Emotional Mindfulness Exercise for Kids: Body Mapping

Kids are constantly experiencing new emotions. Learning how to appropriately cope with and express them is easy to overlook, but very important. Internalizing negative feelings can be unhealthy and can contribute to harmful behavior, even if a child is not acting out. A psychoeducation tool called ‘body mapping can useful for encouraging kids to reflect on their emotions, and we’ll will take you through some of the how-to’s below!

The goal of the body map is to visualize emotional responses in order to become acquainted with them and reduce confusion about them. Note that it may be helpful for an adult mentor to complete the exercise alongside the child as an example.

  1. Start with having children draw an outline of their bodies on unlined paper. This can be life-size if you have larger sheet paper available, or just a standard piece.

  2. Pick an emotion or an event that will be the focus of the exercise (i.e. “think of a time when you felt angry”). If you are working with older kids who can better understand abstract activities, you can also allow them to choose the focus (“when ___ happened, think about how you felt”).

  3. Have children to draw on their face the emotion selected (or the emotion(s) associated with the event). It is useful to have different drawing tools/colors available!

  4. Have children jot down the other words they associate with the emotion.

  5. Have children reflect on how this emotion felt in their body (i.e. “did you feel this emotion in your stomach? In your heart? Did your neck tense up? Did your breathing change?”), and then have them express that bodily reaction on their outline. Encourage kids to get creative—perhaps they may draw a tornado in their stomachs, firecrackers near their heads, etc. Having diverse material like stickers, watercolors, or patterned paper and scissors may help them get ideas flowing.

  6. Ask children what kind of thoughts they have or had when they feel/were feeling this way. Have them write these down as thought bubbles around their depiction.

  7. When kids are finished with their maps, allow some time for them to share the different aspects of their maps. What did they include and why did they choose to represent it that way? Be mindful that not everyone may be comfortable sharing their map as their art may be personal, and that is okay. You may also encourage kids, when sharing, to discuss how they address their responses (i.e. “how do you cope with your heart beating fast when you’re angry? How do you calm your heart?”)

Many variations of this exercise are possible. For example, body mapping additionally has been used as tool to aid kids specifically in overcoming trauma (physical or emotional). Ultimately, body mapping can be an informative and cathartic method to take abstract emotions and get them down on paper in a way that facilitates meaningful and expressive conversation—something that can be particularly challenging for young ones.

Disaster & child health in the wake of Hurricane Florence

Hurricane Florence hit the shores of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia a little less than two weeks ago. While the storm has passed, the damages are daunting. Recovery from the disaster will take immense efforts in certain areas, given some homes and businesses experienced massive flooding. But the hurricane didn’t just impact  physical infrastructure—amidst recovery conversations, it’s important to bear in mind the toll natural disaster takes on mental health and emotional well-being as well.

In a recent Atlantic interview, Shannon Self-Brown, the chair of health policy and behavioral science at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, explained children are particularly at risk of developing lasting emotional trauma from natural disasters because they might not be old enough to understand why the event happened specifically to them. Studying the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, She and her colleagues found that 71% of the 426 children were resilient, showing no signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) like hyperarousal or reexperiencing the event in their heads. 25% of kids showed temporary signs of PTSD, meaning the symptoms went away within 2 years, and the remaining 4% of kids studied had signs of chronic PTSD. Unsurprisingly, increased exposure to the hurricane correlated with worse PTSD outcomes. Good social support, on the other hand, correlated with more resiliency.

But establishing good social support—meaning an active and strong peer group—after a natural disaster can prove challenging for families that have been displaced. Often, by encouraging experience-sharing and establishing routines, this is where educators can play a role, even for children who have had to change schools.

In applying other aspects of her research to the present aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Self-Brown recommended opening up a dialogue with kids about the disaster and what happened. This can be done in a number of ways, like coming up with a song, drawing a picture, writing a story, or having a simple conversation. If behavioral changes are occurring in children under the age of 4, Self-Brown notes caretakers should self-evaluate for stress of their own. Toddlers repeatedly acting up can be an indication they sense Mom isn’t doing okay.

The stress of dealing with an unexpected disaster cannot be overstated. Family upheaval affects even the youngest family members, who don’t necessarily understand the nitty gritty of, say, insurance coverage. Other resources for coping with hurricane recovery can be found on the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s website, and more general information is posted on affected states’ department of human and health services websites.

Understanding Toddlers and Tantrums

An interesting piece in the NYTimes this week discusses temper tantrums, and what they do or do not tell us about a young child’s emotional state. Tantrums are most common around ages two or three, and gradually decrease as a child grows older. According to Dr. Egger, chairwoman of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU, childhood tantrums can be thought of as frustrations from a child who is fearful or angry but is still developing language skills to express these feelings.


