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What’s Stopping You? Barriers and Overcoming Them

kid staring at wall

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It’s one thing to know what strategies are good for what situations, but using them when needed is a whole other beast. It’s kind of like a healthy diet–most of us know what is good for us and what isn’t, but it is often really hard to regulate ourselves when it comes to making those food choices. Food tastes good. Old habits are easy.

Step #1: Draw attention to symptoms of your child’s stress or anxiety. If you notice that your child is ramping up, showing signs of excess stress/anxiety, the first step is to draw their attention to that in a casual, non-threatening way.

“I notice you that you don’t seem to be enjoying all of your activities the way you normally do. How are doing?”

You could even ask them to rate their stress on a scale of 1-10. Sometimes a quantitative assessment is easier than putting things into words. It also provides a good starting point for a conversation.

“7 out of 10 sounds pretty high. I would find it hard to manage at that level”.

Step #2: Cue them to identify an appropriate strategy. Depending on the nature of the stress, and the symptoms you see, different strategies may work much better than others. Determining the fit depends on some of the following:

  • Are they rushing around so much they are not stopping to acknowledge the small positive things? (make a daily list)
  • Are they having a lot of negative self talk? (is it exaggerated/true–what’s the other side of the story?)
  • Are they overfilling their plates and not making time to relax? (relaxation is as important as every other responsibility)
  • Are they avoiding a task? (can it be broken down into manageable steps?)
  • How are they feeling physically (what is their body saying?)
  • Are they having difficulty sleeping? (what strategies, resources may help?)
  • Are they getting enough physical activity? (what can be adjusted in their daily routine?)
  • Can they use what they know about the mind body connection/do something physically to manage the mental? (posture check, breathing check, eye focus check)
  • Are they in a conflict situation? (type–CALM role play?)

Step #3: Are they actually making use of any helpful strategies? Sometimes the reminder of what they know is all it takes – maybe a little encouragement. If they are escalated/deregulated enough that this does not work, move onto step 4.

Step #4: What are the barriers? What is preventing them from doing what they know will help? Are they external or internal? Have them/help them make a list. For example:

  • It’s too much work and I’m already overloaded
  • I don’t remember what to do
  • I have no time
  • It doesn’t work
  • I don’t have the space to ….

Step #5: Overcoming barriers. Help them come up with strategies to manage the barriers–can something be allowed to drop off their plate? Can they have use of a specific space on a regular basis? Are they in need of a physical resource? Do they need to role play (talk) through a scenario to practice? Do they need permission to just say ‘no’? Do they need a day off?

It sounds really obvious, but usually, it doesn’t take a lot of intervention. They may just need to stop and with your help, assess where they are at. This is also a good opportunity to ask who they can go to at school or any other place they regularly spend significant time. Remind them that they are not alone, that they have people in their corner. Asking for help is healthy and not a burden on anyone. It is a sign of a self aware person.


Assertive Conflict Management; The C.A.L.M. Method

calm kids working through conflict

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In order to manage conflict effectively, it is important to move from the feeling end of the “feeling—-thinking” spectrum, to the thinking end. To be clear, when I say managing conflict, I mean resolving the core issue with the needs of both parties taken into consideration. This is a skill which is challenging to most adults, let alone tweens whose brains are under reconstruction.

I have found the CALM method (credit to Friends for Life) very helpful in this regard.

C= Calm Down. Depending on the nature of the conflict, this may take a few minutes or a few days or even longer. Not only do you need to take time and space, but time and space need to be given to the other person, whose time frame may be different. Use their body language and facial expression to help gage when it may be time to talk.

A= Acknowledge Feelings. It’s OK to be mad, hurt, disappointed, betrayed or sad. It’s also OK for the other person to have intense feelings that you don’t like.

L= Listen. Steps to active listening:

  • Let the other person share their point of view without any interruptions, even if you think they are completely out of line. Most of us just want to be heard, and so much of that is having the space to speak freely.
  • You will likely hear something you don’t like. Just hear it.
  • Make eye contact, positive body language (straight posture, leaning in, arms uncrossed, relaxed face)
  • Once they have shared, reflect back/summarize what you have taken from their words. This shows that you were really listening–which is such a big part of all of our emotional needs.
  • Share your point of view. Be brief, use ‘I feel’ rather than ‘you did’ as much as possible. Do not repeat yourself. Avoid emotional or overly descriptive language, which may be interpreted as rubbing the other person’s face in it.

