This is part two of a two-part series. In case you missed the first one, it is here. I encourage you to read it, as this post builds on the concepts in the first post. In the first post, we left with two items on your to-do list: set the stage for the relationship with your kids and begin to build their emotional vocabulary. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to build the rapport with your children so that they are more willing to be coached through their emotions. This post will describe two coping skills to introduce to your child, as well as how to use the zones of regulation to help your child work through their emotions.

Coping Skills

Coping skills are our ways of helping our minds and bodies from racing into unhelpful thoughts and reactions. That said, coping skills should not be introduced for the first time when the child is in a distressed state. If coping skills are introduced when the child is in a neutral state, that becomes more of a learning moment for the child rather than a “punishment” or quick fix. I suggest you introduce these skills as part of your child’s weekly routine. A protected block of time where they can explore mindfulness techniques, can provide you the opportunity to introduce these techniques and see what kind of skills resonates the most with them. Some ideas may include yoga, guided meditation, drawing, writing, or podcasts, among others. I’ve outlined two skills below:

Star Breathing: Have your child trace their fingers along the image of a star. The pace of their trace should be slow and steady lasting about 5 seconds before reaching the next straight line. They will breathe in for 5 seconds, hold it for 5 seconds, breathe out for five seconds.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation: As you do a body scan, clench different parts of your and hold the tension for 1-2 seconds then release them slowly. Start from your face with the eyes, nose and mouth and then moving down to your shoulders, arms, belly, and so forth.

Zones of Regulation:

  • Red: Explosive energy has taken over
  • Green: Your child is able to go with the flow and can go up and down while still connecting to others.
  • Blue: The body feels heavy and shoulders slump. The child has a sense of hopelessness in their demeanor.

A lot of parents may think “I want my child to be in the green zone.” While that is great to strive for, that desire could lead to a lot of pressure and, unrealistic expectations. A more sustainable goal might be: “I want to help my child feel empowered through the regulation process”.

Steps to navigate the zones

  • The first step to regulation, is to identify what zone the child is in. Identifying the zone, can tell you know what type of approach the situation needs. If a child is in the red zone, their fight or flight response has taken over and they are not in the state to hear ANYTHING right now. Their bodies need to calm down without the parents also entering a distressed state. When a child is in this zone, the parent will NEED to channel their inner Mary Poppins or Mr. Rogers. In other words, you have to keep cool in very aspect of your composure including, your tone, inflexion and body language. If you feel yourself becoming dysregulated along with your child, you need to have plans in place for that event such as sending them to their rooms until you yourself have calmed down enough to continue to support them and their needs. If you must do this, let the child know that you need a minute and you will be right back. Once you return, the supportive tactic in this zone is to provide a calming center through a sense of stillness and safety. This could be in the form of a hug or modeling stress relief exercises such as breathing deeply or squeezing a pillow tightly.

If the child is in the blue zone, they are in shutdown mode and feel the most isolated. They are overwhelmed with a sense disconnection or sadness and the last thing they want to hear is a solution or a quick fix to “feel better”. When a child is in this zone, they need validation first and foremost and they need permission to feel sad while also feeling a sense of security. When they are in this state, you will have to leave your “fix it” mode at the door. For parents, navigating this stage can be distressful because you do not want to see your child in a state of pain or hopelessness but It would be a dis-service to the child if their parent jumped straight into “feel better” tactics before letting the child sit with why they feel sad to begin with. In this stage, it is most helpful to ask questions that focused on their feelings and to validate their feelings by summarizing what they tell you and agreeing that carrying that feeling is so difficult. Being present with them while also providing choices will be helpful, and letting them know that you love and care for them will make them feel comforted.

  • Once security is established and you notice that the child is at a point where they can engage in a dialogue you can provide them emotional support by giving choices and coping skill options. Once they have moved on from the event, it is important to talk with them about their takeaway. This may not be within the same hour from when the event happened– it may be later that night or the next day. However, praising them for their regulation will positively reinforce their power over regulation and over time they will need less and less coaching.

For all of us, a buildup of emotions takes place before we enter the blue or red zone. In your observation of your child’s day to day routine, take note of what patterns you begin to see before they reach their red or blue zone. Is it usually the same time of day, the same tasks, or similar circumstances? For example, does the child get visibly upset when they have to do tasks first thing in the morning? If this is the case, how can we prepare them for this the next morning? Do they need more words of encouragement or a pep talk the night before? When they begin to become overwhelmed, do we encourage pauses? Be open to trying different methods even if the situation is not “a big deal” in your mind.

Just like adults, children have every right to feel upset, down, uncertain, etc. It is HOW they act on these emotions that needs to be the focus. We as adults, need to actively coach the child to become more in tune with their emotions and equip them with coping skills to help them help themselves. To become an active coach is to be pro-active and not reactive. At times when a child enters a distressed state, it can elicit a distressed response within us and we must be mindful to not join in the distress. I encourage you to have some type of accountability system for yourself and moments of praise for yourself when you practice mindfulness and stay present with them, even in the most difficult situations. Also provide self-compassion for when you fall short of your own expectations. No parent is perfect, and we will all lose our cool from time to time. When that happens, the important thing is to follow up with the child (when you are both in a better state) to take accountability for your actions and to provide them support and reassurance.  Remember, coaching is not just doing damage control after the event–it’s about being opportunistic and finding moments to practice skills, to build the relationship and remind ourselves that we are planting seeds for the child’s adulthood journey.

Diana Nesko, MS, LGMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and online to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Diana.