One of the most widely taught (and most effective) regulation skills taught? Deep breathing! Woo hooo! Exciting right?
Maybe I am the only one, but when I introduce the power of deep breathing to the young people I work with I am almost always met with an, um... underwhelming response.
Some say “I am always breathing aren’t I? Why do I have to learn to deep breathe?” Others say “If breathing helped I wouldn’t get dysregulated in the first place right?” Okay maybe they use words like upset/ticked off or something else when talking about it - but you get the idea!
OR we have the young people who come into our office who have heard it all before. They have tried “the deep breathing thing” and it hasn’t worked. When we ask them to demonstrate they miiiight take a shallow exhale where they fill up their chest and suck in their tummies. Yup, that breathing definitely will not work.
Okay, so here is where we as Play Therapists roll up our sleeves and combine the powers of deep breathing with the powers of play and get to work!
First and foremost I always feel like some quality neuroscience explaining how when we breathe deeply it calms our heart signaling to our body we aren’t in danger is key for buy in. I fully believe once young people understand WHY deep breathing is so effective (based in science) they are definitely more on board to practice and try.
Next it’s time to teach the HOW of deep breathing. Making sure that young people understand that their tummy should fill up on the inhale and get smaller on the exhale, with the top of their chest moving very little. Sometimes we can help young people do this by putting one hand on their chest and one on their tummy. As you breathe together help them notice which hand is moving in and out and make changes as necessary.
You can also have them give something a “tummy ride” or an “elevator ride” where the young person lays on their back and places on object on their tummy and watches it go up and down with breath!
Next, it’s time to make it fun! For one thing, young people learn better when they are having fun. Want to dive deeper into the neuroscience? Check out this article HERE!
Okay - now on to some fun and engaging activities to learn deep breathing!
Breathing With Bubbles
There are so many playful activities you can do with bubbles! One of my favorite things to do with them is practice those slow long deep breaths. You can get little mini-sized bottles of bubbles on Amazon or the party favor aisle of Target.
Some of my best tips for bubble blowing is to make sure you practice some inhales and slow and long exhales before starting the bubble blowing process. I always coach young people to fully exhale (even if they are out of bubbles) before blowing another round. Sometimes for these teaching moments it can be good to invest in a little more expensive bubble where the bubbles keep coming after the first blow!
Other props that can help with deep breathing? Feathers and pinwheels!
Breathing and Smelling Visualizations
Cooking breathing is a technique by Liana Lowenstein will make anyone hungry! In short you call up in your imagination a warm cookie fresh out of the oven. You can have the child pick which cookie flavor they want to breathe with for the day. First with your nose you smell all the cookie goodness (mine is chocolate chip!) and then blow out to cool the cookie down.
I like to put my hand out in front of me like I am holding the cookie flat to get more into it! Liana has the complete version HERE as well as a really fun game where you get to eat actual cookies! YUM!
Some other spins on this technique:
Breathing Like Animals
This video from Sanford Health takes you through how to breathe like a bunny, bumble bee, bear, lion, and crocodile! AND another tip to help with deep breathing - practice, practice, practice! I love when I can send parents a link so they have an easy way to practice at home!
You can pretty much use animals (and magical beings) for inspiration for many kinds of breath! Breathe in and blow out fire like a dragon! Breathe in and roar out like a lion!
Breathing With Movement
Sometimes it can be difficult for young people to pace how long they should breathe in and how long they should breathe out. For this reason getting really visual is important. Sometimes we can start with our hands at our sides (palms out) and raise them up over our heads on the inhale and lower them back down on the exhale.
Another way to get movement in with breath is a Hoberman Sphere. On the inhale expand the ball and make it large and on the exhale shrinking it back down!
With this technique you can imagine or physically trace with your finger shapes while you pace your breathing. Coping Skills for Kids has a free download HERE for four of my favorite types of tracing breathing:
Want to check out more ways to regulate? Check out these resources HERE and HERE!