M= Make a Plan. This will most likely involve compromise on both sides. Neither of you is likely to get everything you want. The goal is to make sure both of you can live with the resolution, and that basic needs (safety and respect) are met. Consider where you are willing to bend and if something is non-negotiable.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • What if the other person isn’t willing to talk at all? You can’t control other people, so you may not be able to get them to work with you. Can you ask someone else intervene at this point, without making matters worse? Sometimes people feed on attention, and denying them that can speed up the desire to resolve. Is it time to cut your losses–can you realistically function without them in your life for now?
  • What if the other person isn’t willing to compromise? Again, because we cannot control other people, this is quite possible. Asking a non-involved party to mediate may be necessary. Failing that, is it time to cut your losses–can you realistically function without them in your life for now?
  • What if I can’t get past my own anger? You can’t effectively resolve a conflict until you are in a fairly neutral emotional state. That doesn’t mean there is no resentment or frustration, but you need to wait until you can think clearly and feel in control of your words and actions.

Once we go through what the steps are, we role play. Students, without using names, suggest situations they have experienced or witnessed, and we work through the steps together. It is hard work and takes a lot of practice. Practicing when they are not in the middle of a conflict is great because the more experience they get using the steps, the less difficult it will be when they are emotionally connected through conflict.

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  • Post the steps somewhere in the house
  • Make a game of role-playing random small and large conflicts with your kids
  • Model the steps if you have a conflict with someone in the household


Conflict and Conflict Styles

Angry child

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Conflict is something none of us can avoid, yet despite the fact that it is a part of life from a very early age, exposure and experience don’t always make it easier. While some people thrive on it, many of us find conflict deeply uncomfortable and in an attempt to make it go away, all too often we employ short term semi-solutions such as avoidance or unnecessary aggression.

Conflict in itself is not a bad thing–it can lead to a lot of positive change and innovation. Beginning by getting the kids to sort out the pros and cons of conflict helps them see that it is something to be managed rather than avoided.

Some Pros:

  • Opportunity to resolve a problem
  • Build communication experience
  • Can lead to good changes
  • Unavoidable

Some Cons:

  • Can be uncomfortable
  • Can bring up bad memories and negative self talk
  • Is difficult
  • Not everyone ‘plays fair’
  • Unavoidable

Having students reflect on what they do when they are angry is also a good starting point and leads into conflict styles. Do they turn anger outwards or inwards? What forms does that take? Does this resolve the conflict? How does it impact their relationships?

There are a few different general styles for dealing with conflict, each with their own short and long term pros and cons.

Conflict Style Aggression
  • can be verbal (swearing, taunting, raised voice)
  • can be physical (getting in someone’s personal space, unwanted contact, using personal body language or objects violently)
Short term
  • aggressor can meet immediate emotional needs (relief)
  • non aggressor’s needs are not met, can feel violated, intimidated or dismissed
Longer term
  • aggressor burns bridges where there could be positive working relationships
  • non aggressor may avoid in future
  • issue is not resolved for both parties
Conflict Style Passivism
  • avoidance (completely or with body language)
  • may give into other party immediately without stating or fully arguing their position
Short term
  • passive person can side-step the conflict and avoid initial unpleasantness
  • easier
  • non passive person may be unaware of conflict all together, or take advantage of ‘easy pickings’. Their immediate needs are met.
Longer term
  • passive person may have built up resentment/feel victimized
  • non passive person may still be unaware of issues or continue to take advantage
  • issue is not resolved for both parties
Conflict Style Passive Aggression
  • most common-indirect aggression
  • takes the form or rumours, talking behind someone’s back, anonymous online posts
Short term
  • PA avoids immediate unpleasantness, while getting relief of channeled aggression/revenge (can feel satisfying)
  • non PA may be initially unaware of conflict
Longer term
  • PA may develop a negative reputation
  • non PA may be hurt by indirect aggression-relationships break down due to lack of trust
  • issue is not resolved for both parties
Conflict Style Assertion
  • least common, particularly when emotional stakes are high
  • requires patience and compromise
  • goal is to resolve conflict for both parties
Short term
  • very difficult for most-can feel unnatural/uncomfortable
  • requires practice, patience and planning
  • both parties get some of what they want
  • neither party gets everything they want
Longer term
  • relationships and reputations remain intact and can improve with time
  • mutual respect
  • no emotional hangover
  • problem is resolved for both parties

