Taking the shortcut (Coping skills Part 3)
There are tons of coping skills and categories that can help clarify coping, but first, let’s talk about shortcuts to emotional regulation.
The first thing we can work on is managing states: hungry, satiated, thirst, tired, too busy, and being over-connected via technology.
In order to do this successfully, we need to know how our bodies feel when we are hungry, satiated, tired or being pulled in too many directions at once. We can also add the mismanagement of technology or social media.
Recognizing body states relies on your ability to feel and interpret what is going on in your body or interoception.
Ways to practice and increase interoceptive awareness:
1. Consent work.
Giving kids autonomy over the choices they make about what their body likes and dislikes is an important way to encourage kids to listen to their bodies. This can absolutely be done with developmental level in mind. This doesn't mean foregoing bedtime for your young child or allowing a kid to never brush their teeth. In fact, those routines help regulate body processes like sleep rhythms by helping to model body healthy behaviors as long-term habits.
Instead, it means honoring a "no" when a kid says they don't want a hug or when they are done being tickled. It means being okay with food preferences like hating onions or helping to accommodate sensory needs like an itchy tag or only liking shorts that are a certain material. This could also be done by honoring a fashion choice and allowing kids into the process of selecting their own clothes. It may mean building in some flexibility into bedtime by adjusting your routine for both tired and excited days. Some parents do this by shifting certain hours to calm down time where the only available activities are things like reading to support healthy sleep and provide flexibility on days it's needed.
2. Breathing exercises
3. Yoga, Pilates, rock climbing, stretching while drawing attention to how micromovements feel, weight lifting, or other mindfulness-based activities that require bringing attention to the present moment and specifically to the internal sensation within the body
4. Checking in on the experience of temperature (hot or cold) and heart rate.
5. Drawing attention to the body experience by explaining how your body feels or talking about body experiences related to emotions.
" I know I'm starting to feel hungry because I can hear my stomach growling."
"When I drink water I can feel it fall all the way down to my stomach."
"I can tell I'm hungry because when people are talking about food everything sounds good."
"When I'm at the grocery store and I'm hungry I end up buying more food because I can imagine eating it all."
"I can tell I'm sad because I feel stinging right behind my eyes."
"I'm really choked up. It feels like there is big lump in my throat."
"I'm really excited. I can feel butterflies in my stomach."
"Something feels off. I have this sinking feeling in my gut."
For tweens, I recommend modeling healthy family behaviors around technology and using active limits. This would look like creating a new family rule about putting cell phones in the kitchen after 9 pm even though that may feel restrictive or inconvenient for adults. This is also how it feels for the tween. The goal is to aid the frontal lobe by creating healthy habits without singling out your middle schooler as the issue. As the tween grows these family rules will influence how they use technology overall.
They will listen more to how you act for yourself than what you say.
This should not be a punishment, but a choice in which the family actively disconnects from technology and social media for mental health benefits periodically even though this might be challenging. If you already do this for yourself actively talk about it. They can't read your mind. You have to say things like "Instagram used to be this cool place where I could see what my friends were doing, but lately, I feel jealous of the vacations they are taking. I need to take a break, so I don't resent them."
From my experience, it seems like middle schoolers, in general, have a hard time creating logical or healthy stop points when it comes to technology and social media. It feels like putting a big chocolate cake in front of them and asking them not to eat it as you leave. It sets everyone up for failure. Although certain apps like Snapchat in middle school seem much more damaging than others it seems that this age group is more likely to experience extreme bullying or harmful peer interactions on social media at this time.
While I do encourage parents to have passwords for safety reasons and be able to fully see what their kids are posting on social media as friends I discourage breaching privacy by reading text messages, DMs, or other interactions between peers. Instead, for most kids focus on trust-building and helping them make healthy choices. Talk about coercion, dangers of being friends with people you don't know in real life, grooming behaviors, appropriate age ranges of friends, emotional abuse, or potential things that may be too much like if someone is struggling with suicidal ideation, being abused by a parent or a partner, or self-harm. Another child can't help them out of that. You need an expert or an adult to actually help. Talk about how carrying those big issues alone could cause the person they are trying to help harm and your child harm. Confidentiality and privacy are very important, but safety is always more important.
Tired gets a bad reputation with little kids. It can mean missing out or fear. Often little kids will fight you on it making it hard to tune in to tired. Emotionally this may present as grumpy or more sensitive than normal. It may also present as clumsy. Not every kid is going to be able to immediately recognize tired, and so we want to help kids tune into their bodily experience of tired by gently pointing it out without making the kid go straight to bed. It may also get confused as hunger. Dozy Bear and The Secret of Sleep by: Katie Blackburn is a good resource for helping kids recognize their own tired. We might also point out yawning, achiness, heavy limbs, being really silly, a nodding head, more cuddly than normal, or drooping eyes. We might say things like "I think your body might be telling me it's tired. What do you think your body is saying?" Curiosity is key, and we know this is working when kids sometimes ask to go to sleep or announce they are going to bed. For older kids and teens if you know they are tired help them slow down. Ask them to close their eyes and tune into how their body feels. Then offer "it sounds like that is how tired feels in your body."
Hungry/ Satiation/ Thirsty
Kids and teens may not know how to interpret their own body's signals. They may also be taught that their body doesn't know what it needs. Parents unintentionally do this by demonizing foods, placing kids on diets, restricting, supporting binge eating on specific holidays, body shaming, commenting on not eating enough or too much, or supporting ignoring body cues through the clean plate club.
Just like tired, we can help our kids understand what different levels of hunger feel like by having kids tune into their bodies and notice other hunger cues like nausea and pain or connected emotional states like irritability. This potentially could be done several times a week before the family sits down for dinner or when a kid asks for a snack. This can also help with satiation cues. At the end of dinner asking, "how does your belly feel?" can help kids tune into full. We can also support them by helping them tune in when we notice they are hungry, thirsty, or full. Being able to slow them down and point out, "how does your body feel right now?" Have them actively describe their experience while focusing on their stomach. "That is what hunger/thirsty/full feels like in your body." For younger kids, you might say, "your body is telling me you are hungry."
Too Busy/ Time Management
By junior year of high school, most of my teens have their technology figured out, but a new problem emerges. Fear of missing out and a lack of awareness about the teen's physical/ time limits leads to burnt-out "yes" machines. This can present as high schoolers feeling overwhelmed and poorly coping with their lives. They may seem extremely anxious, more on edge, lonely, or lose interest in their current friend group. Often it's a "too much" problem that can be solved by creating more downtime or rest by setting boundaries and exploring what activities actually serve them. This might look like helping your teen work out communicating limits with an overbearing boss or a life-sucking friendship or romantic relationship. As a parent pointing out how you see your child struggling and offering support and connection over judgment can make all the difference. Remember it is their call, but offering your insight and what you notice is very helpful. Because of the frontal lobe development, teens may not have a clear idea of the actual long-term consequences of some of their choices, so helping give them context on what could potentially happen helps kids make their own choices and accept responsibility for their own actions.