I keep hearing a similar story too often. Someone goes to repeated appointments, has multiple tests, sees different doctors until finally someone talks with them about their mental and emotional health. Culturally, we forget or discount that our mental and emotional health impacts our physical health. If you feel sick to your stomach then the problem is in your stomach, right? It’s worth reiterating about what mental health problems feel like physically.
- constantly tired
- no energy
- trouble sleeping
- trouble staying asleep
- physical pain or soreness
- lack of sexual desire, decrease in sexual performance
- weight changes, changes in eating habits
- trouble focusing, poor concentration
- nausea/stomach pain (upset stomach in children)
- IBS symptoms
- sore muscles, back or neck pain
- weight changes, changes in eating habits
- jaw pain, grinding teeth
- heart palpitations, feel like you are having a heart attack
- feel like you are going to die
- light-headed/dizzy, fainting
- can’t catch your breath
It’s important to note that you are not making up your physical symptoms or just not being ‘tough enough’. For example, most people genuinely thought they were having a heart attack or are dying when they have their first panic attack. Physically, your heart is racing, you can’t catch your breath, and you are about to pass out. You aren’t making that up and simply calming down isn’t an option. Mental health issues are medical problems because it effects the whole body.
Certainty these symptoms can have purely physical origins. If the root is emotional or mental though, medications will only treat the symptoms and will not change the underlying condition. Therapy is needed to ultimately resolve these symptoms. Hopefully, we will all get better at recognizing and treating the actual problem.
Helping Kids Regulate Emotions: Learning through Doing
I had a conversation recently with someone who is a childcare provider. She was telling me how she does not believe in making a child say sorry to another child when they have done something wrong. The reasoning was the child is typically not sorry and the other child knows that so the apology doesn’t do very much for either party. I can’t argue with idea that the child is often not remorseful. Likely, he feels justified in his actions. What I believe was overlooked in this rationale was that children learn through doing.
We don’t naturally think about other’s feelings, consider how others could feel differently than we do, or how our actions might have hurt others. A majority of empathy is learned. I believe it takes practice to learn to have empathy when we are upset. Going through the steps helps us learn what we ought to do even when we do not feel like it.
Saying sorry, accepting an apology, telling someone what you did wrong and how you hurt them are skills that we need to be successful in most relationships – family, friends, romantic partners. Although the forced sorry doesn’t produce results now, the hope is that it plants seeds and patterns that children will build upon as they grow up.
Guiding instead of Stopping
My husband has gotten most of my family into watching Duck Dynasty and now the Robertson’s are quoted frequently around our house. The favorite quote has to be Phil saying “happy, happy, happy”. Inadvertently, people have the expectations that they and their children should be happy, happy, happy all the time. People know this isn’t true when you say it aloud but unconsciously it drives how we react.
When kids are sad, we try to cheer them up or if all else fails use “if you keep crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” When they are angry, we expect them to calm down by sitting in a chair and being quiet. When they are frustrated, we reason with them about why they should be more patient. It is easy to fall into a pattern of only permitting kids to be happy. I think part of what drives this is not knowing how to let kids show emotions.
A place to start is to think of your job as guiding rather than stopping how they express emotions. As a guide, you can place boundaries on what is acceptable and not acceptable, i.e. if your are mad you can hit and punch your pillow in your room but you can not hit and punch your sister. You can offer suggestions of how to cope with the feelings, i.e. would you like to talk to me about what those kids said at recess or do you want to be alone for a while.
Perhaps, the least used but most helpful is you can listen and show that you hear how they are feeling. As adults we often need someone just to listen to us as we are complaining about something that happened. Knowing that someone cares and is listening helps us feel supported, helps us calm down, and helps us think through what happened. For young kids, it might just look like reflecting that someone made you mad. For older kids, it might be listening and asking what they think about should happen next.
There will be happy, happy, happy days but not every day. For the days that aren’t, think about how you can guide children through it instead of trying to prevent negative feelings from happening.
Call it as you see it
I wanted to do a series on helping children handle emotions because it is one of the most frequent topics for children in counseling. Usually, the concern centers around anger.