Being assertive is the most effective way of resolving a conflict for everyone involved, but it is not easy. In my next post I will cover a system (credit to Friends For Life) for helping students practice assertive conflict management.

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  • Have your child reflect on what they do when they are angry
  • Help them work through the results of what they do both short and long term (think about needs being met, relationships and the resolution of conflict itself


Avoiding Avoidance; Strategies to Combat Project and Performance Anxiety Part 2 (Performance)

kid giving a speech

When I was in elementary school, we used to write and give speeches every winter. I always found this incredibly daunting, as it involved not only researching but writing and presenting. One year, I decided I was going to take a break from the stress by simply pretending that it wasn’t happening.

Every day we had a block of time to research/write and practice. Every day I doodled and tried to look like I was working hard. No doubt the teacher knew that I was doing absolutely nothing, however, she let me continue on my chosen path, perhaps wondering how long it would take me to come to my senses and get down to work. Didn’t happen.

Eventually, the presentation date arrived. We got through about 3 or 4 a day, and I was in a class of 35. The teacher didn’t call on me, and I was actually starting to believe that my ‘pretend it isn’t real’ method was effective. The night before we got down to the last 3 presentations, I remember lying in bed and actually thinking that I could improvise my way through it. I was into ghost stories at the time, so in my half asleep state, I decided on a few key things to include about ghost sightings and drifted off to sleep expecting to rock everyone’s world the next day, should I even be called upon to do so.

It didn’t work out so well. I was called up to present and even started to speak with a bit of confidence. Then, my mind blanked–probably because I really had nothing to say. What might have been 10 seconds felt like an hour, as I stood gaping at the class and wondering how I could have been so wrong about my improv skills. The teacher made an unusual noise and asked me to take my seat. I heard giggles from around me, but I was lost in a combination of mortification and genuine confusion.

Sound crazy? You’d be surprised–or maybe you aren’t…

In my last post, I covered a system for getting through the research and writing. The performing usually comes with its own set of challenges. This is the public bit. A lot of kids (and adults) struggle more with this than anything else in their school careers. For students who have anxiety over presenting, it will likely always be a challenge–but facing challenges is vital for a person’s development into a resilient adult. Having the tools to face the challenges makes a huge difference.

What do I mean by performance task:

  • A presentation in front of a group
  • An audition
  • A sports try out

My approach is to work from the place of least risk, gradually towards the highest risk (which is the evaluated performance). If we assume there are 2 weeks to go from step 1 to performance/presentation, timelines might look as follows:

Four steps to prepare for a performance

Step 1: Inner circle represents the point of lowest risk. This would likely be practicing alone in front of a mirror or teddy bear, with no audience (no disrespect towards teddy bears).

Self talk: “I am safe, No one is judging me. I can do this until I feel confident enough to show someone else”.

Step 2: The next circle out represents one step up in risk level. This may be showing one person who is trusted/safe (almost as much as teddy). There may or may not be constructive feedback at this point. The purpose is to get used to an audience.

Self talk: “I am in front of an audience but I am safe. There is no judgement. ____ is here to help me. I feel confident”.

Step 3: This next circle starts to broaden the audience to multiple people (still trusted). The purpose is to start getting and using constructive feedback.

Self talk: “I am ready to accept feedback because it will help me improve. I feel more prepared and I am controlling my anxiety”.

Step 4: At this point, it is time to open up to an audience of peers (not necessarily friends), or a teacher. This is the polishing stage. The purpose is to get performance ready.

Self talk: “I have faced my fears, worked hard and used feedback to make my work even better. I am proud of myself”.

Stage 5 is the final performance/presentation/audition.

Self talk: “I am ready. I have done everything within my power to prepare. I feel confident”.

