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By Mary Ruth Branstetter, LCSW, LCAC, RPT – March 24, 2021 –

A common problem many of us experience is an inability or unwillingness to appropriately address our powerful emotions. Most of us want an outlet where we can express our feelings, but sometimes it can be a struggle to find someone who will truly listen and understand. 

I believe this is a problem for both adults and children. When we copy behaviors that we grow up with, we sometimes learn unhealthy methods of expressing how we feel.

For example, if a child is told not to cry with phrases like, “Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” they learn to keep important feelings bottled up.

Another example of how we learn from our surroundings might be how we cope with frustration or anger. If anger was never talked about in the home or was only displayed in an aggressive manner, those behaviors may be learned and repeated as a normal reaction to upsetting situations.

Occasionally the opposite stance may be taken such as, “I am never going to deal with feelings the way they were expressed in my home or by my role models.” This too can be unhealthy, leading to passivity and stuffing of true emotions.

Repressing feelings can only work as a coping skill for a certain amount of time before problems start to surface in your personal relationships and/or through physical and mental distress. Such distress may take the form of overeating, over-spending, depression, anxiety, repeated health problems, or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.

Trying to teach our children healthy ways to express their feelings is becoming a critical skill. It is important to begin encouraging children to be honest about their emotions at a young age, as our children are exposed to external influences early in life.

Young children may or may not be emotionally ready to understand some of these influences in a healthy manner. For small children, this may result in some form of regression, acting out in anger or destructive ways, or development of unexplained fear.

Some of our kids are modeling what they see in social media or video games as a way to handle conflict, hurt feelings, competition, or disappointment. These forms of media may disrupt our children’s ability to learn how to carry on a conversation, resolve a conflict without aggression, read another person’s body language, or recognize basic social cues. The inability to grasp these communication skills can eventually leave a child emotionally stunted.

It is never too early or too late to ask your child about their feelings. This is a perfect time to take the opportunity to help your child process emotions in a way that helps them feel better. If you are unsure how to do this, there are many books for all age groups on feelings and healthy coping skills at local libraries, bookstores, and online.

Do not be afraid to consult with a mental health professional for guidance. This is an investment in your child’s long term emotional and mental health. The way your child learns to address their emotions now will impact the rest of their lives in terms of personal relationships, academic success, career success, physical health, and positive self-worth.

By Mary Ruth Branstetter – April 7, 2020 –

Many years ago a friend gave me a beautifully framed quote that reads, “Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace within the storm.” 

Over the last couple of weeks we have all found ourselves within the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for children and parents of school-aged children.

Our children have had to switch gears from going to school to being at home 24 hours a day/7 days per week. Parents have had to shift gears also, possibly working from home and adding the title of “teacher” to their parental resume. 

This shift creates additional work and stress for both parents and children. However, children often do not know how to put words to their feelings. Because children may not have words such as worry, fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, and even depression to describe their stressful feelings, they act out. 

Acting out may look like excessive clinginess, tearfulness, emotional meltdowns, aggressiveness, or regression in other behaviors. Children may also suffer from more physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, a racing heart, dizziness, interruption in sleep patterns, etc.

As a parent, grandparent or caregiver, you have the challenge of helping your child learn to express and deal with their complicated feelings in a healthy, appropriate manner. This is no easy task, as you may be experiencing many of the same feelings yourself. However, you have to remember that you are your child’s “safe place” in what may seem like an unsafe world at present. 

Children are usually at their best when they feel safe, connected to others and have structure and organization in their lives; in other words, a sense of predictability and normalcy. You can be this fortress of safety and normalcy by trying some of the following strategies.

Learn/teach how to properly practice deep, relaxing breathing. You can do this in innovative, fun ways such as lying on the floor with your child while each of you puts a stuffed animal on your stomach. As you breathe in through your nose for a count of 3 or 4 and out through your mouth for a count of 3 or 4, you should see the animal sink and rise on your belly. This means you are doing deep, relaxing diaphragm breathing.

Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system. In simple language, it helps decrease sensations of fear or distress and increases a sense of calm. This would be an excellent way to start your at-home school days along with a discussion of what the day’s routine is going to be, which again conveys a sense of safety to children.

Try to take a break every 20-30 minutes, depending on age and attention span of your child. During these breaks, dance, sing, hum, and encourage movement, as these types of activities help to naturally promote a sense of calmness and/or positive mood. 

If you notice your child is starting to become frustrated or upset during an assignment, try to interrupt the frustration before it becomes a full-blown meltdown.  Suggest they splash cold water on their face, put a cool rag to the back of their neck, or give them a piece of sugar-free candy or gum to chew. 

You could also try a 5-minute “blanket break.” Wrap the upset child in a blanket for 5 minutes, have them close their eyes if they’re comfortable doing so, take 3-4 deep breaths and think about a family vacation, memory or activity that makes them happy.

End your home school/homework time with a discussion of what the next day’s tentative schedule is going to be and one thing they have learned or are grateful for from their day.  Again, this promotes predictability and a positive attitude. Also, in ending your school/homework time with your children, give them time to ask questions or talk about something that is on their mind or important to them. 

Even if you only have 5 or 10 minutes to do this, try to really listen, empathize if needed, answer questions truthfully with age-appropriate facts…and try not to be judgmental. Just like you, children are trying to understand and come to terms with the current chaos and unknown of the “new normal” – in what is not their normal world.

Please check out the Youth First website at youthfirstinc.org/selmaterial for additional suggestions, activities, and exercises to help strengthen families and youth through this stressful time in our lives.