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Does your child freeze up, freak out, break down, or back out when they feel just a hint of anxiety?
Are they easily overwhelmed…frantically trying to avoid whatever triggered the feeling?
And if that’s not possible…do they melt down or shut down?
So, how can we begin to interrupt that cycle?
Name it to Tame it
It’s hard, if not impossible, for a child to manage their emotions with little understanding of them.
A widened emotional vocabulary gives a child a greater understanding of feelings…their own and others.
If a child can internalize the message:
“If there’s a word for it, then other people must feel the same way I do…I’m not bad or weird for feeling how I do…my feelings are normal…”
It is very freeing.
So, the first step is for us to teach our children how to name and recognize their feelings.
And research supports this, indicating that the mere act of naming a difficult feeling helps to calm it.
You may have heard the phrase, name it to tame it.
But to tame it, one must first know how to name it.
So, let’s start there.
The many Colors of Feelings
Just imagine if our child’s knowledge of colors never expanded past the primary colors.
With such a limited color palate, our child would really miss out.
At a certain point, we want our child’s world of color to include the teals and the turquoises…the lilacs and the magenta’s…the beige’s and the burgundies…and many more.
So too we want our children to be able to appreciate a rich palate of feelings and emotions.
Early on, children understand the feelings of happy, sad, mad, and scared.
But we commonly have older children who are still conceptualizing their feelings using the very same framework they used when they were a toddler.
They never moved past the primary color stage of feelings.
Become a Feelings Detective
We want our child to appreciate the difference between irritation and fury…between surprise and shock…between sadness and despair…and the feeling “colors” in between.
And it is very important for our anxious children to appreciate the difference between say nervousness and terror…and the different “shades” in between...
To understand that these different “shades” require different responses…
Because anxiety can quickly move in and convince anxious children not just to avoid situations that terrify them…but to avoid situations that make them merely nervous.
And this is precisely how anxiety gains territory, negatively impacting families and creating a foothold for anxiety disorders.
So, it is important to teach our children to recognize and to differentiate between a wide array of emotional colors.
So, how can we start to teach our children this skill?
Well, look no further…
8 Steps to Help Your Child Become a Feelings Detective
1. Expand our own emotional vocabulary
As parents, many of us did not move too far out of the primary color stage of emotions ourselves.
Along the way, we may have picked up a more sophisticated vocabulary…
But we may not have learned to bring it to life or apply it in a meaningful way.
If you fit into this category, you’re in good company.
And it’s never too late to learn.
We can do so right alongside of our children.
You could even say to your child, “I didn’t have the opportunity to learn all about feelings and emotions when I was your age. Let’s learn together!”
2. Model labeling Our feelings and emotions
Many of us never think to label our feelings…let alone label them out loud for our children to hear.
Most of us operate on a kind of emotional autopilot.
Thus, labeling our feelings might feel weird and artificial at first.
And we sometimes have the idea that labeling a difficult emotion will only serve to amplify it.
And who wants to do that?!
So, our natural response is often to try to numb such a feeling, pretend it isn’t there, or distract ourselves from it.
But studies have shown that when we do label a negative emotion, it actually helps us better manage it.
We can label our feelings in a natural way as we go about our day:
“That’s sure disappointing…I was supposed to go to the movies with Linda tonight, but she just called to say she’s sick.”
“Aunt Noelle told me that she was having a baby, I feel so excited and happy for her because she’s always wanted to be a mom!”
“I’m feeling nervous about my presentation at work tomorrow…I think I’ll get back to it to add those finishing touches.”
“I’m feeling so curious about the answer to that question…I think I’ll just go and look it up right now.”
Many times we have mixed feelings. So, it’s important to model that as well.
“I’m feeling really happy I got this job, but nervous too since I won’t know how to do a lot of things at first.”
3. Model the language of diffusion
Diffusion in the world of emotions simply means creating some distance between us and a given emotion…
When we say to ourselves the words, “I’m anxious,” it’s akin to saying, “Anxiety and I are fused together…this is who I am.”
If instead we say to ourselves, “Right now I’m having an anxious feeling/thought,” it helps us to “unstick” from the “sticky” feeling or thought.
We are authentically acknowledging our thought or feeling, while also separating it from ourselves and recognizing its transient nature (This will pass.).