I think it is helpful to look at the issue as a development task. People do not know innately how to express their feelings or how to calm down when upset. Think about infant. When a baby cries, we pick her up and soothe her because she does not know how to calm down on her own. We continue to learn how to handle our emotions into adulthood. As parents, our job is to help children learn how to handle their feelings.
A good first step is to help your child learn what different emotions they have. Until children know what they are feeling, it is hard to deal with it appropriately. Labeling their feelings through daily events can help children develop a concept for different emotions. Initially, it can be the basic labeling of the feeling: Example: You are angry that your brother took your toy. Then, you can advance to describing their facial expression, actions, or internal experience when they have different emotions. Examples: I see that you are playing by yourself. I wonder if you are sad? I saw you throw your coat down. It must have frustrated you that you couldn’t zip it. I saw all your muscle get tight when you got angry and started yelling.
Just as you point out pictures in a book to a toddler and say what it is, labeling emotions will help children be able to identify the feeling for themselves. The other benefit to labeling emotions is you create an environment where we can talk about feelings outside of the context of being in trouble for their behavior. Often the only emotion we end up talking about with children is anger and this is when they are in trouble for something they did when they were angry. So children develop a vivid picture of what it is to be angry and in trouble. The hope is that with some proactive effort, we can paint a more complete picture of emotions.
What is Love?
The scenario is not uncommon to the counseling room: teenage girl who has found her first true love and her parents are less than impressed by the guy which she writes off as they just don’t understand their love.
One of my favorite things to talk about with adolescents is what is love. I have asked many teens and parents to give me a definition of love. At first, I get the that’s a silly question look and then people get a little stumped as they try to construct a definition. The best answer I’ve gotten (not kidding) is love is a feeling that two people share. Mostly people just say you can’t define love; you just know it when you are in it.
I believe that most people think of love in this way – just having that feeling, just knowing. However, this creates some problems for relationships in the future. It is shown in divorcing couple who says we just feel out of love. Now love is an undefinable feeling that can come and go without warning. From this perspective, it would be hard to love one person for a life time.
Romantic movies are giving teens and young adults a slim picture of what love and being and staying in love takes. We will give Hollywood a break because its much more fun to watch the Bachelorette on a date in a sailboat in the middle of a sparkling bay than to watch a couple with small kids sitting slumped over besides each other watching the Bachelorette (she is watching, he is sleeping).
I love to talk to teenagers about thinking through relationships, evaluating a partner, and what makes a relationship work in the longer run. Of course, that exciting feeling is great but they often don’t know the spark isn’t all that a relationship needs.
Some things we talk about are:
- What is love?
- How should a partner act towards you and those you love (i.e. family, friends)?
- How do our values, beliefs and goals align? Do I even what mine are?
- What are we doing? Are we dating? Do I want to date? Do they want a future together?
- When should things happen like saying I love you? meeting close friends and family? having sex? getting married? moving in together?
- How would you know they are not the right person for you?
- Are you different around them than when you are around your friends and family?
I could keep listing areas but the goal is to get people thinking and working more on their love than just floating with the feeling. If you just rolling on the river on love, it will eventually dry up and usually not in a place you would chose.
Is it okay to be angry?
I often start with this question when talking about anger with children. Their answer is usually no. They look at me like I am fibbing when I tell them it is okay to be angry.
For the most part, being angry has become synonymous with acting destructively – physically or verbally. So if you are angry then you are doing something wrong. Feeling angry should be viewed as normal and acceptable; however, anger must be expressed appropriately. The anger rules help kids learn the boundaries of healthy expression.
It is okay to be angry as long as…
- you don’t hurt yourself,
- you don’t hurt other people,
- you don’t hurt things.
Now the harder part, what are okay ways to show you are angry?
I find kids most easily incorporate methods that involve physical release such as pounding play-doh, throwing a foam ball, yelling outside, punching a pillow, tearing up designated paper. After the energy is gone, then it is easier for kids to learn to talk through what happened. The goal is over time to be able to need the physical activities less and be able to rely more on words.
Another key is parents typically overlook their influence of helping their children learn to cope with their emotions. Children often don’t know many productive ways to cope their anger because adults often don’t model any productive ways. We either keep all of our anger inside, deal with it privately, or explode in some fashion. So next time you have something that irritates you, share a child-friendly version of what happened with your child and let them see how you handle it.