It's been a nice, quiet summer for yours truly. But now it's back-to-school time. And as a therapist who works quite a bit with children and adolescents, I'm about to get busy. Because when they're stressed for whatever reason--social anxiety, learning disabilities, ADHD, family transition--kids will act out. And if it gets bad enough, they'll get referred to somebody like me.
I've written about younger kids acting out before: here and here. Follow the links, and get the same advice I give to parents who bring their kids into the office to see me. For free! Plus, bonus material: the most embarrassing acting-out incidents I could recall in my own parenting experience. What's not to love about that?
If you have a young child struggling to manage emotions, think about having every person in the family keep a daily mood chart. There are lots of feeling charts on this website, but I'd recommend the simplest one. Four emotions: sad, glad, mad, or scared. Everybody puts a sticker on how they felt during the day and talks about what was going on.
I've also written about trying to keep my sanity while parenting teenagers in the care and keeping of adolescents.
And then here are a couple of more specialized ideas.
First, the Bravery Box. I designed it for a kindergarten-age child who was essentially non-verbal at school, and he was talking normally after three sessions.
I think you could modify this basic idea for any big challenge your child might be facing. It has two important elements: break the big challenge down into small, do-able, reward-able steps; and help the child process the underlying emotions, using read-aloud books.
I've used this same idea with an adolescent, who had extreme social anxiety and was quite depressed. For that child, just going to school had been a daily, unacknowledged act of bravery for years. So we acknowledged his bravery. And then talked about how he could apply the skills he already had (he already knew how to do something really, really hard every day) to a new challenge: talking to his teachers and classmates.
We started with non-verbal skills, like raising his hand and showing the teacher a card that said, "I need help." Later, he identified one or two kids at school who had been nice to him, and said hello to them every day. He found that it was easier to talk to people he wouldn't see again, so his mom would drive him to Whataburger and stay in the car while he went inside and ordered for himself. Immediate reward!
So every week he came to therapy with a list of successes instead of failures. And, he became the person who pushed for more advanced tasks--and before long, he decided he was doing fine and didn't need my help any more.
Second, the Calm-Down Bottle. My little clients love making these, and the bottles can help soothe both anxiety and anger, by giving them an acceptable physical outlet for their emotional energy.
For little boys, I might use a book about the Incredible Hulk to talk about the bad things that can happen when we misuse our anger. And then present the Calm-Down Bottle as a tool to help us to manage our anger, instead of hurting ourselves and other people.
And finally, before all else fails: PLAY. Did you know that researchers are finding a correlation between regular play in outdoor green spaces to reduced ADHD symptoms? Others are pretty sure that play will get your kid into Harvard. And guess what: being happy makes your brain function 30% better.
So, for the best back-to-school ever, get out there and play!