Supporting Kids’ Emotional Health During the Pandemic
By Lauren Showalter, MA, LPC, NCC
Personally, I have been less worried about children getting behind in their academics during these lockdowns and school shut-downs than I have with them not engaging in socio-emotional learning. Children spend most of their waking hours at school, and therefore are learning social skills and how to emote as much as they are learning how to read and write. So with schools being closed for so long, I could care less if my daughters get a little behind in their times tables or if they remember their sight words. I feel academically, teachers will work hard to catch our kids up. However, I am concerned about the social interactions they are missing out on. They are missing out on precious time learning how to hold appropriate conversations, how to share, how to be empathetic, how to stand up for themselves, and how to connect with their peers.
School districts around the nation are trying to plan and decide what to do for the next school year. For the ones that do go back they will look very different, and it’s not out of the question for another closure to happen later down the road. With that in mind, parents, family members, caregivers, and others involved in children’s lives must take on the task of helping our children be “educated” in social-emotional learning. You do not have to be a counselor or educator to help a child learn how to understand their emotions and express them in appropriate ways. It is quite possible you are doing a lot of “teaching” without even realizing it! Here are some tips to help your child continue to grow emotionally even during the pandemic:
- Regulating Emotions: Children are not born knowing how to regulate their emotions. A baby cries to have it’s immediate needs met; a toddler throws a tantrum when things do not go his way; a pre-schooler cries when her mom drops her off. Often young children through the teen years need assistance from caregivers and adults to help regulate their strong emotions. This assistance helps them feel stable even when out of control, models how to process those emotions, and is overall comforting. This is done through adults being “anchors in the storm”; when the child’s emotions are out of control the adult remains in control. Remaining calm and collected helps the child’s brain to also calm down. This is not easy for all parents, and that is okay. What is key then is for parents/caregivers to be extremely self-aware of their own feelings. If something is overwhelming or triggering for the parent, it’s best for them to take a break themselves before engaging. Personally when my 8 year old calls me “mean” I want to fly through the roof. It takes a lot of self control and self talk to instead be the calm amidst her storm. So if a child is screaming and crying because they are stressed about the state of the world right now and feel out of control, yelling back or telling them to stop may not be the best response. Calmly being present, reassuring, and acknowledging their feelings may be more helpful in getting them to calm down.
- Responding: All kids, but young children especially, often use behavior to express their feelings. Throwing food on the floor = I hate broccoli. Not wanting to take a bath at the end of the day = I am tired and just want to sleep. Refusing to get dressed in the morning = I am overwhelmed at how I do not know how my day is going to go today. Having trouble going to sleep = Being worried about what school will look like or if I will see my friends again. Hitting sibling = He took my toy and I am angry at him. It is important for parents to respond to the feeling as well as the behavior so that children can learn to deal with that emotion and express it differently. “Stop. We do not hit our brother; that could really hurt him. I see that you are very angry right now. We are going to take a break from this toy right now.” It is also important to note that almost all strong emotions/behaviors that children are showing are requiring attention from a caregiver. If an adult hits someone, you would probably want to get the heck out of there. Hitting equals violence which often triggers are brains to “get out”. If we are responsible for a child, hitting requires us to respond and attend. This continues through the teenage years. It’s easy to yell at or ignore the teen who just slammed the door in your face and said that he hated you. However that child most likely is feeling extremely strong emotions and after a cool down (for both parties), requires your attention and response in a calm manner; just like when he was 3.
- Be Curious: When a child is emoting it is helpful to “be curious” about it. The caregiver can then learn what is truly behind that emotion, what happened, and then help process the situation. Sometimes parents can instead shame, challenge, or minimize these strong emotions which does not help the child grow in their emotional education. Some common negative phrases are things like: “get over it”, “stop crying”, “don’t be a baby”, “you better stop that”, and “act your age”. Instead parrot back what you are seeing “you seem very angry right now” or try saying something like “tell me more about what is really going on”. For example, when a child yells “I hate school!” and refuses to get out of bed, the parent could “investigate” a little more and find out he is afraid of a bully in his class.
- RULER: The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed an acronym that makes it easy to remember how to help cultivate a child’s emotional learning. This tool can be used to discuss emotions with your child and also help us as adults pay attention to how we control our own feelings.
- R: Recognize – your own emotions and those of others around you
- U: Understand – those feelings and find their source
- L: Label – emotions with vocabulary
- E: Express – feelings in an appropriate way and use empathy
- R: Regulate – our emotions instead of letting them control us
During times of stress and disorder it is often more difficult to regulate and control emotions. Everyone is facing new challenges right now, and it is okay to feel overwhelmed. With that in mind, it is a perfect time to dive deeper into our emotions and learn ways to regulate. As adults we can improve how we express ourselves, and then be models for our children. It is never too late to implement this practice, and now more than ever our children would benefit from learning how to express what they are feeling.
“When a Child’s Emotions Spike, How Can a Parent Find Their Best Self?” MindShift. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/55708/when-a-childs-emotions-spike-how-can-a-parent-find-their-best-self
Casel Cares Initiative – COVID-19 Resources. https://casel.org/resources-covid/