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4 Arts Activities To Do When Your Kids Are Feeling Big Emotions

Cute Portrait Of smiling Child (3-4)
Giving kids the tools to talk about their mental health early on can be helpful in identifying more complicated feelings when they're older.
Explore mental health and creative ways to talk about and express feelings, depression and anxiety with your little ones. And keep our list of resources and organizations in East L.A. that support your family and child's well-being handy.
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This story is part of a series of stories and education resources featuring East L.A. and its surrounding neighborhoods and communities.

Este artículo está disponible en español.

The pandemic has been difficult for many of us. The uncertainty surrounding our jobs, health and future has us feeling stressed and uneasy. Understanding our own mental health needs is challenging as it is, but how do we understand and help the children in our lives with their own emotional wellbeing? For children who are experiencing a shift in their daily lives and schooling, it may be difficult to communicate the isolation, fear and worry they are experiencing as well. Here are three terms to know when talking about your and your child’s mental health, and some art-based activities to help them communicate what support they need.

Feelings

The concept “feelings” may seem easy to understand. We can identify when we feel happy or sad, and for the most part, so can the children in our lives. However, as our understanding of the world around us changes, we grow to realize that a feeling like “happy” can have several layers such as excitement, satisfaction or playfulness. As children, we begin to feel these various layers of feelings before we have the words to describe them or the understanding of how to react to them. For example, when was the last time the child in your life began crying because you handed them a different colored popsicle than the one they asked for? On the surface we may look at these outbursts as simply kids being angry. But let’s place ourselves in their situation within our daily lives and think about, say, the time you were excited to visit a restaurant only to find that it was closed, and you were forced to choose a different one. As adults, we recognize that immediate feeling as disappointment, and our mind can quickly help us determine what the appropriate response should be. But this mental process is still developing in children, and with so many changes happening in the world, it can become even more difficult for children to identify what they’re feeling.

There has definitely been an uptick in anxiety with children, especially because there's a lot of fear of not knowing what's going to happen (with COVID-19).
Dr. Toni Guajardo-Gonzalez

Feelings Wheel
This craft can help the child in your life communicate how they’re feeling and help you understand how to support them. Try making one!

  • To make a feelings wheel using crayons and a paper plate, start with four easy-to-understand emotions: sad, happy, mad and scared.
  • Divide the paper plate into four sections, one for each emotion.
  • Ask your child to pick a color that represents each emotion and to draw a face or symbol that reminds them of that emotion. For example, your child might pick yellow for happy, and draw a sun in that section. Let your child have the freedom to make their own decisions as to what they draw — this might also give you insight into how they feel about certain things in their environment.
  • Add more complex emotions by helping them define the emotion and then asking them to sort the emotions into the four sections by writing the name of the emotion or drawing another symbol. For example, you can ask “Do you know what it means to feel embarrassed? Can you remember a time where you felt embarrassed? Where would you put it on the wheel?”
  • You can fill in the wheel all at once, or turn it into a weeklong activity by working on one emotion each day. The wheel can then be used to help your child identify the emotions they’re feeling when they are not able to express them otherwise.

Depression

We often associate depression with adults or teens feeling sad, and the term is applied to a temporary sense of feeling blue, like when people say things like “I didn’t get the job, I’m so depressed.” In children, we may mistake their depression with them feeling sad or behaving in a defiant or lazy way, so it can be difficult to see when kids are depressed.

“With the pandemic, what we're seeing is a lot of sadness, withdrawal from activities that they once enjoyed doing. Children who are going through (the pandemic) are losing grandparents, losing parents, it's very hard for them,” said Toni Guajardo-Gonzalez, a clinical psychologist based in Pasadena. “It's been difficult because having children not attend schools, they’re not socializing with other children or teachers. And if their parents are working parents, it’s difficult to see what's happening with their children — some of the signs are missed.”

While adults and teens may be able to verbally identify and express that they are experiencing depression, children often show it in their actions and moods. “With children experiencing depression, nothing seems to bring them joy. With a child who is being lazy or defiant, there’s something that brings them joy,” Guajardo-Gonzalez said.

While a general sense of sadness can be a main indicator, depression in kids may show up as having difficulty sleeping, having nightmares, acting out or sometimes even becoming violent. If you suspect your child is experiencing depression, it’s important to seek appropriate supportive counseling services, which can be found through the child’s school or medical providers. You can also support your child at home by spending time with them and engaging in activities that can help them express what they need, such as a joy list or collage activity.

