Helping your Child Adjust and Handle Big Feelings
by Mrs. Wright, LPC, School Counselor, BMSA
It’s natural for the beginning of the school year to greet us with mixed emotions. We are sad to say goodbye to the Summer schedule and excited for the new routine of the school year. Our kids are usually excited and apprehensive about the unknown of their new class. They may feel excited to see their friends again and anxious, hoping they have fewer conflicts this year than last. Some children have mild feelings and others have very intense feelings that get in the way of sleep or make them feel ill. So how can we help them through this time of adjustment? Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare for the first week of school.
Name it to Tame it
One of the most powerful things you can do as parents is to help your child name or label their feelings. Naming feelings activates the logical part of the brain, turning down the volume on the emotional part of the brain. It doesn't make the feeling go away. It just makes it more managable. When you see your child is upset, simply reflect the feeling they are experiencing. Here are some examples:
- "You're feeling worried about the new school year," or
- "You are disappointed your best friend is not in your class."
- "It's hard for you to sleep because you're feeling excited about the morning."
Another way to help children understand their feelings and engage their thinking brain is to talk to them about the "zone" they are in. At BMSA, we talk about our feelings this way. We may be feeling Blue Zone feelings if they don't seem to have enough energy. Maybe they are tired, sad, bored, or exhausted. Or they may have Yellow Zone feelings if they are a bit too anxious, excited, or frustrated. Red Zone feelings are those we have when we are out of control. If your child knows this language, you might say, "I can see you're in _____ zone."
Validate the Feelings
When any person gets the message that what they're feeling is okay, the anxiety about having to get rid of the feeling right away disipates. A parent can validate their child's feelings using phrases like the ones below.
- "It's very common to feel this way in your situation."
- "I can see why you're feeling _____."
- "Sometimes I feel the same way when ______."
- "It's okay to feel _____."
Encourage "Noticing" (a.k.a. Mindfulness)
We know that feelings don't last forever, but when we are in the middle of a big feeling, it's hard to imagine that we won't ever feel another way. Remind your child that what they are experiencing won't last forever. Below are some examples of what you might say:
- Let's be curious and notice when this feeling starts to change.
- Can you notice when the feeling begins to feel smaller?
- Where do you notice the feeling in your body? (Your stomach, chest, fists?) Will you tell me when the feeling changes?
Every year, more research is published about the benefits of mindfulness including increased resilience, more focus, and more amieable behavior. When a child is experiencing big feelings for any reason, it is a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness that will ultimately increase resilience for future challenges.
Parents can boil these concepts down to one or two standard sentences that 1. names the feeling(s), 2. validates the feeling(s), and 3. encourages mindfulness.
Below are some examples of ways to roll it all together.
- You're feeling _______ and that's okay. I want you to notice when that feeling begins to change.
- It's normal to feel _______. I wonder when you'll begin to feel better.
- I know you're _______ (feeling word). I get it. I know you can endure it because it won't last forever.
It may not seem to work right away
Lastly, I want to remind you that it's okay if what you say doesn't seem to make a difference because, for one thing, it probably is making a difference, if not immediately, then later. And secondly, you can use the same techniques on yourself to model handling difficult feelings. For example, you might say or think, "It's okay that I'm frustrated that he/she won't calm down. This frustration won't last forever. I'm going to notice when my feeling begins to change."
Communicate with Your Child's Teacher
If your child is unusually emotional at any time including the first of the year, it's very valuable to share this information with your child's teacher. A quick email or note can give them a heads that will allow them to be sensitive to your child, and include activities throughout the day that can address the feelings. If your child is comfortable enough to share their feelings directly with the teacher (which we encourage in order to build independence), they may write a note or use a Zones Report found at this link.
It may also help to remind your child that all teachers expect students to have all sorts of feelings during a school day. You may review our Calming Choices poster that every teacher posts some version of in his/her classroom. The poster is a reminder of some acceptable ways students can handle big feelings at any time during the day.
You may also reach out directly to me with any concerns @ firstname.lastname@example.org.