Lisa Keating: Good self-soothing skills go a long way

For most of us, one of the hardest things about being a parent is seeing your child upset or hurt. As a therapist, one of the things I see the most is children and adults who don't know how to soothe themselves in healthy ways when they are upset. So, not surprisingly, one of the questions parents ask me the most is how they can help their children feel better when they are sad, anxious and angry.

For the most part, we learn how to comfort ourselves gradually, while growing up, primarily from guidance and examples from our parents. Babies rely on their parents to soothe them: patting, rocking, and singing are ways we comfort babies. When we consistently respond to their cries and needs this begins a life-long message of "I am here for you whenever you need me."

Toddlerhood brings a little emotional independence. Holding a treasured blanket or stuffed animal are ways toddlers try to calm themselves down. Observations from mom and dad such as, "You look sad, can I give you a hug?" help children identify how they feel ("sad") and that when they feel upset they should seek comfort ("hug"). This also is a good time to introduce books and videos with stories about feelings and coping; the book "Feelings" by Todd Parr and the show "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" are good examples. Use yourself as an example, "Mommy is feeling crabby, I am going to take a break for a few minutes until I feel better."

During the elementary school years introduce the concept that our bodies are designed to get feelings out, and that we feel better when we do. For example, our eyes start crying when we are upset, our mouth is there to talk about our upsets, and our bodies calm down when we go outside for a walk.

The school years introduce the demands of school, navigating friendships, and increased independence. With these new demands, our children need help learning to cope when they aren't with us. Spend time, each day after school, checking in with your child. "What was the best part of your day, what was the worst," is a good dinner conversation ritual. Inevitably, you will hear about some struggle from the day, and this is a golden opportunity to ask how your child felt about it, how they "handled it," and for you to make helpful suggestions.

Teach children this age deep-breathing, going for a walk when upset, "I statements," and good friendship skills. Discuss the notion that happy people focus on positive things, positive activities, and positive relationships; unhappy people the opposite. And, that life's ups and downs are so much easier to navigate with good self-soothing skills.

• Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.


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