We’re 15 minutes late for the doctor’s appointment and the car key has made a dent on my hand from squeezing. But my 2 year old daughter, Kestrel keeps yelling “all by me self!!!!!!!” anytime I try to help her tie her shoes. When we finally arrive: “I’m sorry, your appointment was canceled because you were more than 20 minutes late. Our next appointment is in 2 months.” Plop– Kestrel’s shoes drop to the floor. “All by me self!” she starts to sing as she reaches for her sneakers. We were in the waiting room for 45 minutes while her chubby fingers tied the laces. Eleven years later, I still have the pair of Velcro shoes I bought at Target that day. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Kestrel’s ability to focus, fail, and calmly work toward tying her shoes all by herself was the first glimpse of a mindset that would eventually fuel her success in school and sports.
Last week, Kes used those same chubby fingers to climb her way to third place in the overall combined event of the Youth National Championships in her age division. It was exhausting mentally and physically. As a psychologist I keep waking up at 3:00am trying to think of clear ways to support young people during stressful events like a big competition, an important test, or the opportunity to put themselves out there in a new way. Big emotions can rob us of our abilities and cause our “lizard brain” to take over. I know we all are familiar with popular “lizard brain” hits such as flight, fight, or freeze but coping mechanisms such as denial, withdrawal, and avoidance also emerge when our emotions escalate. Only when we shape the intensity of our emotions can we think, connect, and use all our abilities.
Here are some of my 3:00am thoughts on how to support young people in stressful situations:
- Reinforce the idea that big events aren’t just about a solitary performance, but about the hours and hours of mental and physical dedication leading up to the event. This makes performance more a natural result of preparation.
- Extrinsic factors such as hunger, tiredness, cold, and warmth all can dial up our emotional intensity. Help young people create awareness of these variables and make routines to reduce their impact.
- A first step in managing the intensity of emotions is to recognize the intensity. One exercise I like is having young people draw what their big emotions look like. Then, with a visual representation in front of them, we brainstorm ways to reduce the intensity of these big emotions. For some kids, self-soothing looks like deep breaths; for other kids, movement helps them calm big emotions. There is no right or wrong way to self-soothe but it is important to recognize when you are getting in the high intensity range AND know a few things that work for you to get back into the range where you will perform your best.
Burnout in sports or school or anything happens when people experience emotional intensity in the 5-10 range without support or tools of their own to self regulate. Again, this isn’t saying that intense emotions are bad — only, that intense emotions during performance can lead to poor results, and that existing with intense emotions over time can lead to burnout. By paying attention to the mental health of our young people as they experience stressful situations, we can help them do their best in the moment and find longevity in whatever activities they choose.