Again, using a tool to help manage the time frame, such as a wall calendar or reminder app, is really important.

  • Get a wall calendar and help the student with the time frame
  • At each stage, ask your child how they are feeling (get them to reflect on that–is this better than previous similar situation)
  • Ask them about their self talk. Are they using positive self talk? Is negative self talk creeping in?
  • If there is negative self talk, encourage them to say the planned self talk out loud before they practice.
  • Gentle encouragement

Avoiding Avoidance; Strategies to Combat Project and Performance Anxiety Part 1 (Projects)

Kid carrying to do list

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I suspect most of us have, at some time or other, avoided a big unpleasant task until the last possible minute. Some people can pull off great work at the last minute, and thrive on the adrenaline rush. Most of the kids I work with, however, do not fall into that category.

The main reasons for avoiding large, complex and high-risk tasks generally revolve around a few things:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by the complexity and planning (time and work) involved
  • Feeling that they have not succeeded in the past, and the future will not be different
  • Not handing in work because it does not measure up to the standards in their head (perfectionism)
  • Communication challenges

Most of us are not born naturally organized. This is a skill that is practiced and hopefully developed to a functional degree over time, but everyone’s time frame is different.

I usually begin our sessions on preventing avoidance by talking about why we avoid; what are the barriers to getting work done. While I have listed a few reasons above, here are a few that frequently come up in discussion:

  • Denial
    • it’s not that big a deal
    • I can get to it later
    • I have lots of time
  • I have a bad memory
    • I forget to write it in my agenda
    • I forget to look on google classroom
  • It’s not just my fault/problem
    • The instructions weren’t clear
    • Group members didn’t cooperate
    • It was boring/too hard
    • I didn’t know where to start

Some of these are completely valid reasons for work being incomplete or late. I am more concerned with an ongoing pattern of avoidance, where it is always ‘not a big deal’, or ‘I was bored’.

From here, we divide tasks into 2 categories:

  • Project based tasks (multi-step, mid or longer term projects)
  • Performance based tasks (auditions, tryouts, presentations)

I will focus on performance-based tasks in my next blog.

For project-based tasks, It is important to make a list of every step to complete at the outset. This may include:

  • Getting, reading and clarifying all instructions
  • Marking down the due date
  • Figuring out what materials/resources are needed and where they can be found
  • Reading/researching necessary background information
  • Creating notes on research
  • Rough draft of written component
  • Rough draft of visual component
  • Feedback/ compare work to checklist of criteria
  • Revisions
  • Good copy

The next step involves creating realistic time frames for each step. A calendar in a high visibility place is helpful for this.

The final step to the planning, is actually writing down positive self-talk next to each step, as there may be a history or negative self-talk in their project survival experience. It is important that they read their pre-planned self-talk before beginning that step, as they may feel overwhelmed whenever they begin to work. Below is an example of what steps with self-talk might look like:

  • Getting, reading and clarifying all instructions (I understand what to do, and that is good for today)
  • Figuring out what materials/resources are needed and where they can be found (I know what I need and where to get it. I am ready to get started)
  • Reading/researching necessary background information (I am becoming an expert on my topic. I am in control)
  • Creating notes on research (I understand what is most relevant in my research because I have done the work)
  • Rough draft of written component (I am through the toughest part. Still in control)
  • Rough draft of visual component (I am through the toughest part. Still in control)
  • Feedback/compare work to checklist of criteria (I am so organized that I can double check with confidence and accept feedback in the spirit in which it is intended)
  • Revisions (I am making good work even better. Full control)
  • Good copy (I did this and I am proud, regardless of the mark)

Now there is having a plan, and then there is using it. I also work with students who are not in stress management and who feel overwhelmed when it comes to getting through work. A shorter, simpler system that can be applied to any work task is as follows:

  • Communication: What does the teacher/parent / EA need to know that they may not know (little computer access at home, degree of extracurricular commitments)
  • Daily tracking of work (in an agenda, online on Google Classroom or teacher website, homework board in class)
  • Awareness of where you should be in a project at any given point (see above or ask the teacher when needed)
  • If you fall behind, what are your options for catching up? (homework club, recess indoors, block time at home)

