December can be a month of heightened emotions and stress. This is as true for us as educators as it is for the young people in our care. Sometimes these feelings are joyous, cheerful, and upbeat—feelings the media promotes with images of happy families coming together for the holidays, sharing festive meals, gifts, and good times. There is excitement mixed in for some of our students, and that can sometimes bubble over.
But we all know that the holidays can also bring up feelings of anxiety, grief, and loneliness. Many families are worried about finances, about keeping a roof over their head and food on the table, let alone partaking in the holiday shopping frenzy. These feelings can create stress that young people pick up on and absorb. Young people may even feel a sense of responsibility and worry about the family finances themselves.
Spending additional time with erratic or dysfunctional families over the holidays can also be stress- inducing. And for those whose family members are absent, or no longer with us, loneliness and depression may set in. It doesn’t help that these upsetting emotions are coming at a time when people are expected to be festive and jolly.
For all these reasons and more, we and our students may be more easily triggered during this period. When that happens, the “fight, flight or freeze” stress response kicks in and we risk “flipping our lids.”
Here are some simple steps you and your students can take to cope with these heightened emotions:
- Step 1: Make sure you yourself are calm before you help your students. Use techniques that have worked for you in the past, like deep breathing, self-talk, or acknowledging how you are feeling in the moment, e.g. “I feel annoyed” or “I feel worried” or “I feel upset.” You can say it inside your head, or quietly under your breath. And if you want it to be a teachable moment, you can say it out loud, modeling for your students how self-talk helps you calm down. Note how saying “I feel annoyed” is different from saying “I am annoyed.” By recognizing this as a feeling, not as a quality that is part of our identity, we acknowledge that the feeling is temporary and that we can move beyond it.
- Step 2: Connect with the young person who is being triggered. Meet them at their level, literally, without crowding their space. This might mean crouching down to be face to face with them. Try to connect by calmly and quietly using their name, and perhaps putting your hand on their shoulder or arm. This can help the student’s system stabilize because they no longer feel alone.
- Step 3: Next, recognize the feeling that the student seems to have, and name it, e.g. “You look like you’re feeling frustrated” or “It sounds like you are feeling angry” (or “sad” or “nervous”). Whatever the feeling may be, “name it to tame it.”
As neuropsychologist Dan Siegel explains, naming our feelings – or having a supportive person name them for us – sends soothing neurotransmitters to the lower, more primal part of the brain that is designed to trigger our stress response. Calming down this more agitated part of the brain allows us instead to have access to the more recently developed upper parts of the brain that are involved in processing and synthesizing complex information. It is this part of the brain that supports our amazing capacity to learn, focus, make good decisions, moderate our social behavior, and even feel empathy. It can also help us think pro-actively about the holidays; what we might do and who we might reach out to when the going gets tough.