The thought or feeling is there, but we’re not stuck to it.
It’s just a matter of semantics, but it surprisingly makes a big difference.
Try it out!
4. Label your child’s feelings
Our ultimate goal is for our children to label and express their own feelings.
But in the interim, we can sometimes do it for them…
In the form of a tentative guess or question:
“I imagine you might have been feeling awfully frustrated when you kept getting the wrong answer on that math problem.”
“I wonder if you might have been feeling irritated when Sam kept talking during your favorite show.”
But be open to correction.
For example, your child may say:
“No, I wasn’t irritated with Sam. I’m really good at blocking him out when I’m watching my favorite show.”
In that case, we just acknowledge and reflect:
“Oh, I see. I sometimes get irritated in that situation because I get distracted easily. But you were so absorbed in your show that his talking didn’t even phase you.”
And don’t forget to label your child’s positive emotions…more on that next.
When you saw that you had made the team, you looked so thrilled and excited…your face just lit up!
5. Model expressing and labeling more positive Feelings than negative ones
I’m a firm believer that it’s important to acknowledge all feelings and emotions.
I added this step to the list only because anxious kids tend to have a bias toward the negative.
This makes sense.
Because they are always on alert for any potential danger…hypersensitive to what could go wrong.
And face it…the list of things that could go wrong is pretty much limitless.
So, it can be important for us as parents to model leaning just a bit more to life’s sunny side.
Now I will add one caveat here.
Some anxious children have great difficulty verbalizing their negative feelings.
They keep them to themselves
In these situations, this constriction can take a toll and put a child at an even greater risk for depression…
As we all need to appropriately “let things out” and be real with others…especially those close to us.
Modeling the healthy expression of a whole range of feelings can certainly help give this type of child “permission” to do the same.
“Wow, if mom tells me she feels that way, I guess it’s alright that I do too.”
6. Normalize having more than one feeling at a time
Our feelings can be so complicated.
We can feel many emotions at once:
“When I moved I felt so happy and excited. I was going to be able to discover new places and meet new people. But, I also felt scared and sad. I was scared because I thought that it might be hard to make new friends. And I was sad to be moving away from all the people I cared about.”
When we notice our child may be having mixed feelings or a variety of them, we can reflect that:
“It seems you’re feeling happy and excited about going to camp because you’re going to be able to do so many things you love like swimming, arts and crafts, and roasting marshmallows…and you’re going to make new friends. But, it seems you’re also feeling nervous because you won’t know anyone at first and and I won’t be staying at camp with you.”
7. Model connecting our feelings with our physical sensations
Our physical sensations and our emotions are very intertwined.
I once heard somebody define a feeling as a thought about a physical sensation.
That definition made a lot of sense to me.
This is because it explains why you can have the exact same bodily sensation and react to it so differently depending on the situation.
For example, you can have the same sensation (accelerated heart beat) when you’re out for a jog as you do right before an important job interview …
And think nothing of it on your jog…
But interpret it as a near emergency before an important job interview…
“Oh no, I’m out of control…I need to calm down now…or I’m going to blow this interview!”
When it’s very normal in that context too.
The difference in how we react to a given bodily sensation depends on our thoughts about it…how we judge it. Good? Bad? Neutral? Meaningless?
This step is important for a number of reasons.
One reason is because many anxious children tend to dissociate from their bodies and live too much inside of their head.
And what is inside their head?
A very active worry-churning-machine!
And so, modeling this body-mind connection can help take them out of their head and pivot their focus.
In contrast, many anxious children are overly connected to their bodies.
Such children freak out over normal physical sensations, such as an increased heartbeat, mild discomfort in their tummy, etc.
So, teaching this type of child the normality and variability of bodily sensations can help them become less sensitized and more accepting of the full range of their physical sensations.
Also, bodily sensations can help children be better feeling detectives.
When they practice focusing with acceptance and curiosity on their changing physical sensations, as opposed to their changing “freak out” thoughts, they are better able to manage their feelings.
Below are some examples of how we can model connecting our feelings with our physical sensations:
“While we were standing in that long line, I started to notice my face tensing and my chest tightening. I then realized I was starting to feel very irritated standing there. So, I took a few breaths to help me reset.”