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  • Post the 4 steps on the fridge or high traffic area, or child’s work area
  • Work with the child to establish a regular time and space for work (limited distractions, comfortable, reasonable time frame)
  • Post large wall calendar with due dates and have child mark off each step to work completion plan
  • Encourage the child to give themselves small rewards when each step is completed


Friendships, Trust and Healthy Boundaries


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I bet we can all remember the joys, pitfalls and stress of negotiating tween and teen friendships. Kids at this age are beginning to assert their independence by turning increasingly towards peers for support and guidance (consequently, they often try to rely less on family). You may start to notice insecurities where none or few were before. The likes and dislikes of these new ‘peer families’ can be a moving target. For this reason, taking the time to look at values, goals and what they are and are not OK with is very important.

I begin the friendship session with the kids, by asking them to imagine creating the ideal friend; what qualities would that friend have? Sometimes the lists are long, and sometimes they are quite short, but a few of the constants are as follows:

  • Sense of humour
  • Kind and supportive
  • Loyal/trustworthy
  • Has your back
  • Honest
  • Stuff in common

Once we decide on the most important qualities as a group, I ask them to think in their heads, or record in their journals, how many people in their lives consistently meet their own criteria. This can get uncomfortable. Our ideals often do not match our realities and it is no different for the kids.

For the purposes of the following exercise, I focus particular attention on ‘trustworthiness’. I have them draw a big full page pyramid in their journals and have them draw a line slightly below the tip, creating a very small triangle at the top. This section represents the person/people in their lives who always have their backs. Even if one of those people had the juiciest bit of gossip that might give them a social advantage if they shared it, they would never do that. The next section down is usually a larger group–good friends but there is a risk of social betrays if the circumstances tempt it. We continue to work our way down the pyramid, each section involving less trust (hang out at school friends, classmates, people you see regularly…) until we get to the bottom. This is not for ‘enemies’, this is for strangers.

Friendship pyramid

People generally have much less trust for those they don’t know. There are, of course, exceptions; we assume a police officer, religious leader, social worker, teacher etc is reasonably trustworthy in order to earn their position. Mind you, change the setting and lose the uniform, and it is not possible to tell at a glance. This leads to a rather big and debate-worthy question;

What do we owe a stranger?

  • Are we obligated to be polite?
  • If an adult speaks to us, must we answer?
  • What role does context play?

It may seem obvious to an adult, but for some kids, this is a reframing that can really throw them off. I have noticed over the years that I have done this exercise, that girls are more likely to feel obligated to be nice, regardless of the situation. Examples of being polite to strangers in appropriate circumstances may be:

  • Holding a door for someone in a public place.
  • Saying hello to a cashier at the store counter
  • Greeting anyone in a public space

I have also found it helpful to zero in on the following scenario:

  • You are walking home alone, and no one else is around. A stranger comes up to you and asks for help finding her/his lost dog, or asks for directions. What do you do?

Believe it or not, there is usually a fair amount of debate on this point. What I reinforce with them is that no adult has any business ever asking an isolated child for help. Ever. Adults know this. It is OK and smart to ignore, walk away, yell, and even run if the voice inside of you tells you to. That voice is the part of us that is picking up on many non-verbal cues so quickly that we can’t consciously verbalize them. The adult knows better and it is OK if they think we are rude or they become embarrassed. They can deal with it. They know better.

I also give the kids a scenario where they are at a sleepover with a mixture of people in their top 2 pyramid tiers; people with the highest level of trust and those where the little inner voice knows they need to watch what they share. At the sleepover, they begin to play ‘Truth or Dare’. They know that while they like everybody there, they don’t fully trust everyone with deeply personal information.

Key question; How can we protect our boundaries and not share anything that makes us feel vulnerable, while not risking our social status within the group?

Then we brainstorm a list of suggestions. Here is a typical list:

  • Choose dare
  • Strategic bathroom/water/food break
  • Fake a moment of not feeling well and excuse ourselves
  • Say something that isn’t really that personal
  • Make a joke out of it
  • Say pass in an assertive voice
  • White lie

Taking the time to prepare for these ‘mushy boundary’ situations allows the kids to think clearly before they are in the middle of it, and too stressed to make their best choices.

