Build a "feelings first-aid kit" by learning 3 evidence-based practices to combat common triggers of emotional overwhelm for young and school-aged children.
What is feelings first aid? A "toolkit" of quick, simple, and fun activities to help your child (or classroom) feel Secure & Calm and Alert & Engaged in stressful situations.
When to use feelings first aid: Whenever your child is feeling dysregulated, stressed out, or overwhelmed, such as when they say their Emotional Code Word.
What activities count as feelings first aid? Any activity or practice that is easy to implement, your child enjoys, and that helps your child regulate emotionally. See the list of suggestions below, and feel free to come up with your own!
1. Hot chocolate breathing: Young school aged children, especially those who are highly sensitive, may be prone to overstimulation from sensory stimuli, social situations, and new experiences. Hot chocolate breathing is a fun and effective way to help children feel more Secure & Calm.
2. Snack attack: A hungry child isn't usually a happy child. If you notice your child struggling to regulate, it may be time to offer a nutritious meal or snack. While a cranky child may be primed for a meal-time power struggle, approach feeding your child with Compassion & Kindness by following Dietician Ellen Sattyr's Division of Responsibility in Feeding. This method focuses 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.
3. Unpack their backpack: Their emotional backpack, that is! Being overwhelmed with emotion - positive or negative - can make it difficult for children to stay Alert & Engaged. While school-aged children are well on their way to being able to cope with minor emotional ups and downs independently, many still need help from primary caregivers and trusted others to process bigger emotions (a practice called “co-regulation” in psychology and attachment research). We can think of children’s need for this assistance as helping them unpack their “emotional backpacks.”  For children who have busy lives or are frequently overwhelmed, it can be beneficial to establish a nightly ritual of unpacking their emotional backpack together.
Image credit: jcomp for freepik.com
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.
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.
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."