Joy List
A joy list or collage can help you get to know what brings joy to your child.

  • To start, ask your child to help you make a list of the activities or things that they enjoy. You can write down each thing or use stickers or drawings to illustrate each item on the list.
  • You can also create a collage of the things that bring them joy together using clippings from old magazines and newspapers or small objects that remind them of the activity, like flowers, beads or even old movie tickets.
  • Create one for yourself alongside your child so that you can talk about what brings both of you joy. You can then use your lists or collages to choose an activity to do together.

Anxiety

Like depression, anxiety is often misunderstood. Everyone, at one point in their lives, has felt anxious about something, be it interviewing for a job, taking a test or meeting someone new. Soon after that experience is over, our feelings of anxiety subside. However, for people with recurring anxiety, those feelings are often constant and don’t go away easily.

“There has definitely been an uptick in anxiety with children, especially because there's a lot of fear of not knowing what's going to happen (with COVID-19)” Guajardo-Gonzalez said.

Individuals with anxiety often experience a constant feeling of uneasiness, fear or dread about what might happen in the future. In children, this can look like restlessness or being constantly “uncomfortable,” as well as having difficulty sleeping, falling asleep or staying asleep. Children who are experiencing profound anxiety may also have panic attacks which can look like difficulty breathing, chest pains and feelings of extreme fear. These instances are frightening for both children and adults alike.

For children who are experiencing a shift in their daily lives and schooling, it may be difficult to communicate the isolation, fear and worry they are experiencing...

To support a child in our home who is experiencing anxiety, it’s important for us to also tap into our own feelings and think about how we are dealing with our own stress and worries. Guajardo-Gonzalez said that how a child copes with the world around them can also “depend on how the parent is coping. If the parent is anxious, (very likely) the child will be too.”

If your child is experiencing chronic anxiety, it’s important to get them professional support. But if you can't or you’re in the process of figuring that out, you can help your child — and yourself — get in touch with what makes you both anxious with these activities.

5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
To help calm a child experiencing immediate anxiety, try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique, which is designed to be done together.

  • To start, name five things you see around you.
  • Then, name and touch four things around you.
  • Name three things you can hear.
  • Next, name two things you can smell.
  • Lastly, name (and, if possible, eat or drink) one thing you can taste.
  • You can turn this grounding technique into an active activity by allowing your child to use your cellphone to take photos of each thing they identify.

Safety Boxes
For a child who is experiencing constant worry or anxiety, create safety boxes to help them acknowledge the things they are worried about. This can also help put them at ease for a bit.

  • First, cut a small hole in a small box (like a shoe box or cereal box).
  • Help your child decorate the box with things they enjoy, colors that make them feel happy or small items that remind them of things that make them feel safe, like a button from your shirt or a photo of their favorite place.
  • Place the box where your child can access it easily.
  • Then, sit down with your child and help them write out the things that they are worried about or make them feel afraid on small slips of paper. While you are thinking about what to write on the slips of paper, you can also take note of the things you’re able to support your child with. For example, they may say they’re worried about a test and you can help put that worry at ease by helping them study.
  • Once you’ve created your slips of paper, place them inside the safety box together.

When the children in our lives catch a cold, or a fever, we know that they’ll need medicine to help them get better and be physically healthy. Their mental and emotional well-being is no different. If you feel your child is experiencing signs of depression, anxiety or any other emotional challenges, it’s important to talk to them and ask them questions about how they’re feeling and how you can help. Sometimes it can be as simple as a big hug and words of encouragement, but other times they will need the help of a professional who can work with them, and with you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the resources and people in your community who can help.

Resources to Support Your Family and Child’s Well-Being

  • Alma Family Services is a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that provides multiple services to families, including mental health support and youth support. Services are also provided in Spanish.
  • Bienestar is a nonprofit organization specializing in supporting Latino and LGBTQ residents in Los Angeles. Bienestar also provides mental health and other medical services.
  • Boyle Heights Resources website is a directory of resources located in and around Boyle Heights and provides helpful articles and information to support the well-being of families.

Resources to Explore the Arts

  • Free Arts provides free arts programming to organizations across Los Angeles. Find partner organizations in your area on its website.
  • Budding Artists provides free arts programming to children aged 3 to 5.
  • Los Angeles Public Library also hosts several free arts-based workshops throughout Los Angeles. Find a calendar of upcoming events on its website.
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