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  • If your child is struggling with friendship dynamics, ask them which tier in their pyramid ___ friend is. This may help in deciding how much loyalty/sharing is reasonable.
  • Discuss strategies for dealing with mixed tier hang out groups in any situations that are coming up
  • Talk about what is owed to strangers in various different scenarios


Relax, Just Do It

Calm kid relaxing

We all know that we need to take time to relax, but how often does that drop to the bottom (or right off) of the day’s ‘to do’ list? Sadly many of the kids I work with have a lot of trouble taking time for themselves.

With any strategy, it is important to have an honest conversation about barriers; what does/will/might prevent you from doing what you intellectually know will be good for you? Some of the most common barriers brought up by my students are:

  • No time; lots of school work, home responsibilities/extracurricular. These things, in my kids, take priority over all else.
  • Relaxing is stressful; minds that are whirling quickly, running over what they have done and still need to do don’t always submit to downtime.
  • Guilt; Doing something that does not produce a clear and tangible end product feels like a ‘cheat’
  • ‘I don’t need it’; They like to be busy and assume that this will always be the case and because something is pleasurable, it does not require them to slow down and recharge.

There is a lot of pressure in our society to be productive. I think sometimes we think to be productive means that we need to be working. If we shift the lens a bit to look at what really makes us productive, healthy, functioning people, it is a lot easier to see the importance of taking time to relax and recharge our batteries. Dead batteries aren’t good for much.

So, the next step is to look at ways to minimize these barriers:

  • It may involve scheduling downtime and treating it the way any other home or school responsibility is treated.
  • It may involve looking at what can be dropped off the to-do list in order to make room.
  • It may involve repeatedly saying out loud “I need and deserve regular time to myself”.
  • It will involve practice

OK so I’m willing to try this; how do I do it?

I honestly believe it is different for everyone. Some believe that to truly relax, you need to clear your head and meditate. Telling someone who is feeling anxious to meditate (if they haven’t practiced) is similar to telling someone who is very unhappy to cheer up. It will not likely garner the desired results.

That said, with practice (and it does take practice) meditation can be incredibly effective. There are a number of phone apps and websites designed to lead users through a guided meditation. Simply googling ‘guided meditation’ will turn up a plethora of options. Choosing a designated time and space for practice is important, particularly if your child is just starting out.

Some find that even a guided meditation is not their thing. A good alternative is to do a simple, non-intellectually taxing activity like doodling or mild physical exercise, even working a fidget toy. This channels focus to something comparatively mindless, which helps to block distracting racing thoughts. Working on a mandala or zen tangle can help some decompress and regulate their breathing. I have a number of kids who need to read to calm down and recharge. Consider also the value of petting a dog or cat, or spending time outside, especially in nature.

The most important thing is that whatever they choose to do, it is calming and they feel more refreshed afterwards.

What Can You Do?

  • Encourage kids to book a time and space and support them in valuing and maintaining the routine
  • Check out some guided meditations online like calm.com
  • For a quick ‘check-in and decompress’ there are a lot of phone apps like ‘breathe and think’, or ‘be game ready’ (athlete oriented)
  • Model taking time for yourself too!

Control Your Body, Control Your Mind?


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We probably all have memories of feeling really down, and a well meaning adult telling us to ‘cheer up’. If you cast your mind back, do you remember how that made you feel? My guess is probably not better. Simply being told to change your feelings doesn’t work – although it can increase irritation!

Our feelings are so powerful, so overwhelming, that they easily override our thinking. In fact, it is really hard to think clearly when in a highly emotional state, regardless of whether the emotion is ‘positive’ or ‘negative’. It can be helpful to view this on a spectrum…

thinking to feeling

In order to make good decisions, it is important to be somewhere on the thinking side of this spectrum. The catch here is it can be hard to tell how emotional you are when you are in the middle of it. This is where having some acute body awareness can be very helpful, in terms of developing better emotional self regulation.

One of the most popular activities I do with my groups is around body awareness. We begin by tracing out a willing student onto mural paper (it helps that I am also an art teacher). We list off several emotions and assign each a colour, for example:

  • Sad – blue
  • Happy – yellow
  • Angry – red
  • Calm – green

Everyone takes a marker of the same emotion (sadness-blue) and we draw/write onto our life sized image what happens to our bodies when we experience the given emotion. It is important to note that not everyone shares every feature here, but there tends to be a great deal of overlap. For example:

Stress – orange

  • Sweats
  • Unusual cold
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Indigestion
  • Rapid or irregular breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Avoiding eye contact/rapid eye movement
  • Too much energy – need to fidget, twitch or pace

Once we have gone through each of the emotions, we actually act out the different physicality’s. When students are physically simulating ‘sad’, with shoulders slouched, slow dragging steps, and downcast eyes, I ask them how they feel emotionally given the state of their bodies. Most kids report feeling a drop in energy. When we move from simulating sad to simulating happy, shoulder come back, spines straighten, eyes come up to observe surroundings and pace picks up, and the lungs can more easily take in air. When asked to emotionally check in at this point, most students report an increase in energy.

The reason for this is that our minds and bodies are connected. Our bodies respond to our feelings (and can exacerbate them). This also means that we can ‘manipulate’ our bodies to send signals back to our minds, which does have an impact on our emotional states. So there is something to that old adage ‘fake it until you make it’.

The week following this activity, students are challenged to pay attention to their emotional state, by paying attention to what their bodies are doing ; Am I slouching and avoiding eye contact? How energetic do I feel? If they decide that they do not want to be in this particular state, they are to ‘simulate’ a more positive emotion with their posture, breathing, eye contact, and to note whether it made a difference.

There are a couple of side benefits here. This exercise serves to pull students further towards the thinking end of the spectrum (helpful at school), and to exert more control over the body language messages they are sending to others. Like anything else, it takes practice. When we are in the midst of a negative emotion, it can be hard to find the motivation to do anything about it. Having a ‘stress buddy’ to help cue can be helpful here.

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  • Ask your child where they are on the thinking-feeling spectrum or get them to draw it out/point to a drawing
  • Ask them what their bodies are doing right now (how is your posture, breathing, eye contact)
  • Ask them what they can do physically to simulate feeling good (yes, this sounds really weird)


Getting a Grip on Self Talk

thought - feeling - action

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What comes first; actions, thoughts or feelings? Most people believe that feelings drive thoughts and then actions.


It seems that way because feelings are intense, and likely the first thing we are aware of. In fact, thoughts are what drive our feelings.


Thoughts happen in a split second, so we are not generally consciously aware of them. Learning to catch those thoughts before they develop into feelings is a challenging but vital tool for helping us control our feelings, rather than letting our feelings control us. It takes a lot of practice and persistence, but over time, it is possible to develop a strong awareness of, and to start to filter out a lot of the unhelpful negative self talk.

Imagine having both a self doubt monster and a personal coach on your shoulders, whispering into your ears. As we already know, we are hardwired to pay more attention to the negative thoughts. Below are a couple of situations that could easily produce negative thoughts and feelings in tweens…

“I volunteer an answer in class that I think is really clever but it is wrong and people laugh.”


“I ask to go out with me, and they say no. I hear giggles from their friend.”

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“I’m an idiot and I wish I had just kept my mouth shut”


  • embarrassed, dumb


  • disengagement, not willing to take that risk again

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Catching self talk is really hard at first, because it happens so quickly. It is usually easier to begin by thinking about the last time you had a strong emotion (positive or negative) and ‘walk it back;

What did I say to myself that led to that feeling? What else could I have said to myself that might have altered that feeling?

Try playing out the above scenario with a more optimistic thought; Think of this as the inner coach on your shoulder cheering you on.

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“OK that didn’t work out the way I hoped, but it isn’t that big a deal. People giggling doesn’t mean they are laughing at me. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I am stronger than this and THIS happens to everyone sometimes.”


  • hopeful, determined, resolute


  • willing to try again

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  • Regularly ask kids to think/write down the last strong emotion they remember.
    • Ask them to see if they remember what led to the feeling (exterior trigger).
    • Ask them to remember what they said to themselves in response to that trigger.
    • If they could go back, what are more optimistic thoughts that may have reduced the negative feeling.
    • IMPORTANT QUESTIONS to help kids shift the negative self talk:
      • Is my response logical/rational?
      • Am I exaggerating the importance of the situation?
      • Is this a last chance, or a one of many opportunities?


