If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that there is such a thing as “too much.”
Specifically, in recent months many of us have found ourselves with too much time at home in quarantine, working from home, or figuring out school from home. With all this time at home together, you and your kids may find yourselves increasingly upset by trivial things — things you would’ve easily been able to ignore or let roll off your back at the beginning of the year. As an adult, your threshold for big feelings and adjusting to uncertainties is likely higher than that of your children, and even these grown-up thresholds are difficult to manage right now.
As parents, God has charged us with the responsibility to raise our children faithfully in the way of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21). Children often learn how to regulate their emotions by looking to adults for help and guidance. Below are three counseling strategies that can help us fulfill this charge when things feel to be “too much” for you and your kids.
The best way to de-escalate tension and conflict is to establish a foundation where there’s little room for tension and conflict to grow. Decide as a family what the family expectations are at dinner time, during homework, school time, and other typical family activities. Discuss these expectations together, as a family, during a family meeting, and allow your children to have input. If you have older children who can read and write, consider assigning roles during this brainstorming period. One child can be the scribe writing down everyone’s ideas. Another can act as the timekeeper, and so on. When kids feel like they are a part of the conversation, it helps solidify their role and ownership of the family ecosystem; they feel invested in the solution.
For littles, consider having visual reminders of your family expectations, for example, a picture of their backpack hung up and shoes put away. This way, they can look at the pictures and see exactly what the expectations are. If you have older kids who can read, written expectations would be more appropriate.
As parents, we are our children’s natural role models. Deuteronomy 6:7 says parents teach “their children while sitting in your house, walking the way, when you lie down, and when you rise.” For better or worse, our kids are always watching. We are their first example of Christ. They also look to us first to see if something is scary, to see if something is safe, or to see if they have our approval for what they’re about to do.
During these unprecedented times, we each must figure out how we are feeling first, and then how best to manage these new, big emotions. It is important to normalize these big feelings while offering a safe and secure place to land for your kids. Meet your children where they are in their feelings, right when they are feeling them. Have them name the emotions they feel like fear, anger, frustration — when we name feelings out loud, they often lose their power — and then name some emotions you also feel. God created us to have feelings, and when children are validated in their emotions, they feel like they are heard, and it often eases the tension.
Modeling emotional regulation is key to teaching this skill to our children. Some ways for kids to practice emotional regulation can be found in the following section, “relaxation.”
Some common emotional regulation techniques in child counseling include relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing or providing “calm down” spaces. It is best to practice these during a time when everyone is calm, before escalation begins.
Deep breathing for younger kids can look like balloon breathing, five-finger breathing, or blowing bubbles.
Balloon breathing involves locking your hands on top of your head and taking a deep breath. As you inhale, you “fill your balloon” by raising your interlocked hands toward the ceiling. Then, you let the air out of your balloon by exhaling as your arms slowly come back down to rest on your head.
Five-finger breathing involves only your hands. Have your child hold up one hand with their fingers spread wide. Using the index finger of their other hand tell them to trace their fingers, inhaling as they go up each finger and exhaling as they go down each finger.
Blowing bubbles is just precisely that – blowing bubbles through a bubble wand. If you do not have bubbles on hand, you can “catch a bubble” by breathing in and then holding air in your cheeks. Hold for a count of five, then slowly blow out, pretending to blow bubbles.
In addition to breathing, it’s helpful to establish “calm-down” spaces: designated spaces in your home where the purpose is to separate from the frustration in order to de-escalate. Some items that could be soothing in a calm down space include stuffed animals, bubble wrap, or a blanket. Older kids will often choose to go to their room.
Calm down spaces can have their own set of expectations. Sometimes, time apart from the situation to rest and pray is the best medicine.
When setting expectations, modeling, or helping kids learn to relax, it’s important to remember that your kids are not the same as they were at the beginning of the year, and neither are you. It is also vital to remember parenting is a marathon, not a sprint; allow yourself some grace. A global pandemic is something none of us imagined coping with in our lifetimes. It’s okay to acknowledge that it has been, and continues to be “too much.”
By using these strategies, we can begin to chip away at the “too much” feeling and adapt for ourselves and our kids to better manage the challenges this unique season has presented. At the end of the day, humans are humans (even when they’re tiny and have sticky fingers), and we’re all figuring this out together.
Jessica Zavala is a Grace Counseling therapist and a District Mental Health Counselor for Seminole County Schools.