When we talk about the foundational skills kids need to start school, one of the most crucial skills is often overlooked: being able to manage strong feelings in helpful ways. When another child won’t share with them, kids need to be able to not hit, or grab, or run crying from the room. Thankfully the importance of social and emotional skills is becoming better recognized and being taught in many schools. But what about us adults who weren’t taught how to manage strong emotions in school? I have good news! We can still practice and develop our own abilities even as adults! And when we model good coping skills, our children will follow our lead. The first steps in managing strong emotions are also the simplest: recognizing how you feel in your body, then stopping yourself from just reacting by bringing yourself back to calm control using muscle relaxation and deep breathing.
Notice how you are feeling in your body
When was the last time you were overwhelmed or upset? Chances are that you remember if you reacted without thinking and there was a negative end result: finally throwing your hands up in frustration, bursting into tears, or snapping at someone. We all have bad days and react in ways we may regret–this is being human (especially during worldwide times of stress and uncertainty!) But how do we reduce the amount that we are caught “just reacting” to situations and the people around us?
The first step sounds really simple, but it can actually be pretty difficult: notice and recognize how we are feeling. When you are upset, there can be so much going on in your head that it is easy to overlook the signals your body is sending you. When you are upset or overwhelmed, you likely feel tightness or heat in some muscle group–perhaps your shoulders and neck, forehead, chest, or stomach, or your jaw as you clench your teeth. How are you breathing? You’re probably taking shallow, short breaths. These are all messages your body is sending you that you are under stress and ready to fight, flee, or freeze. The problem is that at least some of those reactions might be over-reactions or not appropriate for the situation and might lead you to do things that you might later not feel so good about.
Instead of just reacting, let’s talk about how to send the message to your body that you are ok and safe, and that you can handle this. Here are two ways to do this:
Scan your body, tense and relax
If you’re in a rush, you can check the areas that you know usually get tense and relax them. If you have time and space, try a full body scan and relax. Sit, or even lay down, in a comfortable position. Start at the top of your head and work slowly down your whole body, tensing then relaxing each muscle group. Scrunch your face, your forehead and scalp, then relax. Now your nose, then your mouth. Try rolling your neck in a slow circle. Now your shoulders: curve your shoulders forward, or raise them up to your ears. Now take a deep breath and feel your chest expand and open as you breathe out and relax your shoulders. Continue through your body, down to your feet.
When we are stressed we take shallow, quick breaths just in our chest. This tells our bodies that we are having a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Taking slow, deep breaths sends the message to your brain that you are safe and you can relax. Place your hand on your belly and breathe in through your nose, slow and deep, and feel your stomach expand. Now breathe out through your mouth and feel the air release from your belly. You can stay here, counting down each exhalation from 10 to 1, or try one of the controlled breathing exercises below, using slow, deep belly breaths.
- Square or box breathing. Visualize a square with equal sides, each side corresponding to one of the following: Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat at least 4 times.
- 4-7-8 breathing: Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, breathe out completely for 8 seconds. Repeat 4 times or as needed.
Practicing these skills is the first step in helping your brain return to a place where you can problem solve, and respond to difficult feelings in ways you feel good about. Do you want more? We also have tips for how to wrangle your inner critic, teach kids positive self-talk, build resilience during Covid-19, 15 ways to practice social emotional skills for kids, what to do when you want to scream, as well as a kid friendly activity to practice emotion regulation.
Text: © Kids In Transition to School 2020
Image: © Darrinhenry | Dreamstime.com