The Importance of Acknowledging How You Feel

Mental health and the social and emotional needs of public school staff and students have been  recurring topics as Texas continues its fight against COVID-19. ATPE has previously covered mental health in prior articles, including in the Spring 2021 issue of ATPE News

Recently, we spoke with Jacqueline Herrera at Clarity Child Guidance Center about her article “How Can Families Still Find Hope and Strength 8 Months into the Pandemic” and the ways adults in children’s lives can support and take care of one another—and how that will positively benefit students. 

In your November article, you talk about how our minds and bodies cannot sustain this state of “high alert” for such a long period of time. Can you talk about what parents and educators can do for themselves and their children during this time?
I think it’s important to note that children really will pick up a lot from their environment and from their caregivers and the adults around them. That’s why it’s so important for adults to be able to regulate ourselves, to self-care, to really invest in ourselves, and to be able to be the best for the children around us. When you are going to go on a flight, the first thing they say is, “You have to put your oxygen mask on first before you put the mask on your child.” I think that is such a great analogy for anyone who works with kids. There’s a model that I really like called ARC—Attachment, Regulation, and Competency—and it’s a framework for helping children and adolescents who have experienced trauma and complex trauma. One of [the framework’s] emphasis is on the caregiver. They call it the caregiver’s toolbox. People have different ways of having self-care, but what I wrote in the article was a little bit more of self-reflection. For some people, that could be journaling or making time to talk to a partner or close friend, someone who can remind you of what’s important and things of value. Hope is contagious, so [it’s important to be] able to remind yourself of what it is that matters and [ask], “What internal resources do I have to keep me going?” and, “What is that gives me meaning?” A lot of parents will say their children [give them meaning], and educators treat their students like their children, and so it’s kind of going back to, “What helped me develop that? Who were the people around me, and how can I be that person that I was able to look up to for the kids around me?” Remind yourself of things that matter and give yourself permission to feel. It’s not like you have to be superwoman or superman at all times. It’s giving yourself space to feel and cry. 

Can you briefly define “regulate” for us?
It’s first being aware of what’s going on with your own internal emotional experience and calming yourself down. Sometimes you’ll notice it physiologically. Your heart rate might start increasing, you might start getting sweaty, or you’re not feeling OK, and then you realize: “I’m really anxious about XYZ. I’m really worried, or my stomach is tight.” Then doing things to bring your body back to a calm state, and this is where mindfulness and meditation are helpful in increasing your awareness of your state of being. You do a lot of deep-breathing exercises in this because you start recognizing, “This is what it feels like to be calm, and this should be my baseline.” When you’re away from that, that’s where you’re dysregulated. The more you’re aware of your body and your emotions, the more you can easily regulate and kind of bring it back. Kids’ resilience is built by seeing those around them and how they handle stressful situations, and so by being able to regulate oneself, you’re modeling that for the child and helping them learn to self-regulate and realize, “This is OK; Mom’s OK,” or “Teacher’s OK; we can do this.” 

In the article, you talk about open-ended questions parents can use to connect with their children. Could you provide some advice about how a parent could begin an exercise like this with their family?
Let’s say a family likes to go on walks. I think that would be a great way to integrate these questions for a couple of reasons. Walking is an exercise, so that’s already releasing some endorphins that make you feel better and probably make you more open to have a conversation. There’s something about walking side by side that some people find less threatening. You’re able to share without someone sitting directly across from you. Or, if your family isn’t used to having these types of conversations and now, you’re going to have a family meeting, it might feel more intimidating. I think integrating questions into activities that the family already does might be the best way to introduce them, whether that’s long walks or over dinner. Maybe add one or two of these questions, like, “What made you feel brave today at school?” I’m really big on small changes. I think when we try to do something all at once it doesn’t really stick, and then the outcome might scare us. Integrating some of these questions into what is already going on at home will increase the likelihood of a positive response and the child feeling safe. You are introducing something new, and I think for vulnerability and to get the richness of these answers, everyone has to feel safe while sharing. 

What would you say to educators trying to put on a brave face for their students?
I think it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling. I can relate, to a certain extent, about the care they feel their students. There are times where I might cry on my way home because it was a really tough case. It’s important to acknowledge, “OK, I am really taking on a lot. Who can I share this with?” Perhaps it’s starting a group with teachers who can just encourage each other and share what’s been going on and how they are handling this. Aside from building relationship, you realize you’re not alone in these struggles, and you also can get great ideas from each other. You have an outlet. It’s the ultimate point of a relationship—to be able to share with others. That ties into self-care—acknowledging what’s going on in yourself and then having a way to set it down, as if it’s an imaginary backpack. “I realize that my backpack is getting really heavy, and I got to set it down.” 

Anything else you want to add?
What came to mind when I initially saw your email was this theory called “post-traumatic growth.” It’s this idea that once you experience something traumatic, some people can develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world we live in and how we relate to others. Like, “We are going through this. We can’t change that, but we can make meaning of it.” Kids especially are “meaning-making machines,” and kids need to make meaning of what’s going on in their world. For example, for a lot of kids, when their parents get divorced, the meaning they make of it is, “They’re getting divorced because of me.” Well, if you’re able to walk through what’s going on and help them understand and make meaning of what’s really happening, they’re able to have an actual understanding of the truth. Right now, we’re going through this—“What does this mean to you? What are you learning?”—and helping them develop those tools to have that resilience to bounce back. Not that post-traumatic growth and resilience are the same, but I think that part of post-traumatic growth is increasing resilience and learning from the experience that people are going through. 

Dr. Jacqueline Herrera is a postdoctoral fellow at Clarity Child Guidance Center. She completed her psychology residency at University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and received her doctorate from Azusa Pacific University. She is a California native and has worked with children, adolescents, families, and individual adults in both English and Spanish. Her research interests are in global psychology, trauma, spirituality, and consultation. While in graduate school, she was able to combine these interests and provide trauma-informed training to mental health providers in the Philippines. 

To learn more about Clarity Child Guidance Center, click here. To learn about the center’s April 9 Claritycon event, click here. Claritycon™ comprises the children’s mental health conferences sponsored by Clarity CGC throughout the year. In 2019, Claritycon reached 10,700 professionals and community members to educate and promote awareness. Claritycon attendees include child psychologists, social workers, pediatricians, educators, child care providers, school counselors, special education teachers, Child Protective Services specialists, juvenile justice workers, small counseling offices, students, and others. The event offers three socially distanced options for attendees.

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