Have you ever noticed how life has a tendency to throw all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, especially at the least convenient times? I've heard enough experiences to know that this doesn't just happen to me; everyone has their own story. It's often hard for me (but really, most adults as well) to deal with these types of challenges. Imagine what it's like for a child! Yet we often have huge expectations of our children at their first sign of struggle (which tends to result in some sort of public tantrum.) Here are 10 tools you can use with your child to help cope with the situations you encounter:
1.Breathing Exercises One way to calm down and re-focus is by concentrating on your breathing. An exercise I enjoy doing with my daughter is "cookie breathing." I've heard a couple different variations of this such as focusing on exhaling as if you're blowing to cool down a hot cookie. The way we do it is by taking deep breaths in, pretending to smell fresh-baked cookies, and I always ask her what kind of cookie she's smells. Usually she chooses peanut butter or monster cookies (though apparently we differ in our expectations of what a monster cookie is!) You can also combine both ideas. It has been amazing though because I've noticed her using it on her own, and she also can sense when I need to refresh and she'll tell me, "Mom, breathe" or "Do you need to smell some chocolate chip cookies?" There are several other types of breathing exercises out there as well; be creative!
2. Mindfulness/Meditation "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally." – Jon Kabat-Zinn Here's a video with a little bit more explanation: Meditation 101: A Beginner's Guide. This state of mind takes practice to achieve and it's totally normal for your mind to wander; just recognize when you do and bring yourself back. A glitter jar can be used in several ways to encourage mindfulness in children (and it's a fun craft you can do together!) There are also several free apps available that can guide you through meditations – just search "mindfulness" or "meditation" in the App Store or on Google Play.
3. Physical Activities result in many benefits: producing endorphins, stress reduction, better sleep, etc. Yoga is one example of an activity with several additional benefits. If this is something you haven't tried before, you can find instructional videos online – choose one that matches your child's interests and have fun together!
4. Role Play Children can use play as a way to help process what is going on in their lives. If you pay attention, you can learn more about what they're dealing with, how they view the world, and you can even join in to help them work through certain situations (like a fear they might have). Be careful not to overwhelm them with your presence and let them take the lead.
5. Gentle Touch Oxytocin (the "peace and calm" hormone) is released when you hug or cuddle. If your child is open to it, you can also help them relax through massage. You can begin this with your baby through infant massage. Older children may enjoy story massages where you tell calming stories while using gentle movements to depict the story.For example, you could tell about animals that walk in different patterns and eventually go to sleep at the end of the story; or weather patterns that change from rain to snow to sunshine and calm weather. Story massages like these are done on top of clothing, require no special materials, only take a few minutes, and can be very relaxing.
6. Special Time Make it a habit to regularly connect with your child and participate in what they are interested in. This can help build your relationship through the hard times, and hopefully this relationship fosters a trust that can help your child share their thoughts, feelings, and struggles with you.
7. Stick to Routines When hard times come, often there are life changes that come along as well. As much as possible, stick to the bedtime (and any other) routines you have already been using. Changes are difficult to deal with, but the structure and familiarity of routines provides a sense of safety and comfort that may otherwise get lost in the shuffle.
8. Use Words for Feelings and Problem Solve Together This can be referred to as "emotion coaching." It can be incredibly frustrating (and sometimes even scary) for a child when they have "big feelings" but don't know how to express them appropriately. A few ways you can help them learn to recognize how they're feeling include reading books about different emotions, letting them know how you're feeling, and by naming the emotions you see them display. After they've recognized the emotion, help them know what to do about it (for example, just because a child feels angry doesn't mean it's okay to hit other children. Help them brainstorm solutions you feel are appropriate.) To solidify the concept even more for your child, you can do a simple body mapping activity. Either ask your child to lay down on a large paper and trace the outline of their body, or draw a simple outline of a body on a regular size paper. You can ask your child to recognize where in their body they feel an emotion and draw what it feels like.
9. Connect with Others Around You When you're dealing with something tough, leaving the house can seem overwhelming - but it can also be refreshing to get out in the community. You could participate in a nearby event, find ways to serve, or schedule a play-date (for you and your kids!). In reality, I know this is hard to do. And that's okay. Instead, make a phone call to a family member or friend or talk with a neighbor. Encourage these social opportunities for your child as well. Social connections build resilience. Resist the urge to isolate!
10. Seek Appropriate Resources When Needed Sometimes what you and your family may be going through is more than you can handle on your own. This is not a sign of weakness! Even though it is difficult, it's okay to reach out for help. If you aren't sure what types of resources are available in your community, our Parent Support Specialists are happy to help you by researching the resources in Utah. Give us a call at 801-691-5322.
It's important to note that sometimes your child's reactions to an event may not seem like a big deal to you as an adult (like the outrage that ensues when the face you drew on the bunny isn't happy enough – my daughter was once so upset by this, but I later realized this event triggered her intense need to please others and make them happy.) Children's behavior has meaning, and the struggles you face together (both large and small) provide great opportunities for connection.
What is your child asking you to recognize when they may seem to be "acting out?"