Childrens mental health week 2021; Coping mechanisms for kids

Author and teacher Emma Cahill joined us the other day to talk us through managing stress and negative emotions in our children during this turbulent and scary time. Emma is the author of the children’s book ‘Under the Mask’, that is being used primary schools all over Ireland and the UK, to help children self-soothe and use coping mechanisms to calm down when they feel overwhelmed.

Emma has taught abroad for the last seven years, coordinating special needs provision and being a child protection deputy liaison. So, what is ‘Under the Mask’ really all about?

Under the Mask is a book about three superheroes who teach children simple coping mechanisms of how to deal with sadness, anger and worry. When I was teaching abroad, I was teaching in lots of different countries and lots of different children and the same issues kept coming up again and again. So I realised kids just needed a little bit of help in how to recognise them and how to deal with them.

I think in this day and age, children are running to parents to ask for help a lot, but when it comes to emotions, they need to have their own ways to self-soothe and learn how to deal with them.

What inspired this idea? Why were superheroes the medium you picked?

I think as a teacher I realised that that was something children of primary age were interested in and it was a way of engaging them. I think I just needed something slightly more exciting that they could relate to.

The main character, at the end of the book becomes a superhero too, so he gains the superpowers that they have, so I wanted the kids to see that they have these superpowers as well. The main idea is that being a superhero doesn’t mean you’re strong or that you don’t have any feelings, being a superhero is how you deal with your feelings in a safe way.

How do your books give children the tools they need to express their emotions?

So basically, each superhero has three superpowers and they all begin with the same letter to help children to remember them. The idea is that the superhero first explains how, for example anger feels, and in a child-friendly way and that when this happens, they can activate these superpowers.

To activate these superpowers, they use simple techniques, like conscious breathing or talking to someone to bring them back to a more comfortable state, to help them manage that big uncomfortable feeling.

You released a spin off book explaining the Covid-19 situation to children a few months ago – What do you think are the most important takeaways from that? How should we be helping our children to handle something that we as adults can barely handle?

I wrote it in May last year, because I wanted to help in some way, but I didn’t exactly know how. I reckoned if I brought out a free edition that was online, meaning anyone around the world could download it for free, it would hopefully help a few of the kids out there. I think, for small kids, nobody knew how to handle this. As adults or parents or teachers or educators or carers, nobody had a clue how to deal with this themselves never mind having to explain it to a child.

But after talking to people and doing my own research, I realised [the kids] do need to have a little bit of information about it – shielding them from it is just not going to work. They know something’s wrong; they know something’s up, and they’re just as confused as we are. So just by giving them some of the facts in a child-friendly way, keeping it positive and keeping it light and explaining that this virus is making people sick when we are in contact with each other so we need to stay home to keep each other safe.

Simple things like that can put the child’s mind at ease, as they do tend to catastrophise things, when they hear all these scary words on the news and they see horrible things on the news, they will start thinking of that happening to everyone around them. So giving them simple information, chatting to them often and letting them talk about how they are feeling is really important.

The world has never been more conscious of the mental struggles that people go through than it is now. Covid-19 has brought about conditions that leave people vulnerable not only to the virus, but to loneliness, isolation and apathy. Do you see Covid-19 changing our approach to mental health?

I definitely hope so. I think more people have been reaching out – not necessarily even talking to people but even just googling things like ‘How do I look after my mental health’ or more people tuning into webinars around mental health and I think that will help.

It’s all about education for mental health. People are learning more about it, how it manifests itself. I can see with schools even, lots of them are getting in touch with me about wellbeing now, so they’re definitely putting an emphasis on it in Ireland this year, which can only have a positive affect down the line. I do definitely worry about the fallout of mental health in general though, because it’s such a worrying time.

The theme of this year’s mental health week is expressing yourself. It’s all about finding creative ways to share your thoughts ideas and feelings and finding things that make you feel good about yourself. As someone who is big into the arts, how do you think they can help kids to express themselves?

It’s one of the superpowers for my sadness character, actually, is to create. And there is a link between creativity and sadness, emotions and everything. It’s one way of putting a positive spin on how we’re feeling, and I think with kids, I would suggest going with what they’re into. If they love drawing or art, let them go with that, don’t try to push them into music or anything else.

I’ve read this book – I’ve actually read it twice, because I love it – but it’s called Love In, Love Out, by Dr. Malie Coyne. It’s all about parenting the anxious child and being an anxious parent. She talks about the importance of asking kids who are going through something, to draw it; most children won’t have the vocabulary or the life experience to express how they’re feeling. It’s very rare a child will come up to you and tell you, ‘I’m feeling ‘this’ because of ‘that’. Even as adults, most of us can’t do that, though life would be much easier if we could.

But it is interesting when you ask a child to draw out what they’re feeling, because you will be able to pick out so many things from that. Allowing them to explore different options, whether it be art, music, or just play – play is so important for letting them see where their imagination goes and just letting them. Encourage them to do those things instead of just always offering ‘Here’s a movie, here’s a video game'. Slowly let them find their creative outlets.

Aside from your book, what would your top resources be for children, or even parents struggling at the moment?

That book that I just mentioned, (Love in, Love Out) is amazing. On her website she has a whole section there on resources that are free. They have things like short stories – I actually read one to my class the other day. She has lots of different resources, like creating a worry box. Last week I actually did a talk for ‘Parenting Today’ for Wexford Libraries, so that’s free again on the YouTube channel. There are questions from parents at the end about things that are going on in the current climate and there’s a lot of resources in that video.

Check out Emma’s website and how to buy her book here!