What are your favorite ways to deep breathe with young people? Comment below!
One of the things that I love about Tele-Play therapy is the creativeness that comes out of necessity! One of the many activities I have been enjoying doing with telemental-health is playing card games virtually as a Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy activity for my sessions and admittedly I have really settled in to playing the "old fashioned" way - with real cards.
What you need for this activity is to each have the same set of cards or same game at each location. I have been surprised to find that most families have UNO (one of my faves) but nearly everyone has a regular plain old deck of cards. Now, mind you, they might have creative or ummmm interesting designs on the back – and it has become one of my favorite parts to check out and compare designs.
When you are playing cards virtually, instead of laying the card you are playing face up on the discard pile, you hold it up to the screen on your turn until the next person "plays" their card. Then, when the next person has their turn they hold up the card to the screen while you select your next play. Pretty low tech, but works extremely well!
I developed the game "Strengths and Struggles" (or you could call it strengths and stumbles....sunshine and struggles, really anything) based on the game of Crazy 8's. Not sure how to play? Here are the instructions - straight from Bicycle Cards! I also don't keep score at the end I just start a new round.
So here is where the therapy part comes in - every time you change the symbol you need to say something according to the "therapy rules". If you change from red to black you need to say a strength you have and if you change from black to red you need to say a struggle or a stumble.
Let's define strength and struggle a bit deeper. A strength can be a trait, characteristic, choice they made that benefited themselves or others, a choice they made that was hard but they did it anyway, and on and on! Maybe they cleaned their room all on their own! Maybe they let their sibling sit in the front seat even though it was really their turn. And just maybe they worked really hard and completed that art project or story they were working on!
A struggle or a stumble is a time where they didn't make a choice that worked for themselves or someone else. This could be a time they didn't do a chore and lied about it, a time they got frustrated at their sibling and yelled, or a time when had anxiety thoughts going over and over in their head and weren't able to reach for a skill. The great thing about struggles and stumbles are they are GREAT opportunities to learn and getting up is part of the journey.
Now, here's the thing. YOU as the therapist also have to follow the therapy rules on your turn. This is an excellent opportunity for modeling! You want to make sure that your examples are kid friendly. You miiiight not want to use things that are too adult or will go right over a child's head like taxes or mortgage payments. You also might want to soften things a bit. If you got angry in the car about being cut off and started yelling (like really loud), you would definitely not detail the whole incident. Keep the focus on the child and what they might benefit from hearing. You might soften to feeling angry and not using your skills of deep breathing as a stumble. Most kids can relate to that!
For some, you may need to brainstorm a list of things you might say for successes and struggles to avoid the blank stare look and confusion when it is your turn. That totally misses the point of validation, normalization, and modeling that can come with this activity!
There are so many great moments to introduce skills, challenge cognitive distortions, normalize, and provide psychoeducation (among other things) with this activity! AND you can flex it, bend it, and get creative! Sometimes children develop the best set of unique "therapy rules" - so it is definitely an adaptable approach!
What are your favorite "therapy rules" for therapeutic games? Let me know in the comments below!
The overwhelm from COVID-19 is real. And the thing about COVID-19 is it's not just one thing - it's everything. I wanted to share one of the techniques I have been using with my middle schoolers and teenagers during Tele-Play sessions to help them try to make sense of the impact of COVID-19 on when it is SO HARD as adults to wrap our heads around.
When I am doing a COVID-19 worry web, the session usually starts with a check in of how a young person's week is going. When I can hear the overwhelm and exhaustion I will usually stop and ask them if it’s okay if I chart out what I am noticing as they talk. I usually use a plain white sheet of paper and pen and get to work! I haven’t had anyone say no at this point, but I guess if they did I would pivot and on to the next activity that would make sense.
