I had the honor recently of contributing to the blog of an inspiring company, Slumberkins, co-founded by a therapist colleague whom I met in graduate school and worked alongside in school-based mental health for a number of years. Her dream was to create a cuddly creature that supports children in building a variety of skills — from conflict resolution to coping with change to mindfulness. Each has an accompanying story book that can be explored with parents or caregivers to foster positive attachments. I have greatly enjoyed creating a bedtime routine with my daughter that integrates special connections with her supportive “Friends”, and love how these creatures allow children to externalize their feelings to better make sense of them, as well as use to represent special people in their lives when they are not present. Find the original post here about a Slumberkins creature focused on stress relief through expressing feelings aloud, or read on below!
A few years back when I was working as a school-based mental health therapist at a PreK-8 school, I received a welcomed gift from a young client of mine, Dario*. Small enough to fit in the palm of my hand, the token from Dario’s home country filled my heart with gladness: itty-bitty worry dolls, complete with a colorfully painted box to rest in. He explained in Spanish that they are used by children as a tool to help with tough feelings that arise. The belief is that by whispering a fear, doubt, worry or sorrow into the box and placing it under your pillow before going to sleep, your emotions will be softened by morning.
Dario had brought his worry dolls with him as he journeyed north into the United States. They’d comforted him in the detention center, reminding him of home as well as providing a safe outlet for emotional expression while far from his family. He told me that when he felt lonely, he could reach into his pocket and touch a small doll, remembering fondly how he and his grandmother would make them to sell in the market. Within these tiny inanimate objects lay a connection to dear memories of home, identity and family. They also represented people important in Dario’s life that were no longer present, and he imagined conversations with his loving grandmother as he whispered to them each night.
These tiny-but-powerful dolls invite children to speak their feelings aloud, a process that Dr. Dan Siegel calls “naming to tame”. In putting feelings into words and naming our emotional experience, we are able to connect the right and left hemispheres of the brain, sending calming hormone signals to our minds and bodies. Ways to do this include:
- Noticing and acknowledging the feelings of our children — “You seem frustrated. Breathe with me. You are safe.”
- Exploring our physical responses to emotions — “Where in your body does your scared live? How do you know when it’s there? What do you notice?”
- Modeling by using “I statements” to directly name our feelings — “I feel frustrated when you throw your hard toys.”
In Spanish, worry dolls are called Muñeca Quitapena, literally meaning “doll who takes away pain.” When I first learned this, I noticed an instinctive thought arise: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my daughter never had to experience emotional distress and I could just take it away, poof, abracadabra? One of the hardest things by far about being a parent is seeing our children in pain and we could instantly ease it. Seeing them sad, hurt, or at the will of an overpowering feeling like anger or anxiety triggers great discomfort in most parents and causes us to spring into action and employ our favorite “fix it” response.
The truth is, we humans are feeling machines. It’s not realistic to protect our children from emotional pain, or take it away for them. In fact, our attempts to do so may be sending a message that whatever feeling they are experiencing in that moment needs to shift, doesn’t belong or is just plain “wrong”. Maybe we minimize, distract, dismiss, rescue, or punish with the hope that the emotional upset will be short-lived. We may celebrate and encourage positive emotions, while suppressing negative expression of emotions or viewing it as a problem to be solved.
The worry doll’s real gift, much like Slumberkins’ Alpaca and its associated story book, is opening an opportunity for children to express what is on their minds, without the fear that they will be met with discomfort, punishment or rescuing. Children are incredibly skilled self-healers, which means they often release emotions spontaneously and authentically when given the opportunity (even during less-than-opportune moments, like in a quiet library because another child grabbed a desired book first).
The goal in these moments is to welcome all feelings by acting as a safe container for our children. They need us to help carry the load of their strong feelings through the act of co-regulation, an essential ingredient on the road to developing self-regulation skills as a their brains mature. By acting as a safe, consistent and calm base when our children are upset, we send the message:
- You are not alone
- You are safe
- I can handle your emotional expression
- We will get through this together
- Every one of your feelings is perfect just the way it is
- I’ve been there. These feelings are an opportunity for learning and growth
This doesn’t mean condoning the challenging behaviors that sometime accompany big feelings, but rather, remaining calm and acknowledging the feeling behind the behavior while holding our clear limit. “You are angry, but you still cannot hit.”
Over time, the act of co-regulating our children by using our own self-regulation skills to stay present with them from a place of non-reactivity will become internalized. We want to be the faces our children imagine when we are not nearby to support them in the moment. A special object like the Alpaca Snuggler can represent a child’s loved one, just as the worry dolls reminded Dario of his grandmother, and trigger memories of positive experiences in which they felt seen, heard, and accepted when distressed. The Alpaca board book is the perfect way to introduce this skill to your children, guiding them through sharing their emotions with the Snuggler. Slowly as they grow, children will build an internal community of trusting adults that have helped to hold their emotional ups and downs and proven that they will, in fact, get through them.
*Name changed to protect identity.