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HELPING FAMILIES COPE
Strategies for strengthening family communication
We know that the Covid-19 crisis has added lots of stress to your family and the way we are all used to doing things has been tested. Communication is no exception and it is more important than ever to be open and honest with our loved ones. The Town of Danville Police Department's licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Lauren Brown, will be sharing weekly tips and tricks to hone your family communication skills and to help ease stress while we weather this unprecedented time together.
THE EMOTIONAL BALLOON
What is the Emotional Balloon?
Everyone has a balloon in their body somewhere. I like to think of mine in my chest because I feel stress there, while some people may feel stress in their stomachs. Like a regular balloon, our emotional balloon can get filled up as well, only instead of air, it gets filled up with stressful events and emotions.
To start this activity, you can draw a balloon on a piece of paper or you can use an un-blown up balloon. Ask your kids what kinds of things stress them out and write them down. If you are using a balloon, add a little bit of air with every stressor. Don’t tie it off, but do hold it closed with your fingers. Some examples of things that they may say (or you can prompt for):
- When I can’t find my toys
- When we’re running late
- When my brother/sister does XYZ
- When I have too much homework
- When mom/dad yells at me
When you have several things on their list, or your physical demonstration balloon is very full; ask your child what a full balloon feels like (This is where having an actual balloon is great). It feels tight, it is hard, it looks stretched out. If it gets too close to you, it makes you nervous that it is going to pop. These descriptions are the same for a person walking around with a full emotional balloon. You can usually tell if someone is stressed out. They may appear uptight, seem agitated, or make you nervous to be around. Walking around with a full emotional balloon all the time is unhealthy. There are three things that can happen to a balloon that is too full. Ask your child if they know what those things are.
What happens when balloons get too full?
- It can leak. (If you are holding the balloon, let a little air out by stretching the hole, making a squeaking sound)
- It can go all over the place (let go of the balloon and watch it zoom around the room)
- It can pop (fill it back up and pop it with a pin)
What do these look like in people?
Leaking- small but negative actions that siphon off tension.
Maybe throwing your backpack down hard when you’re frustrated. Pushing your sibling. Kicking at the dog/cat. Slamming a door. These are examples of a full balloon that are leaking. These actions tend to fill other people’s balloons up because they are negative.
Going all over the place- A tantrum. Loud, out of control and angry. This could be physical or just verbal.
Here’s an example of how this could look in an adult: Let’s say it’s Monday morning and your alarm didn’t go off and you woke up late. You are now scrambling around your house trying to get everything ready for work. That adds to your balloon. Then you get to work and realize you forgot your cellphone at home. That adds more to your balloon. Then you have a rough day at work, getting yelled at by your boss about a project you’ve been working hard on. Your balloon is starting to get really full now. A traffic accident causes your drive home to be much longer than usual and now you are really, really grumpy. When you get home, maybe your child has left their shoes in the middle of the walkway and that is just the last little bit of stress your balloon can take; it just lets go in a rush of frustration. You might start yelling at your kids for being so messy, then snapping at your significant other for not having emptied the dishwasher, going on about how no one is pulling their weight but you, and you are tired of it. After a few minutes of this you stop. Maybe you feel a little guilty. Usually you feel a tiny bit better having gotten rid of some of that frustration. However, you also likely filled up your child’s balloon and your significant others by your reaction, which to them, seemed out of proportion to the shoes being left out.
A popped balloon
If you used an actual balloon in your demonstration, and used a pin to pop it, your balloon is likely in several pieces. Ask your child; can a popped balloon ever really work again? The answer is no. Even if you tried to glue/tape the pieces back together, it won’t hold air. What do popped balloons in people look like? Think drastic measures for relief: substance abuse, addiction, self-harm behavior, criminal behavior, or even suicide.
This is what is at stake if we don’t learn how to manage our balloons.
SO IF LEAKING, GOING ALL OVER THE PLACE AND POPPING ARE NOT GOOD WAYS TO EMPTY A BALLOON, ARE THERE BETTER WAYS? - YES!