As they start talking we brainstorm all the things that might be leading to the feelings of overwhelm, confusion, stress, exhaustion, the changes that have been happening in their lives, and things that they took for granted that they would do anything for now. I have had SO many young people who really disliked school for one reason or another (social anxiety, bullying, learning difficulties) who are actually wanting to go back to the classroom. OR hated running errands with their parent - but now are craving to go to a store - any store - even the hardware store! How confusing is that for a young person?
Usually I start with a circle in the middle (like the picture above) with COVID-19 inside. The bigger categories I have found as young people are talking usually look something like this (but are definitely not limited to):
And from here – the sky is the limit. The picture above is just a tiny fraction of what someone might have on their COVID-19 worry web (don’t worry this web is not based on any specific client). The ripple effect is enormous. I have to social distance, so I can't go to school, and I can't see my friends, and I don't have their information so I have barely any social connections outside of my family. OR I have to social distance so I can't go to school, which means my softball season is cancelled, and I can't participate in my senior year of sports so I may never play softball again. So powerful. So much grief.
After we have exhausted all the possibilities and connections, which a lot of the time takes up most of the session, I then hold up the drawing for the young person to see. The final product looks like a less polished and put together version of the picture above, with scribbled words, smushed together bubbles, and frantic lines. Usually we sit with the feeling in our bodies of what it is like to look at this web. There is often first surprise or shock and then a settling into understanding. Understanding of why they might be so overwhelmed, angry, want to cry, or just want to sleep all the time. It's a moment where they can reflect - "Oh I guess I do understand why I am feeling this way - it all makes sense now."
We then process that sometimes with a big worry web like this we can feel stuck in the web, much like a spider web, and we can talk about what it feels like that every move we make or want to make is connected to this web in some way. It’s so important to sit with the feeling of stuckness and honor it.
Then – on to solutions! How the heck are we going to get unstuck? And this my friends, is usually a whole other session. Perhaps some reflective homework? Most definitely!
As we are all adjusting to this new “normal for now” season of social distancing and sheltering in place it is important to get clear about how to support one another and regulate through these difficult times. I wrote HERE about all the different response young people may have to COVID-19, which quite frankly was A LOT of different ways young people might react and process this pandemic.
So now you might ask – what next? What do we DO now (besides of course movie marathons)? I’m glad you asked! Below are some ways I have been talking to parents, guardians, and families regarding how to support their children during this time!
Assess Knowledge and Give Age Appropriate Information:
Let’s ask children what they know about COIVD-19. They likely know some things and this is a great way to open up a conversation and to be able to assess if they have accurate information OR if they have thoughts that are maladaptive.
These conversations can happen in therapy sessions or within family conversations. There are some great tips for parents HERE and HERE for how to facilitate these conversations. One of the most important things to know is that as adults we need to manage our anxiety when talking through these difficult topics to create a safe space for kids to explore their own feelings.
Children need to know age appropriate information about what is happening in the world around them and in trauma. Honestly if we don’t give it to them, they will find out about it from someone else who may or may not have accurate information. If parents or therapists are able to facilitate an age appropriate discussions, safe adults control the flow of information – not the next door neighbor who heard something from his cousin who heard it from their best friend, or who knows where else!
Also – children will just plan old MAKE UP information if they do not have accurate information – and not necessarily consciously. One of my favorite Deb Dana quotes is “story follows state”, meaning that we create stories and assign meaning to our dysregulated nervous systems.
It is also important to not just have one conversation about COVID-19 – this is not a one and done topic. Find the healthy balance between flooding children (ie bringing it up multiple times per day) and avoidance (no conversation). Checking in from time to time to see what questions they have or updating on information is essential.
