I got a call from my gorgeous niece, Quinten, the other day. She is four years old and starting Kindergarten (or “Big School”, as they call it in Australia) this year. With the start of the schoolyear right around the corner, she was naturally starting to feel those First Day Jitters. For years we’ve ran our Back to School Butterflies workshops, teaching tweens how to tame their butterflies, but what about our littlest friends who are just starting out? How can we help them with these big feelings they have inside.
Here are some tips that I shared with my sweet Quinny that you can try with little ones who are feeling a little nervous about something:
- Say, “You know that feeling you have inside? We call those butterflies!” It’s important your child can name their emotions and the term ‘butterflies’ is a kid-friendly way to describe feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and excitement.
- Ask, “What do your butterflies look like inside?” We don’t want children to be afraid of these normal feelings they are experiencing. Let them know their butterflies are friendly. Quinny said her butterflies are rainbow with glitter!
- Tell them about your butterflies. Children need to know that we all feel butterflies inside sometimes. Describe what your butterflies look like too and how some are big and some are small. Share a story about a time you had butterflies.
- Ask, “Where do you feel your butterflies?” Explain how butterflies swirl and twirl around inside of us, especially when we do something for the first time. Help them to recognize that sometimes we feel butterflies in our stomachs (which might give us a tummy ache!), in our throats (which makes it hard to talk!), and even in our finger tips (which makes our hands shake!).
Once they’re feeling comfortable talking about their butterflies, brainstorm some ideas for ways to calm their butterflies down. Explain, “Sometimes our butterflies get a little too excited! What are some ways we can help them calm down?” Here are some ideas:
- Power Pose. Quinny’s first idea was to stand very still, like a tree. I said, “I love that idea! Can you stand strong?” I told her how that’s called a Power Pose! I said, “When you’re standing strong, be sure to say to yourself – ‘I’ve got this!’” Combining a sturdy stance with positive affirmations create a sense of grounded, inner-strength. I asked, “Can you show me another Power Pose?” (At which point her and her sister, Cami, ran around the room like superheros! Perfect.)
- Mindfulness. I then said, “While you’re in your Power Pose, can you see 5 beautiful things around you?” I snuck in some mindfulness, but this is a great way to get kids to calm their mind. You can add, “Can you see 5 [insert their favorite color] things?” This forces them to stop, be present, and shifts their attention from their nerves to the beauty around them.
- Breathing. We know breathing is helpful and often tell children to take 3 deep breaths (boring!). Instead, try saying, “Can you pretend you’re blowing a dandelion? Blow all the seeds!” or “Pretend you’re blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of chocolate milk. Go!” Research suggests inhales are energizing, while long exhales help trigger a relaxation response in the brain.
- Practice. The fewer the unknowns, the better children feel. I explained to my niece how sometimes we have butterflies about making new friends, so we practiced introducing ourselves. “Hi! My name is Dana, what’s your name?” She said, “Quinny!” with a big smile. I said, “It’s nice to meet you!” and then got her to introduce herself to me. Quinny added in a common thing kids say: “Can I play with you?” I encouraged her to switch that question to, “Let’s play!” or “Wanna play with me?” Often children wait for an invitation to play and we want them to, instead, be the one inviting others! A very subtle switch, but it goes from passive to empowered. Using toys to practice is also a great way to get them comfortable introducing themselves and making new friends, like we do in our Fuzzies & Friends workshops.
- Pockets. I asked Quinny, “Do you know what you’re going to wear?” We talked about her school uniform and I asked if it has pockets. I explained how pockets are a great place to put your hands when those butterflies act up. I said, “Sometimes, I even put something special in my pocket to hold and rub! Do you have something special you could put in your pocket?”
- Magic. Little kids have the greatest imaginations. I explained to my niece how the stuffie bag tag I bought her (that she’s sweetly already attached to her backpack) is VERY special. I said, “Did you know it has a magical power that gives you strength when you need it? Just give it a cuddle and it will help calm those butterflies down!”
- Music. I told Quinny how much butterflies love music and how I listen to music to help my butterflies relax. Quinny loves to sing and said, “Maybe I could sing them a lullaby?” Such a good idea! While she was singing I closed my eyes and told her she put my butterflies right to sleep!
We had so much fun coming up with ideas together. My tender-hearted niece seemed lighter and brighter and I could see she wasn’t afraid of her butterflies anymore! After we were done chatting, I asked Quinny for one last thing: “Could you do me a big favor? Could you draw me a picture of what your butterflies look like? Once you’re done, get your parents to help you list some of the ideas we had to calm those butterflies so we don’t forget!”
Using kid-friendly language is such a big part of our program. Helping kids name their emotions and manage them in a fun way helps them take control, feel more confident, so they’re ready to take on the world!
Written by Dana Kerford
Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG