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Help Children Get Emotional Distance

When children are likely to be overwhelmed by strong feelings, it is often useful to find ways to help children find a bit of emotional distance from the events. Here are four ways I have found helpful:

First, make up a story showing how the situation could be worse and, when possible, do it in a way that might be humorous. Laughter is always helpful. The time Julie came home after the teacher had intercepted her note, we used this idea by taking about some other messages she might have been the teacher had bad breath and brown teeth. Through such a message might be calamitous, it was also funny and gave Julie a moment of laughter and some emotional distance. We went on to improvise other hypothetical and humorous messages. As they grew more outrageous and funny, what had been put in the original note no longer seemed quite so awful. The laughter not only helped put things in perspective, but also relieved some of her anxiety-energy.

Second, since sometimes some of the details of their story are too painful for them to deal with directly, ask children to make up a similar story about what happened to somebody else. I have a therapist friend Victoria who has a rather remarkable technique in this respect; it helps her clients deal with strong feelings such as helplessness, inadequacy, being a poor friend, frustrations, and so on. She tells the client’s story in the third person, as if it were a fairy tale. If she was talking to Julie she might begin, “Once upon a time there was a little girl named Julie who liked to have fun and make her friends laugh. She also liked to talk, and when she couldn’t talk to her friends, she sometimes sent notes…” Victoria would go on to tell the rest of Julie’s from this integrative perspective. She would emphasize Julie’s positive qualities, like enjoying life and liking friends, so the embarrassing experience was seen as merely one event in a much bigger picture. Victoria’s fairy tales were invariably of someone who was lovable and capable.

Third, ask children who are caught up in strong feelings to make up a new ending to their story, an ending they would have preferred. In order to achieve the necessary emotional distance, it is usually not sufficient to settle for, “I’d just rather it hadn’t happened at all,” but to take the facts and create a new final act. As in Julie’s case, the fact was that a note was passed by her and it was intercepted by the teacher. I invited Julie to take it from there. She was able to come up with, “Then the teacher dropped the note in the wastebasket,” or “Then one of my friends grabbed the note and swallowed it.” Psychologically, by playing with alternative outcomes, Julie was gaining some distance and processing some of her anxiety by talking about it. The event probably no longer felt like the most important thing that ever happened in the world.

Fourth, ask children to act out their story to help drain off anxiety and embarrassment. Wanda used to receive numerous embarrassing and self-esteem-wounding comments from her third-grade teacher, whom I will call Mrs. Meany. When Wanda came home depressed and upset at having been focused upon and embarrassed in class, her stories were often talked about at the dinner table. In fact, our dinners often ended with Wanda doing an impromptu dramatization of Mrs. Meany. Wanda would stick out her stomach and waddle across the floor as a short, fat Mrs. Meany and shake a crooked finger at all of us around the dining-room table and shriek, “Nowww, children…” in a caricature of her raspy-voiced teacher. As we all laughed together at the “Lecutres of Mrs. Meany” and saw her as this ridiculous character of Wanda’s dramas, some of Wanda’s anger, anxiety, and embarrassment drained off in a healthy, entertaining way. With our laughter, applause, and obvious delight in her characterization, Wanda was able to reestablish her sense of self-esteem.

Mrs. Meany continued to have power to embarrass Wanda, but Wanda had found a way to keep that embarrassment from becoming a festering, lingering wound. It got drained and healed regularly.

I haven’t any way of knowing if there is a connection here, but Wanda had found a way to keep that embarrassment from becoming a festering, lingering wound. It got drained and healed regularly. I haven’t any way of knowing if there is a connection here, but Wanda has gone on to become very gifted in acting and storytelling. It’s possible Mrs. Meany originally triggered Wanda’s career.

Each of these four methods of inviting children to manipulate the events of their story allows them to take the story in their own hands and control it to some degree. The ability to step back and play with their story allows children to reestablish a sense of ownership of their life. They become aware of their own power and not just someone else’s power.

Self-Esteem Principle: When children are able to distance themselves from their own embarrassment or anxiety, it is a sign strong feelings haven’t consumed them and self-esteem can be renewed.

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