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The Formula for Helping Children Cope With Big Feelings

When my son was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, I started taking a long hard look at my own development and experiences in school and relationships. A lightbulb moment happened, illuminating that my lifetime of feeling things in a “big” way was due to me also having ADHD. I was officially diagnosed when I was 30.

Following my own diagnosis, I started to think about ways to help my son, by thinking about what I wish I would have learned growing up. A 2016 study of 61 children with ADHD suggests a pattern of emotional dysregulation specifically connected to ADHD symptoms. My goal was to create a playful story that would engage other “big feelers” and help them to better understand and cope with a wide range of emotions.

What are coping strategies?

Coping strategies are the thoughts and behaviors we do in response to a big emotion or tough situation. They can look and sound different for each person. One person may cope with their frustration by taking deep breaths, another may cope with their anxiety by taking a walk, or if you are like me mid-Pandemic and distance learning with a kindergartener and a toddler while working remotely full time, you might find yourself coping with Oreo cookies. Sometimes, it can be helpful to look at coping strategies as Healthy and Unhealthy. You don’t need to view the Unhealthy strategies through a lens of judgment, instead simply viewing these as strategies that you would like to swap out. After all, Oreo cookies are delicious and can be enjoyed as often as you desire, but maybe you don’t want to only eat them in response to feelings of stress!

How are your kids coping?

Just like we may have coping strategies we would like to swap out, our kids may currently be coping in ways that don’t feel quite as healthy or restorative. Students have been through a lot the past few years and they may have developed some unique and creative coping strategies in response to the stressors they have faced. Feelings of frustration may lead to explosive physical behavior or verbal outbursts. Feelings of anxiety may cause students to attempt to flee the classroom or refuse to do any work. They are coping with their big feelings in the only way they currently know how.

Creating a formula for big feelings.

In my new children’s picture book “Felix and the Feeling Formulas,” Felix shows readers the creative and playful way he has found to organize and use a variety of coping strategies to respond to the variety of emotions he faces throughout his day. Felix’s formulas provide adults with a template that we can use to introduce kids to healthier ways of responding to tough emotions.

Step One: Give the feeling a name.

We need to understand the “problem” in order to find a “solution.” Words have so much power and kids can quickly grasp the importance in understanding the difference between mad and furious.

Step Two: Connect with your body through movement or the sensory system.

During tough emotions our brain’s Fight or Flight system gets switched on and our body gets ready to act. Effective coping strategies may involve movement, breathing, or engaging the senses as a way to help the Fight or Flight system turn off. For a new coping strategy to work it should match the old or “unhealthy” strategy. For example, a child that copes with their anxiety by running out of the classroom is showing you that full body movement is what they need, and an effective new formula for anxiety might include stretching, dancing, running in place, or bouncing on a ball.

Step Three: Positive affirmations.

Again, words are powerful! The thoughts and words we speak to ourselves, especially in tough times, can have a huge impact on our self-confidence and ability to recover and move forward. Ending formulas with an affirmation wires our brains to see ourselves and our abilities in a positive light.

Practice and Model Healthy Coping

Learning any new skill takes time and practice. You cannot expect yourself or your kids to let go of an old strategy and embrace a new formula immediately. Regular practice when we are already in a calm state strengthens our coping muscles and makes it more likely that we will be able to flex those muscles during challenging moments.

Here are 3 ways to introduce a new formula:

1. Make practice part of the routine — Driving to school, during meal times, before bedtime.

2. Lean in to play! Create and use formulas that kids find fun, interesting, and engaging. Give them silly names or connect the strategy to their favorite thing or special interest.

3. Model! Use formulas yourself and call their attention to when you use one “I am feeling frustrated by how many toys are on the floor, I am going to try a quick Calm Down Cure. Then we can make a clean up plan together.”

And, if one formula isn’t working, Felix also shows us that we can always make up a new one!

Formula for future change

Researchers estimate that around 70% of adults with ADHD also struggle with emotional dysregulation, or difficulty recognizing and responding to emotions. Further, between 65-89% of adults with ADHD also struggle with anxiety and/or depression. As a late-diagnosed adult with ADHD, I recognized my own struggles with emotional regulation.

These are the tools and skills that I wish I would have been taught when I was younger. These are the skills I hope to instill in my own children and other “big feelers” out there. I hope Felix shows readers that feelings are OK. Feelings are safe. Here is how you can embrace them and move forward.

A formula for caregivers: Stress Silencer

  • Name Feeling: stressed
  • Breathe in through your nose. Exhale loudly out of your mouth while sticking out your tongue.
  • Stand like a Superhero: feet wide apart with your hands on your hips.
  • Affirmation: “I am patient, kind, and gentle with myself and my children.”

Felix and the Feelings Formulas” was published by the National Center for Youth Issues on September 22, 2022.

Getty image by monkey business images

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