Below are some resources to help explain and process COVID-19 with children:
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Parent/Caregiver Guide To Helping Families Cope With COVID-19
The Story of the Oyster and the Butterfly: The Corona Virus and Me – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Come Inside Bear – a children’s story about social distancing
Our Hero Is YOU – Free digital book to help children understand COVID-19
Assess and Support Family Stress:
As much as I love a good parent check in, I have been taking much care to check in more so with family systems these last weeks and will continue to do so. I strongly believe that parents are the most important people in their child’s lives, and now more than ever, they are holding the container and structure for their child’s wellbeing. The concept that you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others and as mental health professionals is so important, because we need to make sure we are supporting and regulating the family system so the system can regulate the child. This might mean extending sessions or adding additional sessions in the week to make sure families are getting the support they need.
Validate and Express Feelings:
All feelings are OK! I love to say that our feelings are our bodies compasses for what is going on in the world around us. This is also along the lines of Dr. Dan Siegel’s “Name it to tame it” concept!
There is also so much grief and loss in COVID-19, beyond the physical lives that will be lost. The play that never was performed, the vacation that was cancelled, the graduation ceremony that was missed, and the grandparents that can’t be squeezed. Emotions will cycle, things will become repressed and “come out sideways”, and sometimes things will feel stuck.
As adults it is also so important that we model these feelings for children. That we can own, talk about, and name the feelings as well as show children how to regulate in a way that is helpful. I am having a lot of conversations with families about practicing relaxation and calming techniques together as part of the routine. This might include deep breaths, family game night, walks, a family gratitude practice, meditation, or dance parties!
Routine And Structure – But Not Rigidity:
I love the saying “trauma is chaos structure is healing” and I have used that quite a bit these last couple weeks. Creating a routine and consistency, and continuing with routines already in place, can significantly benefit our nervous system by letting it know what to expect. There is definitely comfort in routine. In addition to a schedule that is visual, it might be really helpful and necessary to go over this with children verbally at several points through the day. Get to the point where children roll their eyes and say “I know, I know” – this is the sweet spot where they know exactly what to expect!
On the other hand, step away from rigidity and have realistic expectations of what might be accomplished in the day, knowing that our nervous systems are all on high alert likely leading to those things I talk about HERE including anxiety, anger, fixations, rumination, etc. We will likely not be at our most productive and running at optimal performance – and that is okay. Children (especially because we may be spending more time in our brainstem where it is really hard to learn anything new) will likely not be taking up basket weaving, mastering a new language, or excelling at gymnastics during this time. Identify the bare minimum, good enough, and go with that. It is also okay if you are 10 minutes late for lunch, need to shorten the hour bike ride to a half hour, or wake up around breakfast-ish not at 6am like planned! Everyone in this time needs a little grace.
Physical Distance NOT Social Distance
Even though we can’t occupy the same physical space as others it is so important as humans to connect with one another. What were the activities that children were engaging in before COVID-19? Can we get creative and move some of these online? I have seen AMAZING things with transitioning to all virtual Play Therapy BUT am also seeing other communities rally as well! I have seen virtual dance classes, karate, choirs, and occupational therapy! How can we help children connect with others through video chat platforms, community challenges such as this free downloadable Lego Challenge, or a weekly lunch or tea date with grandparents or best friends?
Move Your Body
This one I cannot emphasize enough. With all the cortisol and adrenalin building up in our bodies due to the stress response we likely all have to some degree these chemicals need to be burned off by movement. Now, these chemicals are meant to be burned off by running for our lives or fighting for it BUT dance parties, jumping on the trampoline, yoga, bike rides, and walking the dog will work too! These ones are also A LOT more fun!
And as I have been saying a lot lately *with humor of course* – what else do you have to do?
What are your favorite ways of COVID-19 Coping for either yourself, your families, or the children you work with? Drop a comment below!
One of the biggest topics in my virtual office these past few weeks has been normalizing children’s stress response to COVID-19. Families I work with range from seeing restrictions as an annoyance to full on panic, but nearly all of them realize that this is something new and uncharted for children, our nation, and the world. Even the healthiest and most well-regulated children and families are feeling the impact.
Okay – brace yourself – 99.9% of children in the world today, in this moment, live with some form of pandemic related movement restriction. For many families this comes with an increase difficulty in getting nutritional, education, financial, and safety needs met among others.
