15 Apr 2021

Teaching children (and adults) wellbeing and coping skills

From Nine To Noon, 11:25 am on 15 April 2021

Emotional self-regulation has been recognised by scientists and academics as the most important thing for a child to learn - but how do we teach it?

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire has written a kids book When the Wind Blew with effective tools to help kids "turn down the dial on the fight-or-flight response".

little girl with stuffed toy

Photo: Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

No caption

Photo: supplied

Separation, relocation, a new school, Covid… any change can make a child feel a roller coaster of emotions running through their body.

In When the Wind Blew, a typical Kiwi girl named Orla - who shares a name with Jacqui's baby daughter - wakes up one day to a world turned inside out and upside down by 'the rona wind'.

"It's a story of how her parents teach her to control or calm the angry sparks that rush through her body the worried butterflies that sit in her tummy, the sad blue cloud that sits above her head. Through using her superpowers and working out that she does have an ability to dial those [physiological responses] down, [the book] shows that with change we can learn to manage our emotions."

When the Wind Blew shows kids that when we are facing really tough times or change, it's normal to feel emotions like sadness and worry and anger, Jacqui says.

Framing the regulation of these emotions as a superpower makes it a 'cool' thing children can feel proud of knowing they can do for themselves.

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire Photo: Supplied

Jacqui's wish is that every child could grow up believing they have the ability to get through whatever happens in their lives.

Overprotection can get in the way of this kind of confidence, she says.

"Sometimes as parents, we so don't want our children to be sad or upset or angry that we jump in and fix problems too fast for them. We dismiss emotions … which comes from good intention but partly that message provides to a young person 'I don't think you can manage' or 'I need to manage for you'.

''I really believe we need to be empowering young people with the belief that they can manage and they can cope."

Practical tools for emotional regulation

  • Acknowledge the feelings

This decreases their intensity, Jacqui says.

Imagery that describes what's going on in their bodies can be very helpful for young people.

Adults can model this, i.e. "I'm feeling really disappointed and I can tell because my tummy has dropped and I feel heavy in my shoulders".

  • Exercise (such as running or skipping)

"When we exercise to make ourselves puff we release endorphins and we release serotonin so it helps our body calm."

  • Breathing from the belly
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

The physiological reaction to anxiety in the body is tension. Moving through the body part by part, tensing and releasing as you go, can be helpful, especially before bed.

  • Cuddling a pet

This releases oxytocin - the calming 'hug drug'.

  • Running your wrists under cold water

This releases the vagus nerve which in turn releases oxytocin.

  • Laughter
  • A worry jar

It can be helpful for kids to 'save' their daily worries in a 'worry jar'. Later in the day, at a designated time, a family member can sit with them to look at and talk about the worries.

"It's a process that helps children boundary how much time they're spending on their worry and it provides a process of problem-solving. Is this worry in my control or not? If it isn't then I can't do anything about it, put it to the side. If it is, how to I problem-solve around that?"