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Strong Emotions Are Complicated for Children, Especially Orphans. Healthy Strategies Can Help.

May is Mental Health Month, and challenging life experiences (trauma) can be part of lifelong mental health issues. Individual responses to trauma can vary from person to person. For young children, the typical response is feeling too much (overwhelmed) or too little (numbed). Strong emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, and shame are complicated for children to understand and navigate.

Sadly, most orphans in China have had experiences that result in trauma. These include neglect, loss of primary caregivers, instability in living situations, disabilities, and loss of security. Trauma is the response to a profoundly distressing event (hard life experience) that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences.

Trauma can result in emotional, physical, cognitive, and biological changes – but not every child responds the same way. And while we can’t change past experiences, we can teach healthy ways to cope with the aftereffects. We implemented this at the Philip Hayden Foundation (PHF) simply by learning to identify and label emotions. We helped children understand that emotions affect how our bodies feel. In addition, the Bright Stars Therapy Team at PHF has been trained in TBRI – Trust Based Relational Intervention – and has taught the principles to caregivers in other orphanages.

What is self-regulation? One child describes it like this, “It is the ability to calm yourself by yourself.” Katie Thornton has a short article on regulating emotions on the Texas Christian University blog ( that is useful for any caregiver and child to increase awareness about emotions. She says there are three simple questions to ask a child: How does your body feel right now? What strategy can I use to calm down (or wake up, refocus)? How will my body feel after I use this strategy?

And if you have adopted a child or are interested in more resources, check out Show Hope or the National Institute of Health. The adoption journey doesn’t end on the day you welcome a child home. It is just the beginning of a beautiful story.

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