“While we were standing in that long line, I started to notice my face tensing and my chest tightening. Then I snapped at you. I apologize for that. When I felt myself tensing up, I should have taken note of how irritated I had become and taken a few breaths to help me reset.”
“My heart was pounding, my hands felt shaky, and I felt like there was a big knot in my stomach. I knew that I was bound to have nervous feelings before my interview because I really want this job. So, I left home early to walk around the block a few times and use up some of that nervous energy before the interview began.”
“My heart was pounding, my hands felt shaky, and I felt like there was a big knot in my stomach. I should have known that I was bound to have nervous feelings because I really want this job. I should have left home early to walk around the block a few times and use up some of that nervous energy before my interview began. Oh well, live and learn…next time…”
8. Teach feelings using a Creative Flare
Match the color with the feeling:
This helps bring feelings to life. You will need a large box of crayons, markers, or colored pencils.
Write down a wide variety of feeling words on unlined index cards (one word per card).
Have your child select a feeling card.
Give your child a simple definition of the feeling word and a child-friendly example of when you felt that way.
Ask your child to share an example of when he or she felt that way.
Then ask your child to decorate the card with the color/s that best represents that feeling for him or her.
This activity helps children connect their feelings with bodily sensations.
Write down a variety of feelings on little pieces of paper.
Trace your child’s body on a large piece of paper.
If you can’t get a large enough piece of paper, simply draw a body shape on a smaller piece of paper.
(The life size option makes the activity have a bigger impact because it seems more exciting.).
Have your child select a feeling and the color that they think best represents it.
And then have them locate where they experience that feeling in their body and then color in that area on the body map. They might feel an emotion in more than one place. For example, when they are feeling anxious, their stomach might feel uncomfortable, their heart could be beating rapidly, and their feet might feel cold.
If your child can’t locate where they feel an emotion in their body, try eliciting that feeling by telling a story or role-playing a scenario that could potentially provoke it…
And then ask your child to tune into their body and try to locate the feeling.
If this works, it also brings to life the important message that feelings and emotions are changeable and malleable. (Their feeling shifted from hearing the story or from the role-play)
If this strategy does not succeed, simply suggest to your child that they try to tune in to what bodily sensation they have as they experience a range of emotions/feelings in the upcoming day/week…and continue to model the concept.
9. Playing with feelings
Play Feeling Charades:
Write down a variety of feeling words on little pieces of folded paper (one word per paper).
Put the papers in a hat or other container.
The first player draws a feeling word and then acts out the selected feeling (using both facial expressions and body language).
The other player then guesses the feeling being portrayed.
If the player guesses correctly, he or she earns a token or point.
You can also make it so if the player guesses the correct feeling the first try, they earn three tokens or points, the second try, two, and the third try, one.
For bonus tokens or points, a player can give an example of when he or she felt the same feeling that is being portrayed.
Then reverse roles.
Whoever has the most tokens or points, wins the game.
You can also play this game with the whole family or a group. And whoever first guesses correctly, earns the token or point. With younger children, you can use dolls or stuffed animals as well.
Playing with Words:
Write a set of somewhat neutral words or sentences on cards.
One player draws a card and reads the word or sentence as though they are feeling a specific emotion (If your child can’t read, you can tell your child what the card says).
The other player then guesses the feeling being expressed based on the voice tone and other bodily clues.
Players earn three tokens if they guess correctly the first time, two for a second guess, and one for a third guess.
Be a Feelings Detective Game:
This is an especially good activity for our anxious children because they tend to be internally focused. This activity can strengthen their ability to look outside of themselves. And it also reinforces the idea that all feelings are normal and universal. At the same time, remind your child that we can never know for sure how another person is feeling. But that we can “detect” clues that help us make more educated guesses.
When you and your child are out and about…at the mall, playground, supermarket, or wherever…you can play the Be a Feelings Detective game.
In this game, have your child choose a random person and observe his or her facial expressions and body language…
And then “detect” how that person might be feeling…backing it up with some likely “evidence”.
“I think that kid might be angry because he’s wrinkling up his forehead and raising his voice.”
Award a token/point/sticker each time your child is able to “detect” a different feeling.
And, of course, there can be more than one player.
Alternatively, you can play this game right at home using movie or television show characters…especially in a format in which you can stop the program without missing it.
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You can use this visual when you play the Be a Feelings Detective Game…or for any of the feeling activities.
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