Sometimes we can see that our children are having a difficult time managing their feelings, but we’re not really sure what to do about it. The problem is, they’re not really sure what to do about it either!
Children have big feelings - and let us know!
From our adult standpoint, these feelings often appear irrational and unreasonable. Because very often it is the smallest thing that sets our children off.
Although we know that it is actually as a result of an accumulation of feelings through the day, when the meltdown happens, we don’t really know how to move our children forward! Or how to help them process their feelings.
Having strategies that you can draw on, in the heat of the moment, can stop you from reacting in a way that that leaves both you and your child feeling helpless.
One of the best tools that we can give our children is to help them identify how they are feeling, and then to make a good choice around how they can manage that, so that they can feel better.
Boost your parenting toolkit
Having an whole suite of tools at your disposal as a parent is the only way to avoid the knee jerk, reactive responses we often give our little ones.
You know, the one where even as you are saying it, a little voice at the back of your mind is reminding you that it is NOT useful and the parent guilt that you are about to feel will definitely not be worth having said it!
One of the tools in your toolset can be creating a coping skills jar to use with your child. We use ours at home, although it's easy to use in the school context if you work with your child’s teacher.
In fact, the best thing about a coping skills jar, is that it can be taken with you and used anywhere!
What's a coping jar for?
A coping skills jar is a way of connecting with your child in the moment, helping them to identify how they are feeling, and then redirecting them so that they are able to manage their feelings using useful strategies.
Now, when we are stuck at home because of the coronavirus, children are feeling frustrated at not being able to go out or to go to school, and parents are feeling helpless having to manage their children at home so much, it is the perfect time to set up a coping skills jar with your child.
A simple idea to help your child self-regulate
The idea behind the jar is a simple one. You have a jar with a set of pictures in it. Each picture represents an activity that your child can do to help him or her feel better when having big uncomfortable feelings.
When your child feels upset or uncomfortable, you help them choose one of the pictures as a way of coping with how they are feeling – or moving themselves on from the uncomfortable feeling.
It is not about distracting your child, it is about helping them learn strategies to calm, regulate, and then be in a better place to deal with their feelings.
So, how do you go about setting up and using your jar?
Start by choosing your coping skills - you need to do this part of the process together with your child. Try to come up with five or six different activities that your child finds calming, meaningful, and validating.
The idea is that these are activities that they can draw on when they are feeling overwhelmed. The activities should be comforting for your child and should help your child to feel more regulated.
They won’t necessarily be things that your child can do alone, and maybe they will be calming precisely because they offer your child a chance to co-regulate with you.
Using an already thought of, named activity in a jar helps your child through the process of identifying that they need help from you and then practising asking for it. Something I think we all wish we had learnt a little more of as children!
Tips for creating your own coping jar
Try to include activities that have a sensory component so that your child can connect with them both on a sensory level and emotionally. Sometimes having a firm hug can be far more comforting that someone telling us it is all going to be ok.
At home, we use some very physical movement activities which help my boys to get rid of agitation and frustration in a sensory way. We have included in our jar pictures jumping on their trampoline or swinging on their garden swing.
Having a great big bear hug or climbing into your hide-out tent with a favourite cuddly toy for some minutes of alone time can work beautifully to comfort a child and help them to feel calmer and more validated.
Favourite activities like reading a book or listening to your favourite song redirect negative feelings and give your child a chance to calm down and breathe.
Talking about breathing, using guided belly breathes can be a fantastic tool to use in the moment to help children manage big feelings. We visualise blowing candles out on a birthday cake as we blow each finger of each hand.
I wouldn’t suggest a sweet treat to eat as this can set up a whole complicated relationship with eating and behaviour but something like sucking on a block of ice can be a great sensory re-set.
Children after all, connect a lot with their mouths on a sensory level (especially when they are younger) and having something cold to suck can help them calm and reorganise so that they can process other sensory input better.
Whatever activities you and your child choose, make sure that they are specific to your child’s loves, that they can be done most of the time (although visiting granny may be something your child finds very calming, it's not something they can always access right now), and that they are things that you are happy with your child doing regularly.
Picture ideas for your coping jar
Find pictures and pop them in a jar - I used clip-art to find pictures for all of our activities. These pictures are often simple and clear and make sense to young children. I chose the pictures and cut and laminated them to put in our coping skills jar.
If your child is older you can also print the words describing the action on the card. This can be helpful to children who are less visual and rely more on words. It seems like a small thing, but when you are already trying to manage your big feelings, having other messages as simply laid out for you as possible can be really helpful.
Some children do very well with an image of the exact thing rather than a picture representing the activity. If your child struggles to connect with pictures you find, consider taking a photo to use as a prompt for your child.
Once you have pictures of all your chosen activities, put them in a jar or container with a lid. We use a tin because I like my boys to be able to hold the jar themselves and as they are still young a glass jar makes that tricky.
Make sure that your child is familiar with all the pictures and what they represent and that they know that this is their special coping skills jar, to be used with you when they feel like they are becoming a little overwhelmed or experiencing other big feelings.
Then put the jar to use in everyday life - when you notice that your child is beginning to look overwhelmed, or uncomfortable, offer a coping skill from the jar. The idea is that you help them identify the discomfort and then direct them to the jar so that they can choose something to help them feel better.
How I use my coping jar at home
Sometimes when my eldest boy is colouring in and getting very frustrated that his work does not look as he wants it to, I may try saying something like:
“Love, I can see you are feeling frustrated because your drawing is not working out as you would like it too. Shall we see if we can find something in your coping skills jar which may help you feel a little better. What do you feel like you need now?”
We then go to the jar, take out all the pictures, and he can choose the thing he thinks may help him feel better. Usually, it just takes one of the items and he is calm enough to talk about what was upsetting him and make a plan to move forwards. Sometimes we have to try a few of the activities.
Each time that he does this process - identifies that he is feeling uncomfortable, makes a good choice to move or shift the feeling, and then be in a calm place to try and address the cause of the problem - the pathway in the brain is reinforced and the process becomes easier.
Putting the effort in up front to teach your child these skills will pay off with time as your child learns to manage his or her big feelings in a constructive way. Have fun!
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