Emotional Code Words & First Aid for Parents and Caregivers

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“Too much music, too much fluff! Too much making, too much stuff!”

Whether its your child’s first holiday season or tenth, as a parent you hope it’s filled with joyful celebrations and meaningful time spent together that your child will remember fondly for years to come. For your child, trees, lights, decorations in warm, festive colors, comfort foods, family traditions, and bustling gatherings with family and friends from near and afar make the holidays merry, bright, and sometimes, maybe, a little too much to handle?

“Too much everything for llama… llama llama HOLIDRAMA!” 

In the fun, rhyming words of cherished children’s author Anna Dewdney, creator of the Llama Llama series, “HOLIDRAMA,” or holiday drama, in more adult terms, is a serious concern for children of all ages (and, if we are completely honest with ourselves, adults of all ages, too).

In Llama Llama, Holiday Drama[1], “HOLIDRAMA” is little llama’s made-up word to describe the overwhelm he feels from the holidays’ activities and the frustration of “all this waiting for one day.” While this time of year is incredibly exciting for many young people, it can also provoke strong emotions that our children may struggle to cope with in the midst of holiday events, changes in routine, and altered sleep schedules.

Emotional Code Words

While we've come to understand how helping our children learn to name – and then tame – their emotions[2] is hugely beneficial for their social-emotional development and ability to feel Secure & Calm, the benefit of giving our children child-friendly words, such as little llama’s HOLIDRAMA, to describe situations that they find stressful or overwhelming, has been understated. 

Would you expect a 6 year old to be able to explain that going to back-to-back holiday parties leaves them feeling a little bit stressed and anxious because it doesn’t give them enough time to unwind and process all the accompanying sights, sounds, scents, and interactions?

Probably not. But giving our children a special word to describe situations in which they feel emotionally unbalanced can equip them with a powerful tool to let us know that a situation is beginning to spiral out of their coping zone.

This emotional code-word can be any word your child likes - the sillier and more fun it is to say, like little llama’s HOLIDRAMA, the better. Both adult and child can use this word to signal when the child seems to be teetering on the edge of emotional dysregulation and needs some help to reconnect with their Secure & Calm center. Using your child’s emotional code-word is best followed up with feelings first aid, such as a brief 2-5 minute  (or longer if your child needs it) grounding, mindfulness, movement, or creative expression activity.

Feelings First Aid 

Jump-start your holiday feelings first-aid kit by learning about three common triggers of emotional overwhelm for young school-aged children and evidence-based tips for their prevention and cure:

1. Take time to smell the hot chocolate: Young school aged children, especially those who are highly sensitive[3], may be prone to overstimulation from all the wonderful holiday sights, sounds, and scents that surround them. Hot chocolate breathing[4] is a fun and effective way to help the young people you care about regain a sense of Secure & Calm. 

2. Skip the food fight: While baking and treats make the holidays oh-so-sweet, the abundance of less-healthy options this time of year can send some families into a full-fledged food fight. There is no question that children have a natural affinity for sweet-tasting food and beverages, which has an evolutionarily protective purpose for children’s survival. But in the present day, many parents can’t help but wonder how much is too much? [5]. At what point should we put limits on consumption of “treats” and guide our children towards more nutrient-dense options? And how should we handle the resulting fall-out of a frustrated or disappointed child in ways that nurture their ability to Solve Problems Peacefully and Get Along With Others? One way to skip the food fight this holiday season is by focusing on your role as parents/caregivers at the table, and theirs as children: parents are responsible for what, when, and where food is served, and children are responsible for deciding if they are going to eat it and how much. [6]

3. Help young people unpack their emotional backpacks: The holiday emotional rollercoaster can be intense for children in primary grades. Being overwhelmed with emotion - positive or negative - can make it difficult for children to stay Alert & Engaged. The excitement and anticipation of waiting for special celebrations, opening presents, staying up past bedtime, and spending time with family and friends can quickly plummet into disappointment and despair when bad weather cancels plans and longed-for gifts fail to materialize (every parent whose child has asked for a puppy for Christmas knows what this feels like). At this age, many children are well on their way to being able to cope with minor emotional ups and downs independently, but many still need help from primary caregivers and trusted others to process bigger emotions (a practice called “co-regulation” in psychology and attachment research)[7]. We can think of children’s need for this assistance as helping them unpack their “emotional backpacks.” [8] During the holiday season, try to create a nightly ritual[9] (not too close to bedtime, as some children may find doing so stimulating) of helping your child unpack their emotional backpack, so they can settle more easily into restful sleep, and wake up well resourced physically and emotionally. 

