When children are met with difficult emotions such as grief, sadness, anger or worry, our natural default is to try and protect them. We might do this with distraction, changing the subject or bribing them with sugary foods. This may work as an immediate remedy, but if done regularly, it can teach children to avoid their emotions instead of expressing them.
When children are able to freely express and communicate their emotions, they are better able to process and release them. It is our job as teachers, parents and carers to provide safe spaces where children feel comfortable enough to do this. This requires more from us than we may expect. It may distress us to see our child crying or worried, but these are part of being human. The truth is, difficult emotions are unavoidable, so how can we support children to express them in healthy and safe ways?
Learning to approach difficult emotions in playful ways can help to create a platform for perspective. When we give children a creative structure where they are able to express and identify their emotions, recognising and regulating them can become more achievable. Through play we can teach our children that all feelings are welcome, and no feeling lasts forever.
Children can find it difficult to notice what emotion they are experiencing, if they are overcome with emotion, we can list what we see and say it back to them. “I can see your eyes are crying and your breath is shallow”. This helps them to tune into the physical sensations of sadness and identify that feeling in their body.
Once identified, we can introduce playful ways of measuring the emotion. There are many ways you can do this, from a simple gesture like a thumbs up or down, to creating a visual chart or scale. Encourage your child to be as creative as they like; using numbers, pictures, colour, or movement as a way of gauging their emotion. If calm = 10 and super scared = 1003, go with that! Allow the child to take the lead with measuring and gauging their experience.
Another route to recognising a difficult emotion is to transfer it onto a toy or doll. You could take the lead by saying ‘Teddy looks like he’s feeling worried, he’s biting his paws and keeps fidgeting.’ Then encourage the child to continue the description.
Once identified, I encourage you to facilitate a pause. Taking 3 deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, encouraging your child to breathe with you. To make the breathing more playful, you can add a hissing sound on the exhalation, imitating a snake.
If your child finds it difficult to pause, you can lead the way. Entrainment teaches us that if we begin to lengthen our breath the people around us will naturally sync with our rhythm. Deeper longer breaths signals to the body that its safe and can help to create the distance needed for your child to enquire into the difficult feeling.
It’s important to recognise that there’s not a one size fits all when it comes to responding to difficult emotions. If you can see that your child is overwhelmed by emotion, then they are most likely going to benefit from physical touch. A gentle back rub or reassuring hug can go a long way.
However, If you can see that your child is able to express and communicate their experience, you can lead an enquiry. Start by validating the emotion and then take your child’s lead to find a solution. “That must feel scary for you, what can we do right now that might help you to feel safe?”
In times when you can see that something playful may help, there are a multitude of ideas and solutions. Does this feeling need to be realised with some running around, dancing or moving? Or does it want to build a cosy den and retreat? If this feeling could make a sound what sound would it make? If this feeling had words what would it say?
When we confront difficult emotions with playful interventions, we no longer avoid them and instead welcome them into the space to be transformed. In my interactive workshops, participants learn a variety of practical and playful strategies for supporting children to manage difficult emotions. If you’re interested to learn more check out https://thebestmedicine.co.uk/ for events, courses and team packages.
Katie Rose White is a Laughter Facilitator and founder of ‘The Best Medicine’. She works predominantly with carers, teachers and healthcare professionals – teaching playful strategies for boosting mood, strengthening resilience and improving wellbeing. She provides practical workshops, interactive talks and training days – fusing therapeutic laughter techniques, playful games and activities, and mindfulness-based practices. The techniques are not only designed to equip participants with tools for managing their stress, but can also be used and adapted to the needs of the people that they are supporting.