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Author’s note: My son, daughter, husband, Pierre Etienne Vannier, the mind/body practitioner and I each took turns writing this list—we all contributed. The kids also reviewed, edited, and approved this article before publishing. Writing this together was a fun and helpful family bonding exercise, and we encourage you to do the same with your loved ones.
“I can’t,” said my daughter after her third meltdown that day.
I’d just asked her to utilize one of the coping practices she’s already learned and knows.
My daughter has big emotions. She’s not the only one who feels the overwhelm of “I can’t!”—I’m sure most of us have had trouble bringing ourselves back to our center when in the thick of our big feelings.
I am grateful to my daughter for so clearly articulating exactly what was going on with her. Children are amazing like that—they have an ability to speak honestly and directly. It us adults who add story, analysis, and interpretation to their experiences. Perhaps with some deep and simple listening—without our adult filters—we’d find that kids often give us a clear diagnosis of what is going with them. So thank you, kids, for telling us like it is!
My daughter has a tendency to express her emotions in big ways, whereas my son is more likely to keep his emotions inside, rarely expressing his feelings. I think most would agree that expressing our emotions is always better than bottling them up; but expressing them doesn’t necessarily mean healthy processing either. There is healthy expression and not-so-healthy expression, which sometimes results in relationship fallout.
Often, our expressions are more like uncontrollable reactions or subconscious patterns, especially when we are adults. And I do not want temper tantrums to be my daughter’s adult pattern or her only way of coping when feeling overwhelmed. I don’t want that to be my go-to either. So, we’re working on it. She and I both have fire energy and are quite explosive, which can be messy, unhelpful, and is felt by everyone.
Regardless of our age, when in the throes of an emotional escalation, it is difficult to source put into practice useful and safe coping exercises. This realization came to me after my daughter claimed several times, “I can’t!” when asked to recall and use previously learned coping exercises while in the midst of one of her emotional crises.
It finally occurred to me that she’s absolutely right: sometimes, “we can’t.”
Sometimes, when overwhelmed with difficult emotions, no matter how much we try, we can’t seem to remember or implement a breathing or centering exercise we’ve learned before. We’ve had a mental check-out from our executive function, which is totally normal when in flight, fight, or freeze mode.
Our family’s collective inability to cope during an emotional crisis prompted us to write this refrigerator list of coping practices so we can refer to it in moments of need, moments of crisis:
1. Time in: This means instead of taking the notorious punishing “time out,” we take some “time in” to check in with ourselves. We remove ourselves from whatever may be triggering the emotional upset and check in with what we need to feel better. We ask, “Am I hungry? Am I tired? What do I need right now?”
2. Three deep breaths: Before reacting or responding to someone or something, we take in three long, deep breaths. This helps to bring the nervous system out of fight or flight mode.
3. Write or draw in our diary: Before reacting or responding, we take a moment to organize our thoughts and feelings by putting them down in a safe, private place. The process of writing alone does wonders for emotional processing; in fact, journaling is a main pillar in many healing modalities.
Also, it can get exhausting for other members of the family to constantly need to process another member’s explosions. We don’t want to stop my daughter’s expression, but we also don’t want her to get in the habit of projecting her difficulties onto others and relying on others to validate or process her feelings. A diary means she can express herself freely without judgment or projection of others. Write in your diary what you feel uncomfortable saying to others.
This can be helpful for both types of personalities, the outwardly expressive type who needs time to diffuse before self-expression and the type who tends to suppress emotions and would benefit from more immediate self-expression as a way to get in touch with their emotions. Writing is a safe, healthy medium for expression for most people as it also incorporates several faculties at once, including somatic processing by using the fingers and hands.
4. Tapping/EFT: This helps to transmute emotions in the moment and is so quick and easy it can be done anywhere. It consists of tapping the Chinese medicine meridians points while saying re-framing statements at each point. Some examples of these statements are: “Even though I feel angry, I have peace within me.” “Even though I don’t feel seen or heard, God and the universe see, hear, and accept me.” “Even though I don’t feel loved, God loves me.” I’ve taught this to my kids and include a picture of the pressure points in their backpacks and on our fridge so they can access to this excellent tool any time.
5. Push against the wall for five seconds: This allows for tension in the body to be released neutralizing the nervous system and bringing one back down from an escalation.
6. Drinking water: Believe it or not, dehydration is often the main culprit in many emotional escalations, especially ones involving fear or anxiety. As a mineral maniac, I write a lot about the importance of mineral and nutritional balancing for maintaining emotional health and well-being. But to put it simply, if our basic electrolytes are low due to dehydration, our adrenal glands go into stress mode, releasing cortisol and adrenaline and that is just a recipe for emotional and physiological disasters.
Drinking water also helps to neutralize fire energy, which is associated with anger and angry outbursts. Just the act of drinking a glass of water can be so soothing, comforting, and relieving in a moment when fire is raging inside.
7. Name six colors in the room: This is a mindfulness practice and helps to empty one’s mind of negative thoughts or mental loops by bringing your awareness back to “now.”
8. Jumping jacks: This or any physical activity can help to move pent up or overwhelming energy out of the body. The body is where we process emotions, so it needs our support. Movement also helps to clear the head and bring one back into the body and present moment. When my son has trouble sleeping, he does push-ups until he falls asleep!
