Have you ever experienced this scenario....your child's anxiety or anger is increasing, and you are trying to support and provide guidance, so you suggest that they take some deep breaths, only to hear "NO! IT DOESN'T WORK!" You might be wondering why these coping strategies are suggested if kids don't use them? I hear this a lot and it's a common frustration for both parents and children. I'll tell you a little about what's going on and then I'll tell you what you can do about it.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that gets stimulated when one is faced with a perceived threat, you might know the term 'fight or flight?' It's the amygdala that sends messages to our brains and bodies to either fight, flee or freeze in a dangerous situation. In these instances, the amygdala can override the more rational parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which is useful, it keeps us alive. I'll give you an example, one doesn't need to use reason and logic to determine if it's a good idea to jump back onto the sidewalk if a car suddenly appears as your crossing the road. To tell someone to take a deep breath in that moment would be futile; the amygdala is in charge and the only thing to do is run!
So, what can you do about it? Practice the coping strategies regularly. This can help in many ways; it helps to create more moments of calm in your child's life, it helps build self-awareness, it builds confidence in children and their ability to deal with various situations, and it becomes easier to remember and use the skills when needed. Practicing coping strategies may seem like another thing to add to your long list of things to do, but there are creative ways that you can incorporate this into your day. You can practice at bedtime, in the car, walking to school, at the dinner table or while doing other daily routines. Doing this as a family can help to normalize emotions and coping for children. It's also important to model positive coping as a parent; children are watching and learning from you and if you are using the strategies that you're teaching they will be more inclined use them.
1. Calm Breathing; Slow and steady breathing. Breathe in and fill the lungs while counting to 5, then slowly breathe out through the mouth until the lungs are empty, counting to 8. Repeat this for several minutes.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation; tensing and releasing the muscles. Start from the feet and work your way up the body. Curl up the toes and tighten the muscles in the feet, then release; squeeze the muscles in the legs and release, and move up the body (stomach, arms, shoulders, face). Notice the difference between tension and relaxation and notice where you hold the tension. A short version of this for children is pretending you're a robot (squeeze all the muscles in the body and hold for a 10 seconds) then pretend you're a ragdoll (let it all go and flop on the couch or bed). Combine this strategy with calm breathing.
3. Grounding/mindfulness; staying present in the moment. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Combine this strategy with calm breathing.
4. Listen to calming music; play calm music and slow your breathing down.
Responding to big emotions
A few things that parents can do to help in the moment when your child's emotions are high are; stay calm, slow your breathing down, don't talk too much (the brain isn't good at taking in the information when the emotion is high), empathize and validate their feelings, use hugs (if that's calming for your child), encourage them to go somewhere quiet or away from the problem and stay with them and remind them of the coping strategies you've been practicing. Don't get frustrated if they resist doing the strategies, it's the amygdala talking, give them some time.
If your child is in crisis please contact your local crisis line, call 911 or go to the local hospital emergency room for help.
Should you and your child need more support managing emotions it might be helpful to contact a local mental health professional for help.
I'm a registered psychotherapist and I'm available for free consultation and on-going therapy for children and teens. Feel free to contact me for more details firstname.lastname@example.org (905) 464-1029 or use the contact form below.