Supporting children through crisis moments

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When a young person with mental health or wellbeing issues faces a crisis moment, there are some simple techniques and ideas that could help. Dr Pooky Knightsmith explains

Crisis moments are those moments when everything feels overwhelming and simply too much – for some young people this might be the moment when they feel overcome by the urge to hurt themselves (or others).

These “big” moments feel impossible at the time, but with support and by learning a range of practical strategies, young people can learn to work through the first few minutes, giving their bodies and minds time to calm to a point where they feel more able to continue with their day.

The strategies I detail below have all been shared by young people – all of them worked for someone, though none of them will work for everyone, so be prepared for a little trial and error.

Sixty-second timer

Sometimes, literally giving ourselves a minute can help. The thought of the next hour or the whole day can be too much, but just getting through one minute might feel more doable. A simple sand timer or a timer on a watch or phone will suffice. You can add additional minutes if needed, always just taking it one minute at a time.

Count to 100

This works similarly to the minute timer, but instead the child counts to 100 or 1,000. This can be done anywhere, anytime without anyone knowing it is happening. Sometimes it is helpful to make this a little more challenging so it offers more distraction from difficult thoughts and feelings – this can be easily done by counting backwards or in a different language.

Recite your timestables

Some young people I have spoken with like to pass through difficult minutes by reciting their timestables rather than counting. The cadence and rhythm of repeating something you have repeated often can feel quite comforting. Reciting verbs you have learnt in a foreign language or a poem you have learnt by heart could also achieve the same feeling of familiarity and comfort as the time passes.

Listen to a song

Music can be a great way to flip our feelings and having a song that is our go-to when things feel tough can be very helpful. Different songs will suit different children as it depends on what kind of feelings the child struggles with and what kind of music they like. Some children might benefit from music that calms while others might need something upbeat and happy. Any song can help as it is partly just about the passage of time, but there is something especially comforting about hearing a familiar song that you know has helped you get through difficult moments before.

Play Candy Crush

Games that do not take lots of brain bandwidth to play but which hook you in and make you want to continue playing can be a great form of distraction and can help the time pass while the body and brain reset.

Watch YouTube

Similarly, YouTube can be a helpful distraction and can help occupy our minds when our heads are full of difficult thoughts and feelings. The YouTube algorithm which makes us want to keep watching by suggesting videos to follow the one we are currently engrossed in can be helpful, but some young people might also choose to curate a playlist of videos that they find calming, comforting or comical to watch during crisis moments.

Read a page of a book

Reading occupies our mind and can help to distract us from whatever is preying on it. It does not have to be a book – we could read whatever we have to hand – but reading something that we are especially interested in can help to absorb us and enable the time to pass more swiftly.

Stretch every finger and toe in turn

Some people begin to feel quite distant when they are distressed so simple grounding strategies can help them to feel more connected to the world around them. Very simple things like stretching, clenching and wiggling every finger and toe in turn can help us to feel more connected with our bodies.

Plait your hair

Small acts of self-care such as doing your hair, make up or nails are often a great alternative to self-harm. These activities tend to be highly tactile and so they help us feel connected. Taking a moment to show care to ourselves rather than engaging in activities that do us harm can be quite an empowering decision for young people who are struggling with feelings of self-loathing or low self-esteem.

Unlace and relace your shoes

One young person I spoke to said that when he felt the urge to self-harm he would go to the toilets and unlace and relace his shoes before he did anything else. He had learnt that the time this took was long enough for him to calm down enough to put his broader safety planning in place.

Conclusion

There are no right and wrong answers – it is about being flexible and open to trying new things. Everything is worth trying once. You might use these ideas to support a young person through a crisis moment. Or they could simply carry a card or a note in their planner/on their phone with a few of these ideas to help them at difficult times.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. Pooky provides regular support and advice in SecEd. To read her previous articles, go to http://bit.ly/2daU4zs. You can contact Pooky via www.pookyknightsmith.com


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