An emotional safety plan will help your child cope
We take care of our bodies by eating healthy, exercising and practicing good hygiene. Our minds and our hearts need us to take care of them, too -- especially in the face of ongoing stress.
"It's important to remind ourselves, no matter our age, that there is no such thing as a good feeling or a bad feeling," said Rebecca Mitsos, a certified child life specialist at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. "There are just feelings. It's OK to feel your feelings."
As a child life specialist, Mitsos and her team at Lurie Children's focus on creating emotionally safe environments for patients and their families while in the hospital -- and their skill-building practices are helpful in any environment.
Child life specialists are clinically trained and licensed clinicians who focus on how a child's emotional reaction impacts what they're experiencing in the health care setting. They use their expertise in child development and trauma-informed care to assess, support and advocate for a child and family's psychosocial needs and to teach kids lifelong coping skills. This can include but is not limited to developmental play, procedural support, trauma intervention and bereavement/grief support.
To address and cope with difficult feelings, Mitsos recommends creating an emotional safety plan.
"The same way you and your family have a fire escape plan can be applied with understanding and communicating feelings," Mitsos said. "Think about a time when you felt worried, scared, confused, or overwhelmed. Write it down and reflect on that scenario and answer, 'What helped you when you felt that way? Was there something you tried that didn't help?' Similar to a physical emergency, you can keep yourself safer if you plan ahead. Write out your emotional safety plan and share this with your family."
For parents, an emotional safety plan creates space to respond to a child's emotional emergency with constructive, compassionate solutions. Parents may recognize an emotional emergency as a child's yelling, tantrum, stonewalling or ignoring those around them, whining; antagonizing a sibling, parent or friend; self-harming behaviors and/or substance use and abuse.
Mitsos suggests the following tactics as parts of an emotional safety plan:
• Take a big deep breath in while you count to five in your head. As you count down from five, exhale. Practicing slow, mindful breathing can help soothe your nervous system so you can assess the situation calmly.
• Remember that feelings are for feeling, not for fixing. You cannot fix an emotional reaction to a difficult situation, but you can offer support.
• Be a compassionate listener. Avoid offering advice like, "Cheer up!" and "Don't be sad!"
• Instead, offer the following messages to a distraught child, spouse or friend: "I am listening to you." "I understand why you feel that way." "Would it help if we sat down and took deep breaths together?" "What can I do to help you right now?"
• Remember that kids need your presence, not your solution. Find a quiet spot to sit together and take deep breaths.
Normalizing feelings for ourselves and others, and assuring children that all feelings are normal, helps manage unexpected and challenging emotions, Mitsos said. By taking a breath, providing compassionate support and validating their feelings, you demonstrate you are a safe person for others to feel their feelings with.
• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit www.LurieChildrens.org.