From an early age, children understand the concept of a ‘toolbox’ and that it contains a variety of tools that are there to repair a machine or help fix a household problem. The idea of an ‘Emotional Toolbox’ (developed by Tony Attwood, PhD) is to develop different types of ‘tools’ that will help with the struggles associated with negative emotions (for example: anxiety, anger, depression, etc). Over the many years working as a child psychologist, I have found it to be extremely helpful for just about anyone (not just young children) struggling with managing their emotions…
The initial idea of the Emotional Toolbox was linked to successful strategies in the treatment of anxiety and anger in children with Asperger’s syndrome (Sofronoff et al 2005/2007). Like any household toolbox, the tools are divided into different categories : physical, relaxation, thinking, social, special and inappropriate tools. Each category has tools that quickly and effectively reduce emotional energy, and promote thinking.
As a therapist, I work with children/adults and their family, to develop personalized tools that can help manage their negative emotions, as well as look at some ‘inappropriate’ tools that, for them, possibly makes the emotions worse.
Today, I would like to share with you the basic template of developing an emotional toolbox together with your child. (*PLEASE NOTE: This is just a template to help you get started at home and not equivalent to a therapeutic session. Any ongoing concerns you may have for your child should be followed up through professional psychological intervention)
With your child, set some time aside where you can uninterruptedly brainstorm and work together on creating their own set of tools and activities that can help them manage their negative emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Below you can find the different categories and a brief explanation, as well as a sample template, to get you started…
This category represents tools or actions that release emotional energy through a physical activity. Choose a ‘logo’ that symbolized physical activity for them (for example, sneakers, a soccer ball, etc). Then, with your child, discuss which physical actions could help them ‘release’ their excess energy at the time and when this tool could be best implemented (remember, playing soccer might be a very helpful tool to calm them down, but will not be useful at night just before bedtime).
Just as it sounds, relaxation tools are there to help them calm their body and mind through mediation-related actions. This can include reading a book, taking some time-out and listening to music, and the most effective form of relaxation…breathing techniques. Breathing techniques can be practiced together for your child to understand how they work and the benefits as they feel their heart rate slow down and their body relax. Again, choose a logo that will help them identify with this type of tool (for example, a flower, the sun, a book, etc)
Social tools include the involvement of your child’s support network. That can be their immediate family, school staff, friends etc. The social tool requires them to enlist someone from their support network to help them manage a stressor, this can include asking mom for a hug, talking to their teacher about a problem at school, or asking a friend to play or sit with them. A logo I found useful is the outline of their hand (where each finger signifies a person in their support network).
Thinking tools focus on helping them understand and rationalize their behavior when dealing with negative emotions. Have them write down what is happening at the time, using three columns: 1. What am I feeling 2. What was I doing before I started feeling this way 3. Which tool can I use to help me work through this feeling until I feel better? Some children respond well to having their very own notebook (which can be decorated as they see fit) to help them take notes and track their progress.
Some children might have a special interest that takes up a lot of their time, or a special toy (for younger children). This can be placed in any of the above categories, however, some children like to have an ‘extra’ tool for the things they hold ‘extra’ dear.
It is also important to identify the tools they use that have proven to be unsuccessful and aggravate the situation (for example, hitting someone, breaking property, hurting themselves etc). Once you have, together, established these tools, write them down in their toolbox and draw a big red line through them. This helps your child understand that these tools are not helpful and puts focus on the other, more useful, tools around that they have created for themselves.
- Help your child understand that they have developed a variety of tools to deal with different situation and locations, and it is up to them to choose a tool that works best at the time.
- Mastering their toolbox effectively will take time and practice. Just like learning any new skill, the more they practice and evaluate their progress (with your help), the easier managing their emotions will become overtime…but this does not happen overnight !!
- Allow room for error.. just like adults, they are bound to slip up once in a while. Take the opportunity to reflect and evaluate and look at how it could be done better next time ..
- Managing negative emotions does not mean suppressing negative emotions. Your child needs to know they are absolutely allowed to feel these feelings and find helpful ways to work through them rather than ignore them and act out.
- Sometimes, some tools might need some tweaking or new tools are developed as their needs and interests change and grow constantly.
I hope this template helps you get started….. Once you have created the Emotional Toolbox (this can be a piece of paper, an index card etc) it is useful to display it somewhere your child can easily access it (for example, the fridge door). Whenever they feel overwhelmed, help draw their attention to the toolbox and together discuss which tool would work best for them at the time… (depending on your child’s emotional management outside the home, sometimes having a replica of their toolbox at school/nanny/etc can help them practice further).
As mentioned earlier, any significant, ongoing concerns you may have are always best followed up through professional intervention..