Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Dark Side: Emotional regulation and kids

When young kids are struggling to deal with strong emotions, it can be difficult to explain what's going on in a way that doesn't shame them for having feelings. Further, it can be hard to find ways for kids to deal with those strong feelings. Meditation, yoga, and journaling all seem like the kinds of things that would bore kids, and explaining to them why habits like these can be important is difficult -- especially for kids who struggle to think abstractly!

Most kids respond well to examples they can relate to, either in their daily lives or in fiction. This is why many children's TV shows will demonstrate a dilemma and show the main character's search for a solution. Shows aimed at younger kids may include jingles or catch phrases to remind kids of the skills the show is trying to teach (such as manners, problem solving, and conflict resolution). Connecting material kids learn to the media they enjoy engages them and helps with understanding. It is no wonder that so many teachers write math problems and spelling test sentences about popular TV, movies, and games. The same idea can be easily applied to the social and emotional skills we teach our kids.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is a metaphor connecting Star Wars and emotional regulation. In the series, Jedis (basically magical space knights) use something called The Force to harness supernatural abilities. These abilities can help them in combat, interpersonal situations, and in daily life. The Force is described as having a dark side and a light side, which can hurt or help people accordingly. Put the supernatural abilities aside, and a lot of this sounds like things you could tell a kid about their emotions.

Many kids who know Star Wars know Kylo Ren, the newest villain to be introduced in the movies. Kylo Ren is often shown to be angry and destructive. It is heavily implied that his anger outbursts are part of what drew him to the dark side in the first place. By contrast, Jedis like Obi Wan are often shown to be calm and collected. They even meditate! This can serve as an example as to how emotions (like The Force) can be destructive if you let them control you. Jedis undergo years of training to learn how to use The Force safely, just as many of us may go to therapy to learn to regulate our feelings.

Jedi meditation is described as being necessary to harness The Force, and while meditation may not work for all kids, the description of it (examining each thought or feeling and letting it go) may help with finding emotional regulation techniques that do work for them. While diaries are less common than they used to be, many kids still use different types of journals, online and off -- this is, in fact, why some kids post so much on social media. Arts and crafts can be helpful for kids who aren't as good with words, as can sports and movement (like running or playing soccer if not yoga or dance). Many activities that are built for kids can help here, but don't underestimate a kid's ability to meditate (guided or otherwise!) or write just because of their age.

Even if the Star Wars metaphor itself doesn't work, a lot of the media kids consume have deeper messages and themes. So next time you want to explain a difficult social or emotional concept to a kid, look at their favorite books, movies, and TV shows. You might find an example already woven into the story.

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