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Managing emotional behavior for children

Social work professor tells how providing comfort and structure are key

It’s natural for anyone to become anxious or scared about entering a new environment. As children cope with their anxieties, parents can help by building routines to follow. 

Cheri Shapiro, a research professor in the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work, offers tips for parents to model helpful and calming behaviors. 

In this second installment of “Strategies for Parents,” Shapiro talks about how parents can keep emotions from overheating.

Strategies for Parents, Part I: Teaching problem solving to children

What signs can a parent look for that children aren’t handling school well mentally?

Shapiro: One of the unfortunate lingering effects of the pandemic is we did see increases in anxiety and depression among youth.

Anxiety disorders are the highest prevalent rate disorder for children, youth and adolescents. That got exacerbated through the pandemic. 

Importantly, how the parents are feeling and doing is the biggest contributor to how our children are feeling. 

Headshot of College of Social Work professor Cheri Shapiro

When a parent has a check-in with a child, what are signs to pay attention for in your young child or adolescent? What things can parents do to help our children navigate through this effectively?

Shapiro: As children are approaching school, are they getting quiet? Are they withdrawing? Are they talking about being anxious or nervous? At the start of the school year, everyone has stomach butterflies. Lots of people get this, this is normal. 

The routines we establish at home provide structure and comfort and support because the child knows what to expect. If they're feeling anxious and upset, talk with the child about things that you can do — and that they can do — that help themselves feel better. 

What are the things that help that child feel better? It can be sitting down having some time to read a book, listening to music, hanging out with a really good friend. 

How do I help my child keep emotions in check?

Shapiro: One of the things that we know is when children are becoming more anxious and more emotional, as the temperature goes up on the level of emotionality, it's important to hold right there and for parents to remain calm. 

Children who are anxious and upset do poorly with a parent who is anxious and upset. 

My first advice is to step back and just take three deep breaths and remain as calm as you can. You'll actually be modeling what it looks like to be calm in the face of something that could make you nervous. 

Sometimes you might need to coach your child to take a couple of deep breaths. So that's just breathing in through your nose to a count of three. Hold it and let the thing out slow to the count of three. If you can do that two or three times in a row, that can short-circuit a spiral where children may become more anxious and more emotional. We want to catch it early to help get them calm. 

What other things can parents do with their youth when things are making them feel nervous, worried or upset? 

Shapiro: We all have thoughts. We can put them into buckets of being helpful and unhelpful. The unhelpful thoughts are things like, “I can't do this,” “They're going to think I'm a fool,” “Nobody's going to like me,” “I'm going to be all alone, I'm going to be living forever alone.” Those kinds of thoughts serve to elevate your emotions. Your heart rate goes up, your respiration rate goes up, and you start feeling anxious or sad, or scared or depressed. Those unhelpful thoughts can increase that spiral. 

If we want to think the opposite of that, what are helpful thoughts that your child could tell themselves as they're approaching the situation? Both when they're in the situation and when the situation is over. They can walk in having optimistic thoughts. “Today's going to be a good day, it's a fresh day.” 

If they're in a situation that's making them worried, a helpful thought might be, “I can do this. I've been there before, I can do it again.” And if they make it through something that had worried them, like doing a presentation in the classroom, taking a minute to say, “I did it” can have them feeling proud about that. 

Those helpful things that we say in our heads can actually change how we feel, which changes what we do. So it's really important for parents to tune in to what are the helpful or unhelpful messages a child might be telling themselves and coaching them to be a little more helpful in nature. 

Sometimes people even write down a positive thought on a little card. And they put it in their pocket just to have something tangible in the face of that worry. 

What should parents keep in mind when weighing if these strategies are working?

Shapiro: We're driving toward probably the most important skill that a child can learn, and it’s the self-regulation of their emotions, their activities and their behavior. 

As parents model, support and reinforce the things they'd like to see, that can help establish these self-regulatory skills in children. Teaching them steps of problem solving, teaching them how to use a coping statement. You’re building an emotional toolbox that children can use through life.

Cheri Shapiro is the director of USC’s Institute for Families in Society. A licensed psychologist, her research focuses on prevention of social, emotional and behavioral problems in youth and implementation of evidence-based interventions in community settings.

She is overseeing the new project, “Building Bridges Between Families and Schools,” a university-community collaboration where elementary school students in South Carolina’s Lexington School District 1 will benefit from school counselors, social workers and parenting support staff being trained to become a built-in workforce that aids families. It is a continuation of “Raising Adolescents to be Tomorrow’s Leaders,” which trains counselors and social workers in middle and high school settings to support parents of adolescents.