The first day of summer is only weeks away and it brings an onset of various emotions – different than ever felt before. Instead of last-day-of-school parties, children are logging off of Zoom and closing their laptops to signify the end of the school year. Family trips have been canceled and many are left to wonder, what is there to look forward to this summer?

Although the current state of our nation has altered our plans and changed the way we do basic life things, there are still many ways we can engage with one another this summer. There are still fun activities we can participate in that are not only enjoyable, but good for us.

In this three-part series, we will offer activities that you can do with your children to ensure they still have a great summer, while also attending to their mental health.

In part one of this series, Clinical Therapist, Christal Avila, LCSW offers a strategy to help families manage their children’s “big moments” of stress and emotions that might occur while they are home this summer, and can continue to use as they start school again next fall.

Creating a Cooling Down Space: Christal Avila, LCSW

I have used the “Cooling Down Space” technique as a way to help children when they experience difficulties in the home environment or in the classroom. Strong emotions or uncomfortable levels of energy can get in the way of healthy communication with others or affect a child’s focus during tasks, like school work.

These strong emotions can be related to symptoms of hyperactivity, anger outbursts, temper tantrums, depression, anxiety or other uncomfortable feelings.

Creating an individualized cooling down space or “safe spot” for your child can be helpful in developing boundaries and moments of solitude for relaxing while at home this summer.

The cooling down space is chosen by you, the parent or caregiver, and the child. It is a spot where the child can go to take breaks for a few minutes and regulate. Make sure you include the child in the process of selecting the cooling down space. This safe spot can be the couch, a bed, a tent, a bean-bag or any area you and the child consider safe and appropriate.

Include as many tactile and occupational therapy ideas as possible according to the child’s needs: a sensory kit with Play Doh, slime, a stress ball, a coloring book, fragrances of choice, books to read or songs to listen to.

You can also include a pillow to hug or punch, and can label it the “angry pillow” or whatever emotion is best for the child.

It’s also important to make sure everyone in the home is aware of the safe spot assigned to the child. Let everyone in the family know this space is a part of his/her coping skills. Ask them to respect the space, and practice healthy boundaries among siblings. This will normalize their need to take a break, distance themselves from a triggering situation or simply the need to connect with the emotion/energy that’s getting in their way and find a way to release it safely.

As the parent or caregiver, you can use reflective statements to prompt the child to use the safe spot when needed. For example, you can say, “It seems your energy is getting high, do you think you’re comfortable for reading right now? Would it help if you used your cooling down space?” Another example of something to say is, “Maybe the angry pillow can help you release some anger. Do you want to scream into your anger pillow?”

Safer at home regulations, while important to keep us and our community safe, has limited most family’s opportunities to provide the space and ways to help children regulate their feelings and release stress safely. Safer at home regulations is forcing everyone to find creative and meaningful ways to connect with each other, and also to connect with ourselves. The “cooling down” technique can help you coach and guide your child to connect with his/her emotions, identify triggers for their big feelings and explore ways to regulate using mindful techniques. All of these methods are transferable to the classroom environment, as students adjust to returning back to school in the Fall.

Hope you enjoy getting creative with your very own cooling down station/strategy at home.

Christal Avila, LCSW is a clinical therapist in The Guidance Center’s School Based Program where she helps guide children and families struggling with mental health conditions or abuse toward positive and productive futures. She is especially passionate about fostering healthy development in children by collaborating with the child- caregiver system to increase their understanding of their emotional conflicts, guide them to identify and use their strengths to increase their capacity to cope and manage with emotional impairments. She collaborates to increase awareness of trauma-informed care in the home and school environment. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2015, Christal Avila worked with Children/transitioning age youth, and the 0-25 population as a Community based clinical therapist providing comprehensive and intense mental health treatment. Christal Avila earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work, at California State University Los Angeles.