By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.
The inauguration of the next president of the United States can be an exciting time of possibility, change, and growth, but due to the rancorous tenor of the 2016 presidential election, tomorrow’s event may lead to feelings of anxiety, anger, and fear for some. What can you do if the children in your care are experiencing these emotions?
Consider helping children promote healthy expression of those feelings using one or more of these seven suggestions:
- Talk about it. An effective way to help children manage conflicting feelings and use those feelings to get stronger is to encourage them to talk through the feelings with a trusted mentor, family member, or friend. Work with the intention to help children get to the root of the issue. Maybe there’s a specific fear that they need to process. Perhaps it’s a worry that feels too big to tackle. Maybe it’s anger or sadness. Seize this teachable moment and listen carefully to what children are saying as well as what they’re not saying. Since emotions begin with thoughts, figuring out the source of children’s feelings might also be helpful. Is what they’re struggling with based on any fixed mindset thoughts or errant beliefs that could be changed?
- Draw it out. Sometimes children don’t have the words to express their feelings, but put a pencil, pen, marker, crayon, paint, or sidewalk chalk in their hands and watch those feelings flow. Encourage children to draw whatever they’re experiencing: thoughts, words, and actions. Ask them to tell you about their drawings and find out what they would change about those pictures if they had a magic wand. Listen without judgment. Children tend to take our lead; a calm reassurance that they are safe from a trusted adult will go a long way.
- Work it out. Exercise is a great way for young and old alike to release negative energy and process hard feelings. Our brains thrive on movement. As Dr. John Medina tells us in his masterpiece Brain Rules, “Physical activity is cognitive candy.” That’s sweet news! Encourage children to join you as you take a power walk, go for a bike ride, bounce around on a trampoline, or find a tree swing and go as high as you can. Exercising outdoors provides the added benefit of fresh air.
- Write it out. Shortly after election day, Teaching Tolerance magazine called for students to speak out and let the president-elect know what they would like to see happen. Giving advice is a fantastic empowerment strategy—the perfect antidote to those out-of-control feelings of anxiety and angst. It can also elevate empathy because it forces children to switch places with the president-elect and walk in his shoes, if only for a short while. Ask children what they would do, were they elected president, to improve their country. Encourage them to think through their hopes and dreams for the nation and launch a campaign of their own.
- Do something kind. Fred Rogers of the television show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is credited with suggesting that when bad things happen, it’s a natural response for people to become helpers. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, encourage children to find a cause they can champion or a need they can fill. The helper’s high that they will feel from their altruism can combat those uncomfortable feelings of helplessness. At my school, students thrive on helping soldiers, animals, those challenged by homelessness, and the elderly. They also love to help other kids. One of our favorite projects is knitting baby hats to help reduce the infant mortality rate in developing countries. Now is the perfect time to sign up for Kids for Peace’s Great Kindness Challenge if you haven’t already. This annual event, held during the last week of this month, kicks off January 23 and runs through January 27. Of course, kindness isn’t limited by a calendar, so encourage children to make every day kindness day.
- Discuss civic duties. While there won’t be another presidential election for four years, children can benefit from discussions about our right to vote and our civic responsibility to do so. Even though there were 126 million votes cast this year, that number represents only 55 percent of all eligible voters. What ideas do your young citizens have to increase that percentage and motivate voters to find their voices, show up at the polls, and exercise their civic duty to vote? Talk about other opportunities young people have to cast their ballots, like for officer positions in school organizations. If your school didn’t hold a mock presidential election, this might be a good time to do so. Consider voting on what your school would like to do for your next service-learning project.
- Study former presidents and their terms. Who were the popular past presidents? What made them favorites? Who were the controversial presidents? What contributed to the controversy? Might children agree that Abraham Lincoln, for example, could fall into both categories? Why or why not? Knowledge is power. Using a compare-and-contrast activity can help children work through their troubling feelings while they cultivate a renewed hope for a promising future ahead.
As always, if strong feelings persist and pose a threat to a child’s well-being, seek help from a medical professional, therapist, or counselor.
Currently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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