A new school year can bring many emotions, new opportunities and challenges for students and their families. Helping children and teens develop skills to handle these experiences in a healthy way and with confidence is possible.
To get through these turbulent times, an understanding of the connection between thoughts, feelings and behaviors is helpful. When an event or situation occurs, it is the way one thinks about the event that creates the emotions and influences behaviors. When unpleasant or distressing feelings are experienced, it is often because of the way the situation is being interpreted. As individuals develop skills to re-narrate what has occurred by adding in more accurate information, pieces of information that were disregarded or discounted, and options of how to get through the situation can be better seen. The individuals can also experience more positive feelings, and their behaviors can begin to change.
Helping Those in Elementary School
To help children develop this skill, Dr. Daniel Siegle, author of The Whole-Brain Child recommends that “when your child is upset, connect first emotionally …then once [they are] more in control and receptive, bring in . . . lessons and discipline.” Connecting emotionally can be done through listening, reflecting or repeating back what you heard said through nurturing non-verbal communication such as body position, facial expressions that reflect the emotion described, eye contact, and appropriate touch such as a hug or touching a shoulder/arm. Refraining from condescending comments or initially trying to teach or discipline is helpful as this will likely be met with resistance due to the reduced brain function of upset children. As children increase feeling heard, they are better able to calm down and the brain functioning is more receptive to and able to understand teaching, and discipline that may need to occur.
Helping Those in Middle School
For many, identifying thoughts and naming emotions is not natural; however, it can be seen through attitude, choices and words. Parents/caregivers can facilitate awareness of thoughts, feelings and connecting behaviors by describing what they observe to their child and ask in a clarifying manner if that is what is occurring. Asking if, rather than telling what, an individual is feeling helps them develop greater ability to name and tame their emotions.For example, “I see you frowning and not talking much. Are you feeling sad?” As individuals increase recognition and understanding of their feelings, a skill known as emotional intelligence, they will be better able to narrate what occurred, why it is bothering them, problem solve and reduce the level of emotional discomfort. Helping Those in High School While the skills discussed in the previous two sections can be helpful for teens, additional skills may be necessary for teens in high school who also experience a high degree of stress at the start of the school year related to peers and pressures of balancing activities such as work, clubs/sports, school work, relationships and family dynamics. When stressed or anxious, teens can ask themselves the following three questions, which can often help reduce the intensity of the emotions. Focusing on one concern at a time is important when considering these questions.
What is the worst I fear will happen? This question can be repeated, “If what I fear happens, then what’s the worst I fear will happen next?” until the root anxiety-producing thoughts are identified.
From 0 to 100%, how likely is it my fear will occur?
If my fear occurs, how can I handle it? Notice the question is not, “Would I want to handle it?” but “How can I handle it?” Handling it includes utilizing supports and resources to get through the situation.
For many, the likelihood of the stress and worries actually happening as well as how they would get through the situation are not fully considered. As these skills of understanding thoughts and changing the focus is applied stress and anxiety for many decreases.
Disclaimer—The information in this newsletter is a starting place and might not be effective for every child or every situation. Mental health conditions are complex, as people differ widely in their conditions and responses, and interactions with other conditions. Interventions and treatments are best evaluated and adapted by a qualified clinician to meet individual needs.
This article was written by Jessica Williamson, LCSW for a newsletter by Hope4Utah, a nonprofit organization providing trainings, resources and supports to prevent, intervene, and respond to suicides and to improve mental health. I specializes in mental health treatment of children, teens, and adults at a private practice in South Jordan, Utah, Inner Peace Counseling of Utah.