    Why Am I Feeling So Overwhelmed?

    sad kid with bowl of things to control

    If you ask middle schoolers about what stresses them out, you will likely get a mile long list, with homework and social pressures near the top. Managing time in an increasingly frenetic world is challenging for most adults. Tweens are often dealing with an increased school workload, and many of my kids have very busy extracurricular lives. And of course, their social worlds are taking on a bigger role in their lives.

    When I was young (and to be honest, not much has changed), I ferociously guarded my free time. Part of this was my introverted nature. I recharge my batteries in quiet still spaces. I remember several years ago feeling my own anxiety ramp up, and figured that I needed more downtime, as I must depleting my energy reserves. My solution was to lock down my weekends and evenings. This didn’t help. In fact, it made things worse, and I was at a loss to figure out ‘what my problem was’.

    I started reading ‘The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook’ by Edmund J Bourne and came across a ‘Life Events Survey’ that shed a whole new light onto why I might be feeling so overwhelmed for no apparent reason. Upon completing the test I was shocked at how high my stress score was–especially given that I was taking time for myself, and my life was in a really good place.

    What I hadn’t realized until that survey, was that the common link with stressors is change. Humans tend to psychologically hang onto changes for a good two years. Changes are not all bad either (changing to a job you love, a great new relationship, moving to a dream location, having a baby), but we have a finite capacity for change. Once we pass a certain point, no matter how good the changes are, we are likely to start exhibiting symptoms of stress and anxiety.

    It is important to note that some changes also come with a bundle of other changes attached; If parents are going through a divorce, it may also include a change in living situation, a change in school, which would include a change in all daily routines and friendship circles. That change can change everything.

    Some common symptoms include

    • Difficulty sleeping
    • Digestive issues
    • Headaches
    • General aches and pains
    • Avoidance/withdrawal
    • Difficulty focusing
    • Moodiness

    This realization changed a lot about how I view stress. Often when we feel overwhelmed, especially when we aren’t sure why we feel that way, there is the tendency to beat up on ourselves (and I’ll get into negative self talk later). Taking a moment to think about the changes we have undergone in the last two years can help to reframe our view and reduce the self blame.

    Below is a middle school adapted version of that test, thanks to my colleague.

    Life Events Survey

    Life EventAverage Stress ScoreLife EventAverage Stress Score
    Death of a parent100Family conflicts29
    Divorce (parent/close family)73Outstanding achievement or award26
    Marital Separation (parent/close family)65Change in living conditions25
    Jail term in immediate family63Revision of personal habits24
    Death of a close family member65Trouble with teacher23
    Personal injury or illness53Change in routines at school20
    Marriage in immediate family50Change in residence20
    Failing an assignment or test47Change in school20
    Marital problem in immediate family45Change in recreation19
    Retirement in immediate family45Change in church activities19
    Change in health of a family member44Change in social activities18
    Pregnancy in immediate family40Paying off a big purchase17
    Breakup39Change in sleeping habits16
    Gain of a new family member39Change in number of family get togethers15
    Change to a new school39Change in eating habits15
    Change in finances in household37Parent stops work26
    Fighting more with parents31Vacation13
    Move from middle school to high school36Celebration12
    Sibling leaving home29Minor violations of the law (e.g. shoplifting)11

    Determine which life events have occurred in your life over the past two years and add up your total stress score.

    Between 150 – 300You may be suffering from chronic stress
    Over 300You may be experiencing some detrimental effects of cumulative stress

    Please note that the stress scores are averaged over many people. The degree to which any particular event is stressful to you will depend on how you perceive it.

    What Can You Do?

    • Take stock (and have the kids take stock) of changes kids have gone through in the past two years
    • Remind kids that feeling overwhelmed isn’t a sign of mental or emotional weakness; it is a natural reaction to life changes
    • Make a list of events/aspects of their lives they can and can’t control
    • Make a list of ‘change reducers’ (limiting new activities, creating some routines they can self manage)