by Elisa Nebolsine, LCSW
Elisa Nebolsine, LCSW

The virus has upended the world as we know it, and kids are struggling.  Kids were not meant to live this way.  None of us were meant to live this way, but as a child therapist, I have a special focus on kids and their well-being.  And, as an anxiety specialist, I have been dismayed to watch as, over this quarantine, my anxious kids start to show signs of depression.  We can’t fix the virus (yet),  but there are things we can do to help kids build resilience and get through this period.

Teach kids that feelings are temporary.  All feelings end.  This sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy for kids (and adults) to get caught up in feelings, and think that we will feel that way forever.  The idea that feelings are temporary and all feelings end is enormously powerful for kids. 

When using this technique, I usually tell a story that illustrates the point (and is related to the topic at hand).  I might say: “ I remember a time I really hurt my friend’s feelings.  I said something insensitive, and it made her feel terrible.  It was awful.  I felt sick to my stomach, and I just wanted to take it all back but I couldn’t.  I apologized, but I couldn’t get rid of the bad feeling.  Eventually, I started to remind myself that the feeling would end.  That this feeling was temporary, and even though I felt terrible now, I wouldn’t feel terrible forever.”  I ask kids how long they think I felt bad, and they usually predict (correctly) that even the next day won’t feel as bad, and that the feelings will come and go. 

I then ask them about a time this happened to them, and what might have been different if they had known and told themselves that this feeling was temporary and would end.  Usually, they predict that this knowledge  would have been helpful.  We then write this phrase on a sticky note or index card, and I ask kids to look at when they feel overwhelmed by emotions.  I also ask parents to help model and coach this idea by telling themselves (out loud) what they feel, and that this feeling will end.

Name to Tame.  This is a simple concept with big power, and it’s based on research out of UCLA.  Psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that when we name our feelings we make them more manageable.  Dr. Lieberman used an fmri- an mri that can show our brain in real time- to show brain changes that occur when we name emotions. 

In the study, Dr. Lieberman had participants look at scary pictures and he, unsurprisingly, saw increased activity in the amygdala.  But when the participants named how they were feeling (“I feel scared when I look at that giant tiger”) the brain activity shifted so that the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) was also engaged.  By naming what they were feeling, participants moved from a purely emotional response (amygdala) to engaging the thinking, rational, problem-solving part of the brain (PFC). 

When kids learn to name their feelings, and to use language to describe the emotions they are experiencing, they move out of a purely emotional state.  This matters because kids can use language to regulate emotions.  Rather than just feeling overwhelmed, they can explain the emotion and understand why they are feeling that way. 

When I’m explaining this idea to kids, I often use Harry Potter as an example.  In Harry Potter no one will say the villain’s name, Voldermort, out loud.  But Harry Potter does.  He explains that if you don’t name something, you give it even more power.  Naming the scary thing makes it more real and therefore more manageable.

When we’re in a heightened emotional state, feelings can lie.  This can be a hard strategy for people to buy into.  In our culture, we value “trusting our gut” and “listening to our intuition,” and I am not saying to ignore your gut or intuition.  I am saying that feelings can be misleading, and there are times we have to look at facts rather than simply relying on the feeling.  

Heightened states of emotion activate our limbic system (the feeling part of our brain).  This means our brain moves in to a fight, flight or freeze response, and our brain becomes more focused on surviving than on thinking through the situation.  When we are in a highly emotional state, feelings often seem bigger and worse than they really are.  For kids, this might look like getting mad at a parent and yelling “I hate you!”  When they calm down, they usually feel terrible about saying that.  They don’t hate their parents, they just felt terrible in that moment.  We all get this, and we’ve all been there – where we said something we didn’t mean out of anger or other emotion.

Kids can learn that when they are stressed, angry, or just emotional in general, their feelings get turned up- just like the volume on a tv or computer.  Feelings seem bigger and more dramatic than they really are.  A simple strategy to teach kids about this is to ask a couple questions: How big of a deal will this seem in two hours?  How about two weeks?  Usually the answer is that it won’t be a big deal at all, and probably won’t even matter.  The use of future time makes kids realize the relative unimportance.

Other strategies include looking at the facts of the situation.  “I hear you.  This feels absolutely awful.  You feel certain that you will always be alone, and never have any friends.  But I wonder if we can look at the facts?  Can I ask you a couple questions?  How many friends do you currently have?  How many did you have last week?  Last year?”  Asking these guided fact-based questions can provide the facts that disprove the feelings.  And kids can start to see that just because it feels true, doesn’t mean it is true.

This is a challenging time for everyone right now.  We are all struggling with the uncertainty and anxiety about the virus.  Kids are having the same experience, and they have less tools to manage their anxiety.  Teaching these simple and easy to use emotional management strategies can make a big difference.

About the Author

Elisa Nebolsine, LCSW is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist in private practice in Falls Church, VA.  She is the author of The Grit Workbook for Kids : CBT Skills to Help Kids Cultivate a Growth Mindset and Build Resilience, and an adjunct faculty member at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia, PA where she teaches, supervises, and consults on the use of CBT with kids.  In addition, she is an adjunct faculty at Catholic University's graduate school of social work where she teaches clinical child practice.  Elisa has been in practice for over twenty years, and she has a strong commitment to the use of CBT with mood disorders in youth.