My kindergartener woke in the middle of the night sobbing. We had just learned earlier that her friend’s mom had been struck and killed while walking across a street. I cradled her in my arms, murmuring comforting words and asking myself, “How do I help my daughter manage this pain?”
Traumas large and small are part of our children’s lives. From the death of a pet to family separations, racial discrimination, gender bias, and scary events, kids face complex challenges that can be overwhelming. We instinctively want to protect them from heartache, and may be tempted to pretend that all is well. But research suggests preparing them for emotional challenges is a better strategy.
One effective approach is to read stories about emotions and coping. Books like Adam Lehrhaup’s There Was a Hole and Heather Feinberg’s Crying is Like the Rain help children explore sadness, grief, frustration, and pain from the perspective of another child’s experience. Such stories invite kids to compare their experiences with those of the characters. They also suggest ways that others have coped with difficult situations.
As you read with your child, name the various emotions illustrated in the story. Talk about the times you have felt similar emotions. Notice how you may feel different emotions despite experiencing the same event. For example, your child may have felt hurt and upset when someone called them a name, whereas you may have felt angry and protective when you overheard the exchange. Share that different kinds of emotional responses are normal.
Psychologists also suggest that you help your child create a ‘helping hand’. This coping tool is fairly simple to make. First, trace your child’s hand on a piece of paper or cardstock. Then cut out the handprint. (You can also provide a generic hand shape, available in most craft stores.)
In the middle of the handprint, encourage your child to write a list of challenges or stressful situations. (Younger children can dictate their list while you act as scribe.) Their list might include items such as ‘someone saying mean words’, ‘missing pop pop’, ‘being called on in class’, or ‘my friend’s cancer’. It’s ok to mix big and small stressors. And if children have a lot of items, group them into categories (scary things, hurtful things, mean things, sad things) and use both sides of the hand to list them all.
Then, invite children to identify coping resources and strategies and describe them on the hand’s fingers. Ask questions like: Who could help you when this happens? What could you do to manage your big emotions? Remind them of coping mechanisms used by the characters they’ve read about and share some of your own ways of handling grief, anger, sadness, embarrassment, and pain.
Once they have at least one coping idea for each finger, explain that their ‘helping hand’ can remind them of all the different kinds of support they have when facing a challenge. Suggest that they post it somewhere they can see it frequently, or carry it in a plastic sleeve inside a school notebook or backpack. You might even make copies and laminate them so children can keep their helping hand handy wherever they might need it.