- in Self-Care
With the National Institute of Mental Health reporting that 25 percent of children experience anxiety and 14 percent have a mood disorder, and National Public Radio sharing that as many as five million public school students have mental-emotional issues such as depression and anxiety, award-winning Maureen Healy’s new book The Emotionally Healthy Child: Helping Your Child Calm, Center, and Make Smarter Choices (New World Library, October 9 2018) couldn’t be more perfectly timed.
In The Emotionally Healthy Child, Healy explains that emotional health is the ability to make better choices, even when feeling anger or another big emotion. She describes that the ability to — Stop, Calm, and Make a Smarter Choice — are key to expressing emotions constructively.
While not always easy, these steps are powerful, and Healy shows readers exactly how to implement them so they can help children find equilibrium in the moment and build emotional well-being over the long-term. I hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
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Each idea needs to be shared at your child’s appropriate age level, and then deepened over time. Let me expand on those ideas here.
Emotions are temporary.
No matter what emotion you’re experiencing — happiness or anger — it’s temporary. Boys and girls, especially those who suffer from sadness, often mistakenly think that emotions are permanent. They think the big, dark cloud over their heads will never leave, but that’s not true.
By thinking a new thought, they can often feel a new feeling, and the clouds will pass (most of the time). “This too shall pass” is a motto used by many adults to remind themselves of the temporary nature of emotions and can be helpful on a hard day. Children can also create their own mottos such as, “Big feelings come, and big feelings go.”
Inside of you (at the center) is joy, your natural state.
At the center of our being is goodness, which equates to pure positive energy or joy. This is your child’s natural state. But his or her challenging feelings — anger, sadness, worry, panic, frustration, disappointment, and jealousy — can cloud that natural state. But if your child learns to let these challenging emotions pass by like clouds, the inner sun (goodness) can shine again.
Learning how to let feelings — especially tricky feelings like anger — come and go takes practice. But using a tool like mindful breathing, which Thich Nhat Hanh calls his “anchor,” can help a child slow down and let the big emotions pass by as he breathes through these challenging moments.
There are different types of emotions.
Children experience a full range of emotions, from misery to happiness, but they don’t necessarily understand the different types of emotions. Some types are: fast and slow, big and small, challenging and easy, and positive and negative. For example, anger is a fast emotion and also often feels very big and can be hard to tame without training (like a big lion). But when a child realizes she is bigger than her anger, she can muster her courage and learn how to let her anger go without making not-so-smart choices.
Helping children learn about the different types of emotions and how to connect with them in a healthy way happens over time. When reflecting on a big feeling in a calm moment, some conversation starters may be: “Did that emotion feel bigger than you? Did it happen quickly? Did you feel it when it was small? If so, where in your body did you feel it?” (In chapter 4 I provide more detailed information on strategies to help with various emotions.)
Mixed emotions are common.
Children often feel more than one emotion at the same time, such as when a pet passes away. Ten-year-old Helene had known Moby, her black Labrador retriever, her whole life and was incredibly sad when she died. But Helene also felt relief that Moby wasn’t suffering anymore in her old age. Helping children name their emotions, especially when they’re mixed and complicated, is the first step toward helping them constructively express them.
Once Helene named her feelings as “sadness” and “relief,” she could begin letting those feelings move through her. She painted a special rock for Moby and laid it on her grave, which helped Helene feel a little better.
All emotions are useful.
Your emotions are simply sending you signals about what’s happening inside of you, so every emotion is useful, whether it feels challenging, like disappointment, or easier, like excitement. Learning how to spot emotions when they’re small (like a little frustration before it becomes a volcano-size anger) will help you constructively express it. No emotion needs to be wasted — everything can be used as a stepping-stone to your next best feeling.
Helping children realize that emotions are neither good nor bad but simply signals is essential to their positive emotional development.
Conversation starters around this subject include talking about street signals (stop signs, police sirens, and traffic lights: red, yellow, and green). What do they mean? Are emotions like anger, joy, sadness, or silliness sending signals, too?
You can learn how to increase certain emotions (the helpful ones) and reduce other emotions (the challenging ones) with practice.
Once children begin to realize that they can turn up the volume on certain emotions and lower the volume on others, the world is their oyster. There is nothing they cannot accomplish. The first step is giving children the ideas, and then the tools, while nurturing inner qualities of positive emotional health.
Being thankful is not just reserved for Thanksgiving Day. Gratitude is an emotion that moves children in a positive direction, no matter what. Every night, Hayyam makes a gratitude list as he lies in bed reflecting on his day. He’s been thankful for everything from jelly beans to a new karate teacher, and feeling this appreciation, instead of focusing on what he doesn’t have, helps him realize how good things really are in his life.
No one can do it for you.
Children must learn to take responsibility for their emotional lives and realize that they’re the captains of their emotional ships. They can learn to steer toward calmer waves and through the rough ones with more ease. Just like ship captains, they must get training on how to navigate the “high seas of emotions” of anger, rejection, embarrassment, hurt, and feeling left out, for example. But with ideas, tools, and practice, children can become fully themselves in an authentic, meaningful way.
About the author
Maureen Healy is the author of The Emotionally Healthy Child and Growing Happy Kids, which won the Nautilus and Readers’ Favorite book awards in 2014. A popular Psychology Today blogger and sought-after public speaker, Maureen runs a global mentoring program for elementary-aged children and works with parents and their children in her busy private practice. Her expertise in social and emotional learning has taken her all over the world, including working with Tibetan refugee children at the base of the Himalayas to classrooms in Northern California.
Visit her online at www.growinghappykids.com.