Past research has shown us that during times of health emergencies leading to closing of schools and other social services resources, children are at heightened risk for exploitation, violence, and abuse. And additionally, those young people who needed the support of a strong special education team to meet their needs are left without crucial services and at high risk for falling behind or further behind. All of this is an additional to the anxiety, fears, and rumination about the pandemic in general – especially for children who have parents that are essential workers or work in the medical field and need to leave the home or who love and care about someone who would be at high risk for infection. Let’s face it – that definition encompasses most children.
So here is the other thing –although we know children will be impacted by the pandemic, we can’t assume that all children will have a trauma response. Although we can agree that COVID-19 and the global impact of this pandemic is traumatic – it depends on children’s perceptions if a trauma response will develop. The child that thinks “Everyone I love will die” will likely have a different reaction than the child that thinks “I know we are doing everything we can to keep safe”. The child who has had one or more family members pass away from COVID-19 in a community with a high infection rate such as New York is likely to have a different response than a child from a rural community that has had low rates of infection.
Every child will react a slightly different way to COVID-19. The good news is there are no right or wrong ways to feel – all feelings and behaviors are the bodies way trying to make sense, process, and regulate as well as meet our needs. While some choice may be unhelpful – all behavior is purposeful – an attempt to get to a regulated and safe state. It is through this lens that we can gain an increased understanding of what is driving the behaviors so we can problem solve alternatives.
To be honest, some children may LOVE the fact that they get more time with their parents and the decrease in transitions from home to school and activities. They might enjoy the fact that they don’t have to go to a school where they get bullied or have significant separation anxiety. Young people may also like the fact that everyone else can’t go out without them, and they don’t have to see social media pictures of hangouts, movies, or birthday parties they weren’t invited to. For those with social anxiety, it is a welcome break to engage with others from behind a screen and not having the pressure of being called on in class.
For other children these feelings of positivity and relief will definitely not be the case. They may be angry, tantrums may increase, or irritability may come out. Toys may be broken, names called, and art work ripped up. Children may hyper-focus on the small things in an attempt to gain some form of control. All of a sudden it becomes really important to have a certain brand of cereal or they HAVE to wear their favorite shirt even thought it is in the laundry. If it doesn’t go their way, it may seem like their anger comes out of nowhere, big and explosive. Also, in an attempt to gain control, there might be a spike in noncompliance of expected tasks. The simplest thing may turn into an all-out battle.
Some kids have hyper focus on anxiety triggers and will spin out and ruminate on minor triggers. One of my favorite Deb Dana quotes is “story follows state” – meaning that our brains will create stories or reasons WHY our nervous system is dysregulated. Oh – that math assignment you didn’t turn in last year? The cookie you took from the grocery store at age 7? When you said something mean about your friend on the playground earlier this year? YES! That is why you are anxious! And sometimes our brain feels like if we can just solve this problem in front of us everything will be better!
For me this week it was trying to find a note I had written on an index card leading me to tear apart up and down my home “office”. Where did I find this note? Not at all on an index card, but actually on a post-it turned upside down on my desk. Spoiler alert – finding the note didn’t regulate my nervous system.
Other times anxiety can take over in an attempt to gain control by becoming very focused on routine, structure, or placement. Sometimes children (and adults too) convince themselves that they will regulate if their routine doesn’t change, their books are in the right place, or when nobody switches chairs at the dining room table. There can be sadness, meltdowns, and tears if things are out of place.
There can also just be sadness in general. A down mood, feeling slowed down, and concentration can be difficult. You might give a child instructions 3 to a zillion times and they might not be able to focus enough to finish a task. Other kids might get jumpy, have a flight energy, and be constantly moving their bodies.