9. Pray: Sing or repeat any prayer that brings peace to your heart and mind and makes you feel closer to Source.
10. Ask for help: Kids need to know two things: they have a right to ask for help and support, and if they want help, they need to ask for it. People can’t read minds. I tell my kids, “Your teacher, friends, or siblings don’t know what you need or how you feel.” We have to say what we need and be as direct and clear as possible.
Also, it is metaphysically accepted across all spiritual traditions that guides, guardians, and spiritual helpers like angels are always available to help us, but that metaphysical law requires that we ask for the help. So I tell my kids, “Your guides, angels, and ancestors are on standby just waiting for you to ask them for help—ask any time and all the time!”
11. Talk to God: I tell my kids to follow their hearts on this and to just let it out. “Go tell God all about it. Complain as much as you want.” After meltdown number four or five, and when I’m too overwhelmed with my daughter’s emotions, I tell her that “God is always listening and wants you to turn to him and cry for a while. Go tell everything your heart is feeling to God. He wants to listen to you.” And she does it, and I am relieved. God to the rescue! Alhamdulillah, praise to the most high!
12. Butterfly hug: This is an instant “bring me down” tool that utilizes the Chinese meridian points of the chest. Hug yourself by making a butterfly shape, placing your hands across the chest and tapping the points as the butterfly flaps its wings.
13. Nap: My daughter loses it when she’s tired. I lose it when I’m tired. We all lose it when we’re tired. Once kids outgrow their daily naps, they can start taking power naps like adults do. I take the occasional power nap when I have time. I think midday rests and naps are so important to our health and productivity that it would do our whole society a whole lot of good to implement nap time at schools and the workplace. Imagine how much happier and more productive we’d all be if we got to lie down for 20 minutes after lunch for a power nap?
14. Sing a lullaby or favorite song: “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley has been my daughter’s lullaby since she was in utero. And both my kids also sing or listen to “Gabriel” by Lamb when seeking comfort.
15. Cry when you need to: Rather than getting into a cycle of hysterical crying, some of us in this family have trouble crying in front of others. So we are trying to de-stigmatize the idea of crying.
16. Smell the roses or blow the candles: This is a breathing practice—one my kids learned at school—of inhaling like you’re smelling the roses and exhaling like you’re blowing out candles.
17. Hug your family: Hugs are a loving safe touch that can be so healing and supportive when we’re feeling icky.
18. Give thanks: My daughter can sometimes spin herself into self-pity, sometimes over something like a paper cut from five days ago. So this is a reminder to count our blessings and remember all that is wonderful and perfect in our life. Gratitude is essential for maintaining mental health and can instantaneously raise one’s emotional vibration from negative emotions like sadness, anger, and fear to feelings of courage, neutrality, willingness, and joy. I ask my kids to say thank you to God for specific things, like my family, my home, and my safety, so they are, in a sense, counting blessings.
Making mental lists of things we love like rainbows, the beach, unicorns, friends, the blue sky, and the warm sun is not only another way of giving thanks, but it helps us engage in self-guided visualization, which has powerful effects on one’s emotions.
19. Get busy: Sometimes we have to force it, but we just have to disengage from whatever it is we’re in and get busy doing something totally unrelated. Sometimes, distractions help.
20. Do dhikr: Dhikr means “remembrance” in Arabic, and one of our practices of remembrance in our spiritual tradition involves the invocation of a Divine attribute through sound (chanting) in order to bring us into the presence of that attribute. This is a bit complicated to explain, so for the sake of simplification, it is a practice of remembering our center and our Source through chanting. Sacred sound has been used for centuries and across most traditions for healing and alchemizing the mind, body, and soul. A well-known chant for harmonizing the body from the yoga tradition is the chant of the sound/word “Om.”
21. Yoga: Practice yoga (or some kind of movement, see #8). My daughter especially loves yoga and does the amazing and free Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube.
22. Spiritual affirmations: Ask “Please God (or your word for Allah/Creator/The Divine/Source), replace my thoughts with your thoughts.” I don’t know how to explain how this helps stop my mental loops, but it does. This is one of my personal favorites. Repeat “I want what God wants for me.” This is also a personal favorite, and perhaps the most helpful affirmation for me and my daughter. It’s a reminder that God is in the driver’s seat, always, and that I might not be seeing the wisdom or the reason for this situation right now. I might not understand what God wants for me yet. It helps to detach from outcomes and shifts our perception from problem-focused to solution-focused. It breaks our illusion of control over a situation. It reminds us that all we have to do is go for the ride because Creator, and only Creator, has got this!
23. Wudu, or wash the self: Wudu is our ritual washing practice, and it is said to be both a physical and spiritual washing and enlightening. Water is used across spiritual traditions for cleansing and purification of the mind, body, and soul. So I will tell my kids to go take wudu (do the spiritual wash) or go soak in a bath. I’ll often pour them an Epsom salt bath (usually once a week) and they get to decompress for 20 to 30 minutes while also getting a lovely boost of calming magnesium to the body (topical magnesium is the best way to deliver magnesium to the body, and children are often deficient).
24. Use essential oils: Smell is the fastest way to regulate the nervous system, can you believe that? So get your kids’ favorite essential oils and show them how to use them. If my daughter is in a real fit, I place a couple of drops of lavender essential oil in the palms of her hands and have her rub them together and sniff from her palms. At this point though, my kids know where to get the oils they want and how to use them if they need them.