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*This article is a part of our larger Family Mental Health Hub, an initiative by MSB to increase communication and connection between kids and caretakers. Please visit the Hub for even more family and kid related resources!*
How are you helping your kids deal with big feelings right now?
From racial injustice, to police brutality, to riots and pandemics there’s no shortage of things to feel deeply about. It’s enough to rattle the most optimistic adult. So I’m sure this thought is on everyone’s mind: how are kids dealing emotionally?
The answer is: we’re not quite sure yet.
Since we’re still in the height of unrest, social scientists are only able to gather data points about how children are affected. This means the research is still on going (check out the video below on this crucial work). We don’t know yet how the kids of 2020 will be affected specifically by the events of this year.
What we do know from past traumatic experiences like 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina is that children are extremely perceptive. Just because they are young, doesn’t mean kids are exempt from experiencing big feelings. In fact it may be worse because they don’t have skills or vocabulary yet to express their fear, anxiety, or sadness.
That’s why helping kids with these big feelings is vital, especially at a time like this.
Why Helping Children Deal with Big Feelings is so Important
Research shows that it’s really important to talk with your children about these life changing events. This will help them understand that it’s okay to speak about your feelings during tough times.
Talking to your kids directly about an adverse event or concept (instead of sheltering them from it) teaches them to identify and process heavy emotions. Being honest with them at an age appropriate level also builds trust between parents and children.
This all adds up to kids feeling more safe and secure emotionally at the end of the day.
What do Big Feelings Look Like in a Child?
First you have to know that children express feelings differently than adults, especially when it comes to huge adverse emotions. This means they’ll express their feelings in a variety of ways that may not make sense.
For some kids this may look like angry outbursts and poor behavior. For others it may look like being bossy or controlling. Still other children retreat into daydreams to soothe their pain. It all depends on the child, the event, and the reaction of the parents.
It’s important to make the distinction between regular childhood outbursts and a child struggling through big feelings caused by a major and ongoing traumatic event. If you need more guidance on this please check out our Guide to Supporting a Traumatized Child.
How can you Help a Child Deal with Big Feelings?
The good news is there are lots of ways to support your child in this difficult time. Here’s a roundup of the resources available nationally:
Psychology Today has an excellent resource for finding adolescent therapists built into their website. This search bar helps parents find an age appropriate mental health professional anywhere in the US (search by Zip Code). They also offer access to Tele-therapy, Support Groups, and Psychiatrists on their site.
This post from VeryWellMind lists the 7 Best Online Therapy Programs for Kids. It includes resources for smaller children all the way up to teenagers and also has some excellent free options.
Teen Counseling is an offshoot of online therapy platform BetterHelp and provides your child with 24/7 digital access to a counselor. Through the use of chat sessions, phone calls and video calls Teen Counseling gives kids peace of mind and a safe place to vent.
And lastly, it’s important to know how to chose the right counselor for your child. Psych Central has a great article on how to Chose the Right Therapist for Your Child. The article helps parents distinguish what type of therapy their child needs, what questions to ask when searching, and where to start your search. (Hint, start with your child’s school counselor).
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You can find tons of kid specific mental health activities, worksheets, and parental advice on MSB’s Pinterest. We have boards with resources for all ages from toddlers to teens and we’re always adding more. Check it out:
The Child Mind Institute is also a great place for parents to get resources. Here’s an article from them on how to support older kids through the COVID-19 pandemic. They also have an easy to use A-Z topic list to direct you to the support you need the most and a Parent’s Guide to Getting Good Help for their children.
Doing your own research is also a must! Below are just a few of the great books on Parenting for Mental Health on Amazon. Follow the links to find more!
Emotional Educational Resources
Kids benefit from a healthy emotional education at all developmental levels.
Why? Because in a time of crisis, knowing how to identify and handle big feelings will help them feel more stable. Being emotionally intelligent is an important life skill to teach for their mental well being.
That means, it’s never the wrong time to introduce these concepts to your children, even when they’re toddlers.
There’s loads of resources out there designed specifically to teach emotional regulation, CBT tricks and coping skills to kids. I’ve pulled together a few of my favorites ranging from toddlers, to young children to teens.
Emotional Tools for Babies and Toddlers
Birth to 6 months might seem like a time when babies don’t do much. But it’s actually a pivotal moment for their emotional development. From as early as 2 months old, babies can express simple emotions like fear, anger, and happiness. At around 6 months they start to mimic the emotions of others.
That’s why it’s so important to introduce them to tools that help them learn to identify emotions through mimicry. Usually at this age that comes in the form of colorful, expressive toys and board books like the ones below. My favorite of the bunch is the Fun Feelings monster!
Emotional Tools for Younger Children
Children between the ages of 2 to 7 are in what’s known as the pre-operational stage of childhood development. If you’ve had a conversation with a kid at this age, you’ll quickly realize logic is not their strong suit (yet). That’s because at this stage, children see things mostly symbolically and can’t really link together tough concepts.
This is also a crucial moment for their emotional development as this is when they’re learning to be more independent and make some sense of the world around them. Tools for their emotional health therefore have to be largely symbolic and connected with actions.
Coloring books, activities, and interactive tools are best for this age. As is representative media which shows children who look like them (as in the book The Boy With Big Big Feelings). This helps them learn to relate and build empathy.
Check out some of the best emotional tools for this age group on Amazon:
Emotional Tools for Adolescents and Teens
Around the ages of 7-11 kids start to see the world in more concrete terms. This is where they start to link concepts together. This development continues through the last stage of cognitive development as children become teenagers.
With all that comes the inevitable existential challenges. Kids are very likely to have a hard time emotionally at these stages because they’re way more aware of what’s going on in the world. Plus hormones are changing and feelings are only getting bigger and deeper.
It can be a really hard time to manage under normal circumstances. But considering everything that’s happened in 2020, I can’t imagine how tough it is for teens to deal with big feelings right now.
What I do know is that kids at this age want to feel independent and in charge of themselves. So the best emotional resources are going to be ones that engage their need for privacy (within reason) and autonomy.
Workbooks and journals can be really effective at this age so I’ve pulled together my favorites from Amazon!
Helping kids deal with big feelings is all about supporting them and allowing them to learn. And not to shy away from talking about difficult things.
Because, as much as we’d all like to shield them from emotional pain, kids won’t grow through tough stuff unless they go through it.
So be open with kids and help them make sense of all the senseless stuff that’s happening. Build up a tool box of resources, coping skills, and emotional education to share with your children. Your kids will definitely appreciate it in a time like this!
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