Photo credit: jcomp for freepik.com (boy with bear); Netflix (llama llama)

Llama Llama, Holiday Drama is a picture book written by Anna Dewdney for a Pre-K - 2 audience. Click here to listen to the book read aloud. 

Click "more" to hear Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, explain the science behind helping children understand and cope with their emotions using his "name it to tame it" approach. 

Hot chocolate breathing is as enjoyable and simple as it sounds:

  • Invite your child to imagine a steaming cup of hot chocolate in her hands. Even better, draw a picture of one together to use in this activity, or serve up the real thing if you’re feeling particularly festive.
  • Guide your child to take a big, deep inhale and smell the delicious chocolatey aroma rising from their cup (real, drawn, or imaginary).
  • Then, encourage them to blow smoothly into their cup to cool the hot chocolate down. 
  • Repeat this process for 2-3 minutes, until your child regains her sense of calm, or until the hot chocolate is gone! 

Researchers have found that breathing mindfully in this way can improve emotional regulation. 

For more information on how to practice mindful breathing and why it helps to calm body and mind, check out this article by the Greater Good in Action: Science Based Practices for a Meaningful Life. 

 

According to psychologist Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person and The Highly Sensitive Child, highly sensitive children:

"Are one of the fifteen to twenty percent of children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. This makes them quick to grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously. They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others." 

To get a sense of whether your child experiences high sensitivity, click here for Elaine Aron's online test. 

If you're in this boat, or are just curious, check out this engaging and informative article on how to compassionately handle childrens' natural desire for sweets, written by registered dietician Sara Remmer, founder and owner of The Centre for Family Nutrition based in Calgary, Alberta. 

This arrangement is called The Division of Responsibility in Feeding and has been extensively studied in children of all ages by nutrition researchers.

  • The division of responsibility in feeding teaches us as parents trust that our children will eat the amount they need, learn to eat the food we eat, grow in ways that are right for them, and learn to behave well at mealtime.
  • Research has found that it promotes eating competence in children. According to the evidence- and practice-based Satter Eating Competence Model, competent eaters have 1) positive attitudes about eating and about food, 2) food acceptance skills that support eating an ever-increasing variety of the available food, 3) internal regulation skills that allow intuitively consuming enough food to give energy and stamina and to support stable body weight, and, as they grow up into adults, 4) skills and resources for managing the food context and orchestrating family meals.
  • Anecdotally, this approach goes a long way toward decreasing tension between parents and their children over what goes onto their plates and into their stomachs.

Click "more" for a PDF printable of the Division of Responsibility in Feeding from the Ellyn Satter Institute. 

According to Duke Center for Child and Family Policy, co-regulation is "the supportive process between caring adults and children, youth, or young adults that fosters self-regulation development[...] an interactive process of regulatory support that can occur within the context of caring relationships across the lifespan. Co-regulation will look different at different ages. Effective co-regulation by a supportive caregiver will promote self-efficacy and allow children, youth, and young adults to feel secure enough to practice new skills and learn from mistakes."

When children are busy or out of contact with their primary caregivers or close others throughout the day, emotional experiences can build up that they are not able to process and move through on their own. In this way, their emotional backpack gets loaded up with all of these feelings, and they need the support of caring adults within a calm, safe, and supportive environment to “unpack” them. 

For more information about children's emotional backpacks, check out this article by Annie Jung, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counsellor who specializes in the mental health and wellness needs of kids, teens, and families at the Awakening Center in Brentwood, California.

One example of such a nightly ritual could be to invite your child to draw what they think their emotional backpack looks like that day - it can be colourful, silly, ordinary -  and write words or draw images within it to represent the day’s important events or experiences. You could then invite your child to share how they felt about these experiences when they occurred, and how they are feeling about them now. If they are still feeling upset or unsettled by certain experiences, you can guide your child in a calming and grounding practice, such as the mindfulness activities described in this Heart-Mind Online Post, "Be Calm to Change the World." 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.