Helping our Children Navigate Big Feelings

By Rose Helm
This week the Health Office reached a crisis situation. The entire community was notified, we all rallied together, and fortunately, all involved were deemed to be healthy and on the road to recovery. What was this crisis that had us all momentarily gripped in uncertainty, fear, and desperation? For once, it wasn’t COVID related; it wasn’t even a broken bone. Nurse Venick informed us that we had run out of ice packs!
Bumps, bruises, even sprains are par for the course in an elementary school’s health office. In the same way that our students’ bodies go through a lot of wear and tear in a typical day, their emotional system goes through a full range of feelings. With physical injuries, often, all that is needed is a Bandaid or an ice pack; it is much harder to know how to heal our children’s feelings when they are hurting emotionally. 

Renowned child psychologist, best-selling author, and New York Times columnist, Dr. Lisa Damour, spoke to our families last week in a Zoom session put on by our Parent Education Committee, titled, "Big Feelings: Helping Children Handle Challenging Emotions in Challenging Times." Dr. Damour talked about our children’s emotions like a “weather system,” and suggested that one of the most important strategies for helping our children with emotional regulation is getting them to verbalize their emotions. Encouraging them to name the “weather system” as sad, anxious, or nervous, for example, is an important first step in helping them tame those emotions storming inside them. 

Dr. Damour also reminded us that for children, complaining is a form of expression and, therefore, emotional regulation. Her advice to parents was to “collect the garbage,” in other words, to receive the complaints without forcing solutions on your children. Instead, she suggested that we show empathy (“Wow, that is hard”), offer support (“Do you want my help?”), and also give them space to work these feelings out in their own way (“Can I get you a warm drink?”). Each child’s way of working their feelings out differs; it might be rolling on the ground with their pet, tuning out to music in their room, or unpacking their day right before bedtime. The point is, it isn’t always our job to fix the situation, and in fact, we can make it worse by matching their anxious feelings with our own. If we approach the situation with calm compassion, we are more likely to see our children cope with their big feelings. Perhaps we could all take a lesson from the Health Office: sometimes an ice pack is all that is needed.

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The John Thomas Dye School


11414 Chalon Road
Los Angeles, CA 90049
Phone: (310) 476-2811
The John Thomas Dye School admits students of any race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the School. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admission policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school-administered programs.

Located In Los Angeles, CA, John Thomas Dye is an independent school for grades K-6. Students benefit from a challenging academic program, fine arts, competitive athletics, and a wide selection of extracurricular activities.