Kids also might feel flooded or overwhelmed by the range of feelings and just want to check out or disconnect and numb from their body. This could look like binge watching TV shows, getting sucked into video games, or even the child that is re-reading the whole series or Harry Potter again barely coming out of their room to eat. You might also hear that kids are bored or there is “nothing to do”. Nothing brings joy or excitement.
Also, because most of our nervous systems are on high alert and likely pumping out large amounts of cortisol and adrenaline children can get tired, lethargic, and oversleep. A lot of young people are pushing bed times to later at night and sleeping in later in the day. Other kids may put all of their effort and energy into SOMETHING like organizing their rooms or planning their fairy garden for the summer.
Other young people may have regressive behaviors. This is when emotional or physical responses regress or "go backwards" to an earlier age. This might mean talking in a way that is younger than their age, clinging to safety objects like a blanket, sucking thumbs again, waking up in the middle of the night, having bathroom accidents, or being unable to sleep on their own.
Whatever the response, and let's be honest - the range is wide, the hope is we can have compassion for all the ways we are trying to make sense of these times. Hope that we can meet children where they are at and help create a felt sense of safety and co-regulation.
I SO want to keep the ball rolling on this conversation - leave a comment about what other responses have you seen within yourself, your family, or the children you work with!
“Giraffes can’t dance you silly fool, oh Gerald you’re so weird.”
I literally have this book memorized. I could recite it in my sleep – no joke. Not only because I use it all the dang time in my therapy sessions, but my son also happens to love it too! AND what’s not to like – an underdog truly coming into his own to become the BEST dancer anyone in the jungle has ever seen!
Ok, let me back up a minute. You all know how much I love bibliotherapy, and if you haven’t read Giraffes Can’t Dance scoot yourself to the nearest bookstore, pop it in your Amazon cart, or to be honest you can see it right now on youtube! In this book, Gerald the giraffe learns that animals in the jungle can be unkind and downright mean, but with the help of a cricket, confident thinking, and his own special song he can do anything he puts his mind to - including dance!
This book has it all – self-esteem, bullying, growth mindset, self-talk, connection and support. It is also ah-mazing for Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy. There are so many opportunities to go through the cognitive triangle and connect thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is also filled with regulation skills and highlights Gerald’s self-talk. You can clearly see the pattern when Gerald makes statements that he is “such a clot” and how they connect with him feeling sad, giving up, and going home.
Giraffes Can’t Dance also highlights the importance of helpers – a small cricket steps in and serves Gerald some serious wisdom allowing him to find his rhythm and a song that is just for him. You can see the shift in Gerald’s mood as he exclaims “I AM DANCING”! He is also incredibly gracious and doesn’t even dish out as much as an “I told you so” to any of the jungle animals – he just finishes with a bow. Gerald is one class act.
My favorite companion activities for this book include a “Find Your Song” activity. You have young people identify a song that is just for them – the music they move through life to. You can play the song in session, notice what feelings and thoughts come up, or have them focus on a specific powerful self-statement.
This book is also a great tool for EMDR as it helps identify feelings, thoughts, and cognitions. You can get curious about where Gerald may feel sensations in his body and what pictures may be going through his head as well as giving Gerald a Subjective Units of Distress rating. This primes young people to head into phase 3 of EMDR desensitization and reprocessing and gives them language and examples when asking about TICES. You can also use the “Find Your Song” activity if you are trained in EMDR with slow bilateral stimulation for the development of a resource.
I have also developed a worksheet pack that I use with young people including a Giraffes CAN Dance growth mindset worksheet that helps young people evaluate things they thought they couldn’t do but actually could as well as things they can’t do YET! For young people who feel isolated or alone you can grab the “Who Are Your Crickets” worksheet to help them identify their community and team. I have also used this for big transitions in life such as from elementary school to middle school or out of intensive outpatient treatment into a less restrictive setting. The last worksheet in the packet, "Who Are You A Cricket To" can be used for social skills. You can help young people identify how they show up for others and encourage others. You can grab your free downloadable worksheet pack HERE!
