We know that our childhood stays with us throughout our lives, so at Body & Soul we are committed to ensuring our youngest members receive the best possible start in life. The work we do in our children’s centre is designed (i) to mitigate the impact of the adversity that our youngest members may be currently experiencing in their lives; and (ii) to equip them with the skills and resilience that will help them to lead fulfilling and productive lives both now and in the future.
This quarter, one of the core skills we focused on was emotion regulation. It is vital that people of all ages develop the ability to regulate their emotions, and their responses to their emotions, if they are to cope effectively with the challenges life presents. We know that people who have experienced significant adversity in childhood experience high levels of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline) and low levels of the hormones associated with pleasure and wellbeing (e.g. dopamine and serotonin). This combination can lead to conflict, defensiveness, hyperactivity, anxiety and depression. One of our aims is to counteract these effects by nurturing good emotional health and regulation in our programmes.
The following activities from our children’s programmes in the last quarter form part of our focus on emotion regulation:
Dance psychotherapy and yoga
Dance and movement psychotherapy is starting to be used in a wide cross-section of services to promote positive mental health and emotion regulation. There is evidence that changes to posture and movement are ‘one of the most readily available but underutilized strategies’ for developing emotion regulation.
With this in mind, dance psychotherapist Nancy Ncube held three workshops with our Base members (10-12 year olds who are affected by HIV). We had 100% engagement from our members, which Nancy achieved by first modelling the dance activities with adult staff and volunteers. Her aim for the sessions was to encourage members to discover and explore their feelings through a range of movements, including leadership from each young person and imitation from the rest of the group. This helps to foster social bonding within the group, as imitation has been shown to create positive regard between the imitator and the person being imitated. We look forward to further dance psychotherapy workshops in the future.
Also this quarter, we ran yoga workshops to help the children unwind and connect with their bodies. The younger children (4-10 years) engaged in yoga on the theme of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and the older children (10-12) did a 20-minute yoga sequence for health and well-being tailored specifically to young people to promote flexibility and a feeling of calm. This was followed by a ‘mindfulness’ breathing exercise, which aimed to help them to manage stressful feelings they may be experiencing. Members were very enthusiastic about these experiences, with some commenting ‘that was so relaxing’ and ‘can we do that again?!’
Friends often feature prominently in our memories of the formative periods in our lives, particularly those times when we are carving out our identity and learning the lessons and skills that help us to navigate our way through life. For the adopted children in our Young Explorer programme, early friendships are a piece of life’s puzzle that are often missing.
One of our day-long Young Explorer sessions was all about friendship – what it means, why it’s important and how to form stable and strong relationships with peers. Friendships are tricky for all of us, but they can be particularly challenging for young people who have been adopted. The parents of our adopted members say that a typical reason for their children being rejected by peers is their aggressive or eccentric behaviour. Because of the immature and sometimes challenging way that they express themselves, some adopted children require more supervision and are therefore less likely to be invited to the homes of friends.
One of the activities for Young Explorer members involved splitting into small groups and using a collection of paper plates, cardboard, bottle tops and foil to create a friendly looking Robo-buddy that they could programme to behave appropriately in conversation and play – the kind of buddy that anyone would want to have. There are instances where dysregulation can sabotage a budding friendship, so this was the perfect opportunity to develop Robo-buddy’s anti-overheating programme – i.e. for the group to practise their self-regulation strategies.
Prof Kenneth Barish writes that ‘children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard’. This is borne out by our experience at Body & Soul, where we begin our children’s sessions with ‘circle time’, a group exercise that involves children sitting together in a circle and singing a hello song before each child is asked how they are feeling and whether they want to discuss those feelings with the group. After the song there is an activity that includes the whole group and is linked to the theme of the evening, including relaxation techniques and elements of theraplay.
The regular routine of circle time provides our youngest members with the security of knowing that there is a time and place in the week where they can express themselves in a calm and caring environment and know they are being heard. This simple but profound activity helps them to regulate their emotions, particularly when areas of their home or school lives may be challenging or unsettling.
The Zen garden
Some traditionally ‘fun’ activities aimed at reducing stress (e.g. games) can include strong elements of competition and can generate anxiety for many of the children in our HIV and adoption programmes who have naturally heightened levels of stress due to past trauma or difficult circumstances at home.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and reactivity, and to bring about relaxation, calm and the ability to regulate emotions. Tending the miniature Zen garden in the children’s centre cultivates a mindful approach: the use of natural materials promotes a sense of peace through colours, textures and sounds; physical relaxation is promoted through the contained space and the fact that ‘success’ is achieved through slow, gentle and smooth actions; and the repetitive nature of the pattern making is soothing.
80% of regular attendees self-select the activity once introduced to it, and of those 72% find it relaxing and engaging enough to talk about difficult feelings when engaged in their play. Many children in the adoption programme familiar with the concept have shown an improvement in their ability to use the garden as an alternative strategy to leaving the room when feeling triggered.
An understanding of diet and nutrition is crucial in fostering people’s ability to regulate their emotions and to recognise the link between food and mood – as anybody who has ever felt ‘hangry’ knows! This is why we invited Whole Foods to deliver a workshop to our Base members to talk about healthy relationships with food. The facilitator explained why eating is important, and how eating unhealthily or not enough can have a detrimental impact on our mood and, over the longer term, on our development. The session was very timely, as some of our Base members had been talking about drinking water before meals to curb their appetite and cutting carbohydrates out of their diet. These remarks were addressed in the group and advice was given.
Although 69% of Base members say they know more about nutrition as a result of attending Body & Soul, we feel this is an area that would benefit from more frequent workshops. This is especially important in the 10-12 age group, as establishing a healthy relationship with food at this young age can set people up to have a positive relationship through their teenage years and beyond.
12-year-old Ruby has been attending Body & Soul since her mother, Maria, registered in 2008. She is a member of Base, our programme for 10-12 year olds affected by HIV. She lives with her mother and her three siblings: David (aged 4), Sarah (aged 7) and Chantal (aged 10). Their mother is currently seven and a half months pregnant.
Ruby began to struggle recently when her younger sister Chantal joined Base. Continue reading…