According to the article, approaching childhood tantrums with adult reasoning or anger might not be productive or helpful. The neuroscientist interviewed in the article, Dr. Potegal, describes the emotions in a tantrum as a combination of anger and distress - anger usually subsides in a tantrum, but distress might remain fairly constant.


Dr. Egger said that a parent’s role during a tantrum is not to become stressed or angry herself - a parent should instead act as a container for the child’s feelings, since the child will not feel in control of the situation. Tantrums “typically happen when children are hungry or tired or when there has been some significant change in their routine,” and confusion and frustration can easily manifest themselves in these situations.


Experts say the tantrums parents should be concerned about are the ones that occur in public and the ones where children or toddlers become violent and bite or kick. If parents find themselves changing their routines or avoiding triggers in fear of setting off a tantrum, they should seek help instead of struggling on their own. Though this usually isn’t the case, tantrums might be an indication of an underlying developmental problems such as ADHD, or even a medical one.

When Children Talk About Loss

The New York Times recently addressed a difficult topic: when a child dies, how does their death impact their siblings and family in the short and long-run? The author of the post, a professor of pediatrics, noted that as devastating a child’s death is for a parent, the loss felt by a sibling must be even more unbearable. After all, siblings often share more time together than with parents, and have shared much of their young lives together at school.


According to the article, a sibling’s untimely death can have numerous physical and mental health repercussions for living siblings and families. Living siblings might also primarily be affected by the same disease or disorder that caused the first death, exacerbating existing health problems, and raising risks of long-term health, social, and behavioral problems.


This phenomenon is the main subject of a recent study in JAMA Pediatrics, referenced in the New York Times article. Researchers who followed children in Denmark and Sweden from 1973 through 2013 found that the children who lost a sibling before age 18 were 70 percent more likely to die in the decades following the event. The death of a sibling is not a causal factor for increased mortality, but it is definitely a part of the picture. Of course, another factor that could lead to increased risk of death after that of a sibling is the emotional damage of grief, and the difficulty of coping with that grief.


This means that support for bereaved siblings needs to be a priority for family members and healthcare professionals. It’s important for major publications like the New York Times to report on findings from the medical community that might be difficult subject matters. Similarly, it’s important for family members and parents to have conversations about loss in order to help children cope with grief and to build resiliency.


“Family resilience” is found in at least one academic paper on the subject of recovery after the loss of a child. This study had two findings that are especially relevant: families that viewed the grieving and recovery process as a challenge to overcome, and families that felt community support were related to the family’s grieving and recovery process, adapted better than families who did not have a strong community support. The interaction between a bereaved family and the rest of society can be an indication of how well-equipped everyone is to deal with loss.


Other ways people are dealing with the impact of loss in the family is to open doors for conversation. For example, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, wrote an article in The New York Times a couple of months ago after the sudden loss of her husband. In order to foster resiliency in her children, and to support them in their remembrance of their father, Sandberg is determined to keep open communication a constant. This approach would transform hardship into a growth opportunity, with the goal of resiliency.


We may all know people in our lives that have experienced loss. If more people knew about these findings, then support systems in schools and other community settings can work with families to have a positive impact on children’s lives as they overcome loss.

Sleep, School, and the Teenager

The New York Times recently reported that biology may be to blame when it comes to teenagers’ sleep schedules. Young children who wake up early usually grow into teenagers who are difficult to rouse in time for school even though middle and high schools classes start earlier. Apparently, “adolescent bodies” naturally want to operate on a schedule shifted later than those of young children: they want to go to bed late, and get up late. This phenomenon - adolescent sleep delay - is not limited to humans; in fact, other mammals display it as well.


The consequence of this relative incompatibility between a teen’s body clock and school schedule appears in performance. Students tend to do better in tests - both cognitive and coursework related - taken in the afternoon. To catch up on alertness, adolescents might turn to caffeine for help during the day, leading to a “tired but wired” state that one clinical psychologist said led to more risk-taking behavior. Even without specific risk-taking, tired adolescents in general are in more danger than if they were well-rested, especially if they drive amid such fatigue.


Sleep is important in the discussion about adolescent health because of its link to what experts call the “adolescent health paradox:” teenagers, who are in a “developmental period of physical strength and resilience, face disproportionately high mortality rates.” According to the article, programs aimed at specific issues like substance abuse or unsafe sex are expensive and not always successful. Approaching sleep as one of the facets of overall health that can support teenagers during their development would be much more meaningful.


It is difficult to think of ways to feasibly incorporate sleep support into, say, the academically-rigorous nature of high school and even middle school. However, it is important for schools and parents to remember the effect a 24-hour sleep cycle can have on a student’s concentration, mood, or emotional decisions and health. The link between sleep health and behavioral health is real, and there is evidence for the connection to academic performance as well. There are some sleep scientists or child psychologists who actually advocate later school start times. While it may be difficult to implement such structural changes, it is important to remember the importance of the science behind such proposals impacting students and classrooms every day.