This is such an amazing book that I have used it different ways and different times with the same client. Maybe one time to talk about confidence and finding a client’s song and again for a transition time when she needed to get clear about who was on her team.
I know this book is so dynamic – drop a comment with other ways you have used this book in your practice!
PS - why YES that is a giant piece of tape on my book! This is one of the original books I purchased as a play therapist with a tiny budget. It came from a little website called half.com where I was used to buying some of my college text books. This copy is from the New York Library!
Interested in learning more about how to use Bibliotherapy in your Play Therapy Practice? Check out this training HERE!
These are my Big Feeling Eaters. Okay, so they are really called Worry Eaters, but I certainly DO NOT want to discriminate on the types of feelings they could eat. Angry, sad, or jealous feelings are just as important as worried feelings!
These cute little monsters are anywhere from $16.00 to $22.00 on Amazon but you can find them at Zulili on sale sometimes. Visit this page to get notified about when they might have them on sale. The awesome thing about these monsters is they come in such a BIG variety all with their own unique names like Flint, Polli, Enno, and Ping. I couldn't decide on just one so I bought three (sadly Schmidt did not make the photo shoot). This may be this pull inside me to allow children as much choice as possible, OR it could be indecisiveness. Either or, these three live out their lives in my playroom.
If you are just starting Play Therapy or child and adolescent counseling with a tiny budget you can get these ZIPIT Monster Pencil Cases for around $8.00. Still too high? No worries I have your back – check out my Pinterest board for how to make your own with supplies you probably have on hand to live in your office. My favorite (even when I use my Big Feeling Eaters) is to make one out of tissue boxes for the young person I am working with to take home. And if I know one thing about therapists we go through a ton of tissue boxes. You can even recruit your office mates to save them for you!
The other supply you need for this activity? Little colorful strips of paper to write the big feelings on. The young person gets to choose what pieces of paper best represents their feeling and trigger for the week giving them a sense of empowerment and control.
Now that we know WHAT these guys are, let’s dive a little deeper into what you DO with them. I love to use these guys for compartmentalization or a container exercise, which can be incredibly helpful for those young people who ruminate on big feelings and let them take root and live in their brains and bodies. When this happens sometimes there is little ability, energy, or focus on anything but those darn big feelings.
We see this all the time with the young people with whom we work. This might look like worries that prevent a child from going to bed on time, a child becoming so angry that it is not her turn for the iPad that she is unable to let these feelings go and carries them all the way to bed time (with a couple of blow ups on the way), or the young person who becomes so distressed when his basketball team loses that he can’t stop crying.
If you are trained in EMDR this is a great activity to do before you enter the desensitization and reprocessing phases so clients have a container at home. Or for those incomplete sessions you can offer the Big Feeling Eater to contain the memory. It’s also an awesome Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy technique.
Here’s my scrip that I use to talk about this concept with young people:
“These are my Big Feeling Eaters. They live here in my office and LOVE to help out young people. Their job is to eat big feelings like anger, sadness, jealousy, and worry. Their bellies can ONLY get full when they eat big feelings from children like you! They love to help out the young people I work with to make them feel better by eating all those big feelings that don’t feel good to them in the moment and that might make it hard to do the things they want! AND the young people I work with LOVE to help out the big feeling eaters by giving them some of their big feelings that aren’t working for them. Their bellies only feel full when they are eating big feelings. Anytime you come into this office and have a big feeling you want to get rid of you can choose to write it on that paper over there and feed it to the Big Feeling Eaters. The only rule is they have a super secret detection system, in if someone puts in a big feeling that isn’t safe then they will let me know. Otherwise the feelings will digest and make their bellies full!”
I also intentionally leave the big feelings in their belly. WHAT? Doesn’t this violate confidentiality?
