Is your child feeling overwhelmed?

When big feelings happen, children can feel overwhelmed because they may not be developmentally ready, or otherwise lack the mental capacity or resources to cope. As parents, guardians and loving adults there are ways we can help them manage overwhelm and stress.

When Hiruko Wellness was in its early stage, over ten years ago, we did an extensive research study to find out what needs seemed to be the most urgent in our community.

We asked parents what keeps them up at night when it comes to their kids’ growth and wellbeing. We also asked teachers, doctors, therapists and other care practitioners, what they thought was the biggest unfulfilled need in our kids’ lives. The answer surprised us. It was not confidence, self-awareness, success in school, peer pressure, or bullying. It was coping skills.

Kids need our help to communicate their feelings

Yes, our kids are overwhelmed. More often than not, we – their grown-ups in charge – are feeling it too. What makes overwhelm difficult is kids don’t always have the emotional awareness or maturity to communicate their feelings. They don’t know what to do to actively manage and defuse them.

Feeling overwhelmed can look very different from one child to the next. Some kids withdraw, become quiet, shy, reserved and isolated. Others overcompensate and become loud, animated, hyperactive, rebellious, and pushy. It is often up to the grown-up in charge (parent, and frequently a teacher or nanny) to help manage the emotions.

Five ways you can help your child cope with overwhelm

  1. Thumbs Up, Middle, or Down – We use this simple self-awareness check in our Healing Martial Arts™ classes. We ask the children to show us how they are feeling. “I’m feeling great, all is awesome” get’s a thumbs up. “I feel horrible”, get’s the thumbs down and everything else gets a thumbs middle. This simple self-awareness practice allows kids to show how they feel without having to worry about verbally expressing their emotions. If your child is having an “off” day, do this quick and simple check, and get a rough idea of your child’s state. Resist the urge to ask, “What’s wrong”. Instead, ask specific questions. Ideas include: have you been feeling like this all day, can you tell me what happened that made you feel horrible, what do you need to help you feel better? Listen carefully, take mental notes, and try not to judge, coach, or lecture. Your child may just need an opportunity to express his/her feelings. Often just talking things through helps them feel less overwhelmed.
  2. Interrupt the current pattern – Is there a way to interrupt your current pattern? Let’s say that every Tuesday you rush from school, to get to gymnastics practice. There isn’t sufficient time for any kind of reset activity to help let go of the busyness of the last class in school. Every Tuesday, you fight about it with your kid. The bag is not packed, lunchbox gets forgotten, or your child is simply slow at getting in the car. Is there a way to try something new? Can you slow down for a 30 second hug and a quick thumbs up/down check? Can you play a favorite CD in the car, surprise your kid with a favorite snack, organize a carpool and have someone else drive? What other ideas can you come up with to interrupt your current patterns?
  3. Observe your child under a microscope – Although you know your child very well, it’s worth the while to take a step even closer and see your child again. Take notes about your kid’s day, experiences, successes, perceived failures. Find out which of his friends he played with, what specifically went on in school that day. Once again, don’t judge, evaluate, criticize or offer feedback. Just simply watch, observe, and take note. With time, you will develop an exceptionally detailed picture of your child’s emotional range. You will know what triggers her meltdowns. This information is not only useful to you, but also to teachers and other grownups in charge. Most importantly, this information can be useful to your child. You may be able to point out what you have observed. Ask him to brainstorm ways in which he could handle the challenge that feels uplifting and empowering.
  4. Don’t get emotionally tangled in your child’s overwhelm – It is challenging to watch our kids experience frustration, overwhelm, panic, and stress. To help them cope it is important that we don’t get hooked in and tangled in their feelings. We may inevitably add to the overwhelm rather than help to calm the situation. Don’t take your child’s overwhelm personally.
  5. You are in charge: you need to lead the way – As parents, this one is the hardest one to model. Our lives are stressful, packed, loaded, fast, and frequently overwhelming. When you feel overwhelmed, try to share this minimally with your child, and instead share your successes and gratitude generously. Have your own daily practice for managing your feelings, and point it out to your child. Examples include: working out, meditating, writing in your journal, reading a book, and taking a walk. Tell your kids when you are doing these activities just for fun, but also them when you do them because you’ve noticed they make you feel more grounded, more at ease with all that you have to do, more able to stay focused on the present moment and let go of worry, fear, or anxiety. Create a ritual for self-care and overwhelm and stress management together. It is a normal part of life to feel overwhelm and stress. It’s also an important part of life to learn to talk about, express, and manage those feelings.

We’d love to know how you help your child manage when they feel overwhelmed or stressed.

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