Kids feeling stressed? Help them learn self-care skills

By Julia Martin Burch, Magination Press Family

We’re all feeling some big emotions right now, as the whole world battles the COVID-19 virus. Adults and children alike are feeling uncertain, anxious, lonely and scared. This is the time to practice self-care skills. Here are some tips to help your child develop self-care skills to recognize and manage their emotions:

As parents and caregivers, we can help kids develop strong self-care skills to help them weather adversity and cheer themselves on. Magination Press’s Fantastic You by Danielle Dufayet shows young readers how to develop a positive and nurturing relationship with themselves. In the note to parents and caregivers, Dr. Julia Martin Burch offers strategies to help children build self-care skills that mirror what the kids in Fantastic You do.

Identifying Emotions
Learning to notice, identify, and soothe their own emotions begins in childhood, but your child will continue to develop these skills throughout their lives. Emotions can be overwhelming to all of us. Young children in particular can struggle to understand surges in emotion and physical sensations that go with them, like butterflies in their tummies or feeling shaky. They rely on you to help them figure out what the feelings mean and to name them.

Get curious with your child about what they are feeling. You can ask them what is happening inside their body and if they can name the emotion they are feeling. You can also support them by describing what you see and guessing what the emotion might be that they are feeling. “I see that your face is red and your hands are in fists. When I do those actions, I’m often feeling angry. Do you think that’s how you are feeling?”

Along with learning to recognize and identify emotions, it’s important for children to learn that emotions aren’t right or wrong, they just are. No matter how big or painful an emotion is, it is a safe and acceptable experience. You can help children by noticing and validating their emotions. For example, you could say, “It’s hard that we all have to stay home to beat the virus. That means you can’t see your friends. I can see why you are feeling sad.” When children learn to validate their own feelings, it allows them to reduce the intensity of an emotion they are feeling in the moment and builds confidence in their ability to manage their emotions.

Help your child discover which activities or experiences help them calm down or feel better. What helps a child feel better will depend on the situation and on the child’s preferences, so explore a lot of different activities. Some kids will find that soothing their senses with music, a hot bath, looking at clouds, or snuggling with a favorite lovey might help. Others might find a project like building a fort or putting on a puppet show is a good distraction. Finding out what helps you self-soothe is an important skill that’s fun to develop. Help your child collect some of their favorite soothing objects to create an easy-to-grab “coping kit! (or “self soothe kit!”)”. It can also be helpful and fun to sit down with your child in a calm moment and collaboratively make a list of some of their favorite self soothe activities. Having a list ready to go before your child starts to struggle can help take the pressure off of you both in a difficult moment.

Helpful self-talk
Learning to recognize how we talk to ourselves is another important life skill. Helping your child understand how powerful their inner voice can be is the first step in teaching them to use positive self-talk. When we talk to ourselves in a negative way, we often feel worse and are less likely to persist or persevere in a challenging situation. Then we feel badly that we’ve not done well or quit. Help your child notice when she puts herself down and how that makes her feel. Once she’s aware that her inner voice can affect her feelings, then work on helping her come up with positive phrases to use in challenging situations. Instead of “I can’t do this.” rephrase to “I can’t do this YET, but if I keep trying, I’ll get better.” Practicing helpful self-talk during calm times can make it easier for your child to use when feeling stressed.

Model constructive coping and self-care
As parents and caregivers, we often put children’s needs before our own, hiding our emotions. It’s important, though, to model for kids how we manage difficult situations. When you are coping with a difficult situation that would be appropriate for your child to hear about, consider labeling your emotion and describing how you plan to cope with it.
For example, you might say, “I’m feeling sad that I had a hard day at work. To take care of myself and my feelings, I’m going to take the dog for a long walk and have a bath later tonight.”

When to seek support
Learning to manage emotions is a life-long process. Children develop this skill at different rates, and it’s common for children and adolescents to go through periods where they are more or less able to skillfully cope with powerful emotions. However, if your child consistently has trouble coping with painful emotions, consider seeking professional support. Consult a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional with training in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for children.


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