Well…I want to normalize that others have big feelings too. Children are never left in my office without supervision, and rarely someone will try to reach it and look at the big feelings. When this happens I will say something like “OH NO! Those feelings are digesting – we can’t reach into their bellies and take them out. It would be like if someone reached in your belly and tried to take out your lunch – it would feel yucky!” I have never had a child not respect this boundary.
The other piece to this is that I check the big feelings after the child leaves. If there was any identifying information (which there has not been yet) I would remove that big feeling. Most of the time it sounds something like “my math test”, “going to bed by myself”, "being sick" or just simply the feeling word. None of these big feelings could ever be identified and connected to the young person, so they stay and it can be powerful.
A lot of the time young people will run and crunch the Big Feeling Eater’s belly and say “ohhh they’re still digesting”. OR other times they will make a comment such as “I bet I’m the only one who has fed them” only to discover that there are other feelings “digesting”. Recognizing that they are not the only child with big feelings, because sometimes it can seem that way, takes the shame out of the worries, tantrums, and tears.
Some young people take it and run with it wanting to deposit feelings each time. Others know it is there for them when they need it. Overall it provides empowerment that we are in control over what we choose to occupy our minds and how we can regulate emotions with compartmentalization and container activities.
If you had a Big Feeling Eater what feelings would you put in there this week? Frustration with paperwork? Stress with not enough time for emails or collateral contacts?
Do you have other favorite compartmentalization activities you like to use with young people? Drop a comment below!
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This is the time of year I am normally counting down the days to holiday break. Every year I can almost set the date on the calendar of around Thanksgiving when nearly everyone on my caseload starts to rev up. When I say “rev up” I mean more phone calls, emails, teacher reports, anxiety, and anger and less motivation, patience, and energy. And it’s not just the therapy world, it’s teachers, coaches, parents…..well nearly everyone. And if I look at my life – me too.
This time a year can be stressful for so many reasons. It’s the shopping, all the activities and celebrations, remembering your child’s outfit for red and green day at school, being out of routine, the colder weather (and for Duluth this year - the blizzard), shorter days, less sun light, and academically trying to get everything complete before semester end.
For many it is an incredibly painful and sensitive time where they may be seeing family members where relationships are strained, adding new family members they might not be so sure about to the celebration, or no family members at all to share in this season. It can also be a season of firsts – in a new community, without a loved one, or the first year with parents that are separated or divorced. All this stress isn’t even covering those with financial strain who are unsure of where their next meal will come from and if there are going to be presents under the tree. Many children are left to wonder why Santa brought their best friend a new video game console but left them a board game. And then they are the young people that struggle with the break and miss the structure, social support, and predictability that the school environment provides.
So if we get a little neuroscientific and think about Dr. Dan Siegel’s Window of Tolerance, our Window of Tolerance shrinks with trauma and stress. This means that we can get more easily hyperaroused and into a sympathetic nervous system response, which may mean anxiety, panic, anger and rage – for all. One one nervous system is stressed out it can put everyone else on high alert.
Lisa Dion identifies four threats to the nervous system in her book Aggression in Play Therapy. They are:
Let’s pause for a moment and think how many of these factors are present during the holiday season. Oh that's right, likely all of them.
If we break it down physical pain absolutely captures physical trauma, but beyond that what about those we work with who escalate quickly when a sibling bumps into them? Or they tire quickly from shoveling snow? There are also certainly many unknowns due to routine being turned upside down during most breaks. Additionally how often as adults to we “grin and bear it” during uncomfortable situations or put on a smile for a holiday we are not so thrilled about? Yea, young people pick up on that and can go into a threat response as they are unsure what is really going on. There are also MANY shoulds of how children “should” act and expectations to be on their best behavior.
So how do we help the young people and families we work with, as well as ourselves, to not just survive in the holiday season, but to thrive? Being clear on WHY we have stress isn’t enough. We need to focus with our families, and ourselves, on the what next. Below are my favorites for both myself and those I work with to
What are your favorite ways to battle holiday overwhelm for either you personally or your clients? Drop a comment below and share!
I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.