How to help a student who’s feeling emotional:
- Calm yourself first: Take a few deep breaths, feel your feet on the ground, do whatever you use typically use to calm yourself down. Know this isn’t about you, but the best thing you can do is first spread your own calmness to the child so they can work through their feelings more easily.
- Help them feel safe: Sit next to them, get on their level, gently put your hand on their backs where their heart is and let them feel your caring presence.
- Restate what they are feeling: “Your parents got divorced.” “You lost your favorite puppy dog.” “Your friends are ignoring you.” Saying these things with similar emotional emphasis as they are feeling will help them feel heard.
- Empathize and acknowledge their emotion: “This must be so hard for you.” “You must be very sad/mad/hurt.” “I see you are very upset.” If you aren’t sure, you can ask how the event made them feel.
- Most importantly, make sure they feel heard. When you look at them with compassionate eyes and use a calm, caring voice, they will feel validated and heard. You can even say, “It’s okay to feel how you feel”. Always thank them for sharing with you. Once they have shared and feel better, giving them a hug is almost always helpful if you are comfortable doing so.
What not to sayto a child who is struggling:
Remember there are a few things you shouldn’t say to a child who is upset. According to Melanie Smithson, LPC and author of Stress Free in 30 Seconds, here are some tips on what not to saywhen a child is struggling.
- “Calm down!” (Show them calm instead of telling them to be calm.)
- “It’s not that big of a deal.”
- “You should be over this by now.”
- “You shouldn’t feel this way.”
- “You’re too sensitive.”
None of these statements will be helpful for a child when they are emotional. Try to avoid them at all costs!
The Imagine Project will bring up emotion.
The Imagine Project is meant to bring up emotion—it’s part of the healing process. In step 3, the student is asked to write an Imagine story about a difficult time in their lives. After their writing is complete, they are given the opportunity to share their stories. The younger kids love sharing, the older (middle and high school) not as much. When the stories are shared there is vulnerability, compassion, and love in the room. Trust this process, know this is important part of healing for kids (all of us really)—talking about emotions and sharing with others when kids need help and support. Let them move through this stage and do your best to love them through it. Many teachers tell the other students who are listening, “Wrap them in love as they read” so the students listening know how to treat their fellow students. Share your story too—they will LOVE you for sharing!
Make sure you move them into Step 4 in the Imagine Project Journal where they get to write what the positive experience that came from the hard one (there always is at least one). If they are still in the middle of the difficult story in real life, let them dream about a positive ending. This helps them let go and more forward. Trust the process, it works!
Resilience is created by facing difficult times, processing those experiences, working through emotion, learning from an experience, and moving forward. Much of how we learn resilience begins when we are children. A great way to teach a child they can persevere is by writing, sharing, and see how well they made it through! When emotion comes up through the process, it’s okay. You can love and support them and watch them grow!
The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.