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Friday, April 3, 2020



Today I'm thrilled to share some positive strategies from my friend Barbara Gruener for STAYING CALM!!!

Raise your hand if you’re feeling a little bit frazzled by the frantic and somewhat chaotic changes that this pandemic is causing. Okay, maybe a lot. How about frightened? Irritable? Angry? Sad? Agitated? Confused? Our list of emotions could go on and on as evidenced by this Emotions Wheel from the work of psychologist Rubin Plutchik. 


Good news; it’s completely normal to be a twisted bundle of emotions right now. Use that wheel to learn more about your own feelings to help the children in your care understand, accept, navigate and manage theirs during the shelter-in-place mandate that has temporarily closed our schools, cancelled events, and demanded we stay home unless it’s essential travel.

Let’s look at some ways that we can comfort ourselves and calm our children during these trying times of uncertainty, unrest and turbulence.

1. Put your own mask on first. As soon as I typed the word turbulence, I thought immediately of that counterintuitive request that the airlines make, to put our own oxygen masks on before helping the young children traveling with us. This metaphor for life speaks volumes to me, because children take their lead from the adults that co-regulate them. If we want calm from them, then we need first and foremost to model calm. How does that look, sound, and feel right now? Maybe it’s deep breathing or the practice of mindfulness. Maybe it’s meditative coloring. Perhaps it’s listening to soothing music. It might even be dancing or escaping in video games. Whatever the medium, we set the example through a time-honored tradition called Show And Tell. Start by showing them what self-regulation looks like, then explain to them why it’s important for all of us. Modeling self-care works the same way. Show your children that self-care isn’t selfish and tell them that it’s not meant to be a reactive luxury, but instead a proactive necessity.

2. Name ‘em and claim ‘em. These days inside with our loved ones may get tricky; never before in our lifetime have we gotten to go through something like this. Expect those aforementioned feelings to get raw and uncomfortable. Model owning those feelings by naming them and claiming them: Mommy feels really sad right now; what do you think might help her as she walks through this big feeling? Or Daddy is really frustrated at the moment; maybe some recess would help his brain process this feeling before we continue. Our children benefit greatly from knowing that all feelings matter and that these feelings all visit their grown-ups, too. Use a kid-friendly feelings chart so that your children can put faces with their feelings. Come to my office and you’ll find the ceiling tiles have been replaced with feeling tiles, to give children the vocabulary to express what they’re experiencing.

Be careful not to label emotions as good or bad; instead, try thinking about them as big or small, easy or hard, comfortable or uncomfortable, weak or strong even. Need something more tangible? Try labeling them as cotton (soft) or sandpaper scratchy). Know that if we are not given a safe place to emote, unexpressed feelings can easily become undesirable behaviors.

3. Lean in and lean on. Ok, so I’ve named it and claimed it; now what do I do with it? Our knee-jerk reaction to an uncomfortable feeling might be to ignore it or to run away from it. But chances are good that it’s not going away. In fact, not only will it find you again, but often times when it does, it’s even bigger and stronger than before. Encourage your littles to lean in to their feelings (and the discomfort they might bring) and lean on you to walk them through it. It might go something like this: Sarah, it looks like you’re really sad that you can’t play with Jímena right now. I’m really sad, too, because we can’t see Grandma and Grandpa right now either. What do you think we could do together while sad is choosing us? Use an inquiry statement here rather than a suggestion to help avoid the temptation to fix the feeling for them. Nothing’s broken; they just need time to let the emotion of the moment run its course. As you teach them to lean into the pain and lean on a trusted peer or adult for support, you’re empowering them to process their feelings on their terms, in a way which is helpful for them. While you’re working together through using the strategy that they find helpful, feel free to share what might work for you, to give them yet another tool for their emotional-regulation toolbox.

4. Use empathy statement to normalize and validate. Researcher and author Brené Brown says that the skill of empathy is a powerful catalyst simply by “… listening, holding space, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” Empathy begins with understanding what someone is feeling. Imagine the emotion beneath their experience. If you can, ask them what they’re feeling, to check it out. From cognition, empathy then moves to embracing those needs and feeling moved to alleviate their suffering, the affective domain known as compassion. Then, a chance to walk the talk, to show kindness, to let people know we see them, hear them, understand them, feel with them, and want to help. So rather than asking someone to stop crying, fussing at them to quit being so mad or insisting that there’s nothing to be scared about, try empathy statements like this: I hear you. Tell me more. Help me understand. I get it. That must feel scary. What’s the trickiest part? What might help you right now? Who could help you? How can I help? Step into their stories and walk alongside of them. When words fail, encourage them to draw it out or act it out for you. Got the angries? Try a few of these mindfulness strategies.

5. Connect with consistency. We all crave connection, probably now more than ever; I know that when our adult son came by yesterday, it was physically and emotionally painful to not wrap him up in one of our usual bear hugs. But distancing physically doesn’t keep us from connecting spiritually. Never underestimate the power of virtual (and real-life) connection catalysts like these:

  *Eye contact. Smiles. Sign Language.
  *Heart-to-heart phone calls. Texts. Emails.
  * Zoom. FaceTime. Google Hangouts.
  *Hand-drawn pictures. Love Letters for Grandfriends.
  * Thank-you notes for the people who serve.
  *Meditation and prayer. Yoga. Mindful breathing.
  *Chalk the walk for passersby.
  * Bear hunts and/or scavenger hunts.
  *Dance parties. Music lessons; ukulele anyone?
  *Create kindness from the kitchen.

Remember that children also crave consistency, so set some for-now normal routines and habits. Hold a family or class meeting to decide how your morning ritual will look. Check in every so often to make sure it’s working for everyone. Look at your schedule to see when it’ll work best to break for snacks and meals. Close the books and take some virtual field trips. Pencil in brain breaks and boosts. Allow for some down time to restore the rhythm of rest. Block off intentional time (think recess!) for meaningful movement and socializing. Look at your evening routines and tuck-in time traditions. The more predictable your schedule can be, the calmer it will feel for the littles in your care.

6. Reframe for the win. Keeping a growth mindset through all of these firsts will feel like a huge win-win. Instead of looking at it as We’re stuck at home for another month, try thinking we get to stay home for now. Turn but We can’t see our friends into let’s look for creative ways to get together virtually. Help This is too hard for me morph into Who can help me to understand it a little bit better? Rather than I’m just not cut out for this stay-at-home thing, think I’m getting better every day. Let I can’t control this become But I can control this. Continue to calmly reassure everyone that this is temporary. Breathe. Be a little kinder. Lavish grace without limits. Apologize. Forgive. Love unconditionally.

You’ve got this, dear caregivers, and when it’s over (and it will eventually end!), you’ll take the lessons we’re learning together with you into the future as you continue to foster calming connections that keep everyone feeling happily safe and secure. 


About the author: In her 36th year of growing alongside students, staff, and stakeholders in Texas, Barbara Gruener, B.S., M.S., M.S., is a nationally-recognized school counselor, a speaker and The Corner on Character blog and What's Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind.

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