The ‘Inside – Out’ and Upside – Down of Helping Our Children Manage Their Emotions
Recently, our very talented Shell Drama students presented their ‘Inside Out’ drama production, based on the animated Disney film about feelings. The piece, like the film, concentrates on the five emotions of: Fear; Disgust; Anger; Sadness and Joy.
The film is about an eleven-year-old girl, who has to move from her home in Minnesota to a new life in San Francisco. It highlights her struggle to cope with the emotions she feels, because of this change. This is probably an experience most of us can relate to. A high proportion of the MCM community have relocated from their home countries all over the world, to Malaysia or Singapore for work or to provide an excellent education for their children. Some parents send their children away from home to develop their independence, gain new experiences and fulfil their academic potential within the boarding community. Some of our families are now planning, or going through the process of moving back home, or on to another location, or sending their children to university. Whatever our situation, we will have had to and will continue to have to deal with at least one, if not more, of the five emotions highlighted in the film. It isn’t just our own emotions we have to cope with; equally, if not more importantly, we need to be able to deal with the emotions of our children as they navigate through these transitions.
When my children announce that their friends are relocating, it always prompts a family discussion. Usually, this happens in the car, on the way to school and they always ask when our own family might move away from Malaysia. Out of interest, I asked my boys how moving somewhere else would make them feel. Unsurprisingly, between them they answered: ‘Scared – I wouldn’t know anyone;’ ‘Sad – because I will miss my friends;’ ‘Annoyed – that we would have to move. I want to stay here’ and ‘Excited – to see my family and meet new friends.’ Happily, neither said they would be disgusted with Mr Ogilvie or me! When speaking to friends and colleagues who are currently going through a transition, they also report that these comments are echoed by their children and frequently by the adults too.
These feelings and reactions to change don’t only happen when a family relocates; these emotions can be felt at any time and anywhere. The slightest changes to our children’s daily routine, for example serving a different breakfast cereal, or forgetting to remind them to wear house tops on house spirit day, can upset our children. As well as the surprise experiences that they occasionally face, for example the sudden loud bang of thunder or coming across a large monitor lizard climbing out of the swimming pool (only in Malaysia).
The amygdala is the part of our brain responsible for sensing danger and activating our fight or flight response. It signals the brain to pump stress hormones through our body, this is known as adrenaline. Therefore, situations that prompt emotions such as anger, excitement and fear manifest physically in a quickening of heart rate, tension in the body, sweaty palms, faster breathing and the inability to think straight. Although we can’t really see a quicker heartbeat, you can look out for some of the other more visible signs, in order to know if emotions have been triggered.
Young children typically express their emotions outwardly. We often know that they are upset, angry, excited or sad by a sudden change in their behaviour, body language, facial expressions or tone of voice. As they get older, our children become experts at hiding their feelings, making it more difficult for parents to know about their highs and lows and therefore sometimes it can be harder to help them.
Negative emotions might manifest in extreme behaviours like shouting, screaming, shows of aggression and tantrums. These sometimes happen in the most unfortunate of places. A favourite of mine is the tantrum in the supermarket, just as you reach the check out and you find something unexpected in your basket. When you say ‘no’ to that extra packet of biscuits, the fallout ensues, followed usually by a stand-off, as you hold up the people behind you in the ever growing queue of judgemental shoppers.
So how can we help our children to manage these emotions? When I started working as a Dame at the college, in 2016, I was also enrolled as one of the student listeners. In my previous role, at a large secondary school in the UK, I worked with hundreds of children who struggled to manage their emotions. So, as well as being a mum, I have had my fair share of helping children and young adults better understand their feelings and educate them to manage their own behaviour. I work on the principle that there are three stages in supporting our children to manage their emotions. The first is to take preventative action, the second to control the damage and the third to help our children recover from their experiences. At each stage, communication is key.
- Having open and honest discussions with our children, about events that are going to, or are likely to happen, can prepare them, reduce the surprise and the fight or flight response.
- We can provide our children with a tool kit of things that they can do in certain situations. For example, explain to them that if something scares you…run, or if someone makes you angry…. count to 10 or walk away, etc.
- Involve them in decision making and planning, to prepare for a transition.
- Also, it’s imperative that we as adults react appropriately to situations. If you scream and jump onto the nearest chair at the sight of a spider, then your child is also likely to grow up being scared of spiders. Although, don’t beat yourself up either, we are all human and all prone to our emotions getting the better of us sometimes.
In the event of our children’s emotions getting the better of them. My advice is to keep calm yourself and simply follow these three steps:
1) Encourage deep breaths, which will help your child calm down, decrease their heart rate and tension and reduce the chance of a physical manifestation.
2) Physically move them away from danger or conflict. Also, getting them active helps reduce stress. Get them to walk, or run, kick a ball around or take it out on a punch bag.
3) Distract them. For example, ‘Oh wow, look at that!’, ‘What shall we have for dinner?’, or if really necessary, distract them with screen time. Teenagers typically choose to listen to music, read, or play games when trying to distract themselves from feeling these emotions.
Following an outburst of emotion, once your child is calmer, you can then talk about what happened. Older children can be encouraged to write about, or journal their experience. Offer your child support, love and most importantly, give them your time.
Help them turn their emotions upside-down: Turn anger into determination; disgust into an opinion; fear into curiosity and sadness into thoughtfulness. Remember it is OK to experience these four emotions, without them we wouldn’t have developed into the strong and resilient adults we are.
Finally, let’s keep joy as it is and celebrate change. So, if your family is facing a transition, or your friends are relocating… talk about the good times, cherish the memories, have a party and make plans to visit them soon.
Mrs Ogilvie, Dame of Atlas