The “Feelings Toolkit”

Posted by on Jun 27, 2011 in Blog, Ideas in practice | 0 comments

The “Feelings Toolkit”

Today’s post is from a guest blogger who writes for Last Mom, a blog about the daily rewards and challenges of older-child adoption. I thought this post was particularly relevant to the discussion on multiple intelligences as it offers a brilliant wonderful example of how we can help empower our children by teaching them to develop their interpersonal intelligence

Our daughter came to us at nine-years old.

She was abused and neglected in her first four years.

She lived in extreme poverty (including homelessness) and witnessed drug, alcohol and domestic abuse.

Her mother abandoned the family when she was 18 months old. Her father dropped her and her five siblings off at a children’s shelter when she was four, never to return for them. She then bounced around foster care for the next five years. She had two adoptions fail prior to finalization and many foster homes. She had about a dozen sets of parental figures before us.

We read her entire file before committing to becoming her parents and saw that she was a little girl in such pain with no one to help her through it. We were confident that we could give her the love, support, understanding and guidance needed to start sorting through her turmoil.

It turns out that we were right.

She’s been home for fourteen months now (with the adoption finalized for eight months). She’s made huge progress.

In the beginning, she would only acknowledge two emotions: happy and mad. Either everything was great and she was sweet, loving, joyful and oh, so desperate to please or she was ANGRY.

She would scream for an hour at a time.

She couldn’t give any reason for her big feelings other than “You made me mad!”

She didn’t want to talk about her feelings or her past. She tantrummed at the slightest correction or gentlest “no.”

I have a background in early childhood education and have worked with at risk preschoolers for years. I teach preschool teachers to use Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline methods in classrooms. I made copies of some of those materials and brought them home for my daughter. I stuck a feelings chart in a clear sleeve and put some relaxation exercises together in a little booklet.

I taught her “the balloon” when she was calm.

This is a breathing exercise where you put your arms over your head and take a deep breath in while inflating your arms like a balloon. Then you blow the air out (quickly and loudly at our house!) to deflate your balloon.

I started telling her, “You are safe. You are loved. You can handle this.” I repeated this mantra as she screamed and cried.  As I started to recognize the signs of a meltdown, I would say it softly and have her repeat me. I would remind her to do a balloon if I saw her getting agitated.

I realized that she didn’t understand other feelings. She was trying so hard to put on a happy front and when that failed, “mad” was her default.

It’s all she knew.

I explained to her that mad is a big and loud feeling, so it’s easy for other feelings to hide behind. I started talking about other feelings and asking if they might be hiding behind her mad.

I made her a “Feelings Toolkit.”

The “Feelings Toolkit”

I gathered up lots of items we had around the house, picked up a few cheap things from the store and taped some handwritten labels on a couple things.

I put it all in a plastic storage box and wrote, “(Her Name)’s Feelings Toolkit” on it.

We talked about each item in the box.

Items for relaxation and connection:

  • An album filled with photos of her with us and some of her biological siblings to remember happier times and that she is not alone
  • The booklet of breathing exercises, including The Balloon
  • A printed reminder of “You are safe, loved and can handle this”
  • Instructions for how to be a S.T.A.R.  (Stop, take a deep breath and relax)
  • An eraser to “erase” her anger
  • A book of little notes and a pen to write to people she’s thinking of
  • Texas and Florida quarters to represent where she came from and where she is now
  • A token from a go-kart place she loves going to with her Dad
  • A broken cell phone to pretend to call someone to talk
  • Calming Cream Lotion (just regular face cream that I stuck a label on)

Sensory Items of Different Textures for Soothing and Distraction:

  • A baby blanket square
  • Little stuffed dog
  • A variety of handheld puzzles /games
  • A mini kaleidoscope
  • Some squishy balls
  • Silly putty
  • A brush  (to use on her skin or hair) with a mirror attached
  • A little rubber duckie
  • A very scented Strawberry Shortcake figure
  • A charm that flashes
  • A little “I spy” pouch with a clear cover and filled with tiny items hidden in white beads to find.  (Sort of like this)

Items for Feelings Work:

  • The feelings chart
  • American Girl “The Feelings Book:  The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions”
  • A notebook and pens for journaling
  • A book called “Twenty-two Feelings from Nice to Nasty”
  • A book of questions
  • A little box that I stuck a label on that says, “Safe Box:  For Keeping Feelings You Aren’t Ready to Share Yet”.
  • An envelope with slips of paper inside that say, “Today I feel…”

My husband will tell you that the feelings box was an epic fail because she only brought it out a handful of times.

We continued talking about how to recognize the different feelings that hide behind mad and ways to calm down when upset.

Slowly, she started opening up about what was really bothering her more and more.

Fear hides behind mad a lot. So does sadness, loss and grief. Shame loves hiding behind mad.

I still tell her she’s safe, loved, and can handle this; whatever “this” is at the moment. I’ve heard her telling it to her stuffed animals and our pets. She taught her best friend to do the balloon.

She had a big melt down about a month ago.

It was a doozy that went on and on in waves of screaming, crying, disrespect and defiance. Lots of big feelings hiding behind a giant wall of mad. She packed her laundry hamper full of stuff and said she was running away. She sat in the driveway of the vacant house next door.

She finally calmed down and we got to the bottom of what triggered it and the real feelings attached.

As I unpacked her hamper, I was amazed at what I found in there: her weighted blanket (“feel our love holding you and keeping you safe”), a photo album (to remember happier times), lavender body lotion (to relax and soothe) and a notebook and pen (for writing down thoughts and feelings).

Her words and actions certainly weren’t saying it, but she was trying to calm herself down.

She didn’t want to be in that state.

She remembered her tools on her own and just needed time to put them to use.

She didn’t write anything in the notebook that day, but as I took photos of the items in the toolkit for this post tonight, I found something she wrote on one of the “Today I feel…” slips of paper.  It was dated September 26 (five months after coming home) and said, “Happy, safe, cared for, loved”.

She still has meltdowns, but they are becoming less frequent.

She doesn’t always choose to use her tools or acknowledge her real feelings right away.  She can almost always talk about it after a meltdown now, though.

She told me that she’s proud of me because I help her talk about her feelings.

We still have a lot of healing ahead of us, but she’s made such huge progress.

We have so much hope for her future.

And we’re so very proud she’s our daughter!


About the Author: Last Mom lives in Florida with her husband and “tween” daughter whom they adopted at nine years-old. Her blog is full of wonderful insights on adoption in general and coping with troubled teens and I encourage you to visit her site.

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