e.g. Cortisol) putting children in a powerful positive mental state. Practising calming techniques regularly make them easy to access in times when we most need them.
- Practise Empathy
Empathy plays a vital role in preventing bullying and building social tolerance. You can encourage children to practise empathy by asking them to reflect everyday on something kind that they did for someone (or that they saw someone else do). Or get them excited about carrying out ‘Random Acts of Kindness’. Reflecting on tough situations from a different perspective (e.g. looking down from high up in the sky) can also help children step out of difficult situations, consider other people’s feelings and process their own.
- Use stories to take away fears
If a child is worried about nightmares or certain situations and scenarios, try creating new stories together and make their scary things become funny or small and cute. This is a very simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy called ‘Re-framing’. Or try ‘Role Playing’ Children love nothing more than role playing a tough situation they are facing when you play the part of them or you share a similar story from your childhood. Role playing gives them a safe environment to try out different scenarios.
- Encourage children to get comfortable with their own company
If children can learn how to ‘Make their own fun’ and get comfortable doing things on their own from time to time, it’s a great tool for them to use if they ever feel ‘left out’ or are in a new situation without their usual support group. This can also help to open up opportunities for children to make new friends because children are generally attracted to other children who are engaged and happy in a fun activity.
- Help children express their feelings through art
Giving children the time and initiative to draw or paint how they feel about something can help them explore and process feelings without having to find words to describe them (words which children might not even have yet).
- Help them build a Growth Mindset to build resilience
Help children build what Carol Dweck coined as a Growth Mindset . Encourage statements like ‘Mistakes mean I’m learning’ or ‘It’s not that you can’t do it, you just can’t do it yet’ and praise and reward the ‘process’ of learning rather than just the end results.
- Help them practice risk in safe environments
Give children opportunities to experience risk, problem solve and to manage disappointment in a safe environment. We only have a limited amount of time to coach them in ways to cope before they will be out in the world reacting to real life situations based on the tools we’ve given them.
- Be open about change, loss and grief
It’s not only death that causes us to feel grief. Our lives are in a constant state of change, and grief is something that we will all experience to varying degrees. Being open with children about change, loss and grief, and practising ways to cope, can help to prepare them to manage their own difficult feelings.
Having fun and laughing helps the brain to regulate the body’s stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and epinephrine) and increases happy hormones (e.g. dopamine and oxytocin). Group games also help to build relational skills through interacting with others and learning how to be a good loser and a good winner which helps practise social tolerance and resilience.
About the Author
Avril McDonald is the Author of the Feel Brave Series of books (little stories about big feelings for 4-7 year olds) and founder of www.feelbrave.com She set up the www.friendsoffeelbrave.com charitable arm with the vision to give all children access to tools to help them manage tough emotions and reach their potential working with Educational Child Psychologists. Avril is an ex Primary School Teacher, Business Woman and a Mum. She is also a fellow of the RSA www.thersa.org which has a mission to enrich society through ideas and action.