Positive Coping Strategies
If you think about helium balloons that you get for special occasions, what happens to them eventually if you just leave them in your house or office? They slowly deflate. We could empty our balloons by sitting in a room by ourselves until we feel better, but usually that takes too much time and we have things to do. The trick to emptying our balloons is quite simple. Do things we enjoy. Coping with stressors can be simple and free.
Have kids make a list of activities that make them happy. Examples can include:Talking a walk. Playing with a pet. Listening to music. Exercising. Playing your favorite sport. Playing a board game/ Screaming into a pillow. Talking to a trusted adult or a counselor. Reading a book. Eating your favorite meal. Journaling. Creating art. Hanging out with a friend.
These are just a few examples of positive coping techniques. These activities and others like them generate endorphins and other feel good hormones that help combat the negative effects of stress. Help your kids come up with a big list of things they can do to feel better. The important thing to remember about coping activities is that they should be done in a controlled manor. Any activity can be unhealthy if it becomes an addiction (like over-exercising or over-eating) or used to numb out and avoid engaging with anything else. (video games/reading). Next week’s article will focus on another balloon emptying technique called “Venting Sessions”.
If you have any questions regarding this information or need any clarification, feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-314-3715
Download The PDF Version of this Article Venting Sessions
Last week, I shared information about The Emotional Balloon and provided a way to talk about stress as well as some ways for coping with stress.
This week, I’d like to share another coping strategy that works well with older kids (10 and up) called a “venting session”. If you have a tween or teen at home, it can sometimes be difficult to find sympathy for their “problems”. At this age, everything can seem overly dramatic. If your kids seem to constantly whine and complain about a mean teacher, a perceived wrong or some type of friend drama, do you eventually find yourself rolling your eyes, telling them they are blowing things out of proportion or generally dismissing their over-reaction? This common parent reaction can lead to kids feeling unheard.
Sometimes, all they are looking for is empathy. A “wow, that must be really frustrating”, or an “I’m so sorry you’re going through this” goes a long way. It is so easy for us to forget what it was like to be a teen. We know that sometimes their problems are trivial compared to the things we have to deal with. But we forget that to them, this is their whole world, and these seemingly benign issues truly feel like big deals.
Another way we make them feel heard is when we automatically go into problem solving mode. Sometimes, before they are even done telling us something, we are listing strategies to tackle the issue, asking them how their behavior contributed to the problem or trying to fix it for them. While this is us just being parents and trying to give advice, sometimes this can discourage them from talking to you about their problems because they know you are just going to “turn it into a thing” or make it a lesson. Sometimes all they need is to be listened to.
So, how can we help our kids feel listened to?
One strategy is the Venting Session. We always want to be there for our kids to talk and vent to. This is one way to open up the lines of communication but not a replacement for regular talk.
Allow your child a pre-determined and agreed upon amount of time to say everything that is on his or her mind. The key is that you aren’t allowed to say anything except “what else?”. During that time, you cannot comment, ask questions, or try and solve the issue. 3 minutes is a good place to start. After the timer goes off, if there was something that was said that you absolutely need to address, you can ask them if you can revisit it, but it must be after their allotted time is up.
A good strategy for this activity is to “set the container” as we say in therapy. This means lay some basic ground rules for the session. Some ideas are “you can yell but you may not swear” or “no raising your voice”, or whatever your personal values are around behavior during that time period. This isn’t a free for all, say and do anything. Also, if the venting is about you and you don’t think you can listen to it for 3 minutes, then it might be a good idea to have another caregiver be the listener so you are not tempted to interrupt to defend yourself or justify actions that are causing them frustration.
I want to emphasize that you are still their parent and they may say something during that time that needs to be talked about. It is OK to go back after the time is up and tell them you need to address it. You can also ask them if they are looking for ideas on solving their problems. That opens the door for a good conversation. Or they may say “no thank you” and that’s OK too. Remember that tweens and teens are learning to navigate their own issues to help them be better adults so letting them vent and work out some of those problems on their own is OK. Modeling good listening skills and showing empathy is a win-win for everyone. As aforementioned, this is just one activity to help siphon off stress but is not meant to take the place of regular communication. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me at email@example.com or call me at 925-314-3715