I would say that nearly all of the young people that walk in our door have big feelings. You know, tantrums, outbursts, frequent worry, panic at separation, loads of crying, times of feeling sad, worries that keep them from doing the things they love, pain about something tough that is happening in the past, currently happening, or will be happening. Yea, those big feelings.
I have yet to meet one child who didn’t have dysregulated emotions.
And with that often comes shame. Feeling like they are somehow wrong or bad for having big feelings. Like it is bad to be angry. Weak to be sad or anxious. Shameful to not be "in control".
AND none of these are true. The truth is these emotions, all of them, are a part of normal human experience. Normalizing this is essential for helping children work through these feelings.
I wanted to share one of my favorite ways to talk about and normalizing having these big emotional reactions. It usually goes something like this:
Feelings are not good or bad. They are our bodies way of telling us what is happening in the world around us and our bodies compass to help us decide what to do next.
Feelings are something we all (including me) have every day, multiple times per day. I also will rope parents into the discussion and ask parents if they have been sad, happy, mad, or worried today - even just a little big. Spoiler alert - the answer is always YES!
Not the big giant feelings all the time, but little tiny ups and downs with some medium and large feelings thrown in the mix.
The next piece to know is that feelings are either comfortable or uncomfortable.
The comfortable feelings let us know that we like (or are at least okay with) what is happening and want more of that thing in our environment.
The uncomfortable feelings let us know that we don’t like what is happening around us or it is unsafe. It lets us know that we would like something to be different, or in cases of safety we need something different to survive.
Are you with me so far? Good.
So next, all behavior is purposeful and a way to either stay with those comfortable feelings or to get back to comfortable (or safe) feelings/circumstances.
After we have that down, we shift to behavior. We now know that all behavior is purposeful and to help us get back to a safe/comfortable state. Well….
Choices or behaviors can be helpful or unhelpful.
While we understand what a bummer it is to have to stop playing a video game, and thinking at some level that yelling loudly how we need to finish this level and how unfair it is that we have to quit is an attempt to keep playing the game (comfortable), the behavior is pretty unhelpful for not only the young person but everyone around them.
Our job as therapists then becomes how can we help young people have insight into their emotions, warning signs, and triggers and give them the tools to return to comfortable states.
Sometimes that might look like working on assertiveness and instead of yelling asking. Sometimes that might look like radical acceptance and using other things to regulate like sharing feelings, using deep breaths, or finding something else enjoyable to engage in.
I often find that normalizing feelings and taking the shame out of them, and the behavior that follows is the way to start!
How do you normalize feelings with clients? Tell us more in a comment below!
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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.