Has this been happening at your house too? What’s going on??
Here’s my hypothesis. We all, kiddos included, are trying to manage SO MUCH right now. We’re adjusting to the changes in our school and workplace, we’re constantly experiencing some level of anxiety about getting sick, we’re dealing with disappointment connected to cancelled or changed plans, and we’re coping with our emotions without many of our usual tools, such as spending time with friends. This is happening all the time, under the surface. It’s a lot to manage.
The result is that we actually have very little “room” to deal with day to day stressors on top of all this. When we are asked to run an extra errand after work, or to do a simple chore around the house, it very quickly becomes too much. We don’t have the usual space for incorporating and dealing with extra stressors. We are on the verge of an “eruption” at all times, so the tiniest thing is enough to set us off. I’m saying “we,” because I think this is happening for almost all kids AND grownups.
Feelings eruptions for kids might look like temper tantrums, defiance, meltdowns, and fights with siblings. Feelings eruptions for adults might look like yelling at kiddos, being grumpy with store employees, snapping at coworkers, defying rules in public spaces, or, let’s be honest, temper tantrums with our significant others.
Because we are all dealing with this, we aren’t really collectively acknowledging it. But I think it would be really helpful if we could gain some awareness of what’s happening on an emotional level right now. If we remember that every person has so much they’re managing beneath the surface, it allows us to put their outward behaviour into a bigger context. It opens space to feel more compassion and empathy for ourselves, our children, and the fellow humans around us. It can also give us some clues as to how we would like to respond when surrounded by feelings eruptions.
So this month, I’m sharing a fun and messy activity for you to try with your kids. It’s my own version of the classic vinegar and baking soda “volcano” – with an art therapy twist. The purpose of this activity is to show that when we have so much going on beneath the surface, it’s very difficult to stop big feelings from spilling over and erupting. The volcano represents a metaphorical container for our emotions. The “lava” represents our big emotions. When the volcano “erupts,” it’s a metaphor for a big emotional expression like a tantrum or a meltdown – it’s a “feelings eruption!”
In my experience, children LOVE doing this activity. It’s messy, experimental, and it feels like just the right amount of “dangerous.” This is an opportunity for you to do something playful with your child, but more importantly, it’s a way to open up a discussion about the emotional messes we’ve been finding ourselves in.
My intention with this activity is to offer you and your child a way to understand what might be happening on an emotional level. If we can share an understanding of what’s going on, we can experience a sense of empathy towards each other, and collaborate on ideas for how to attend to the stuff happening beneath the surface BEFORE we have an eruption.
So, let’s make a feelings volcano.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A clear plastic bottle
- A tray for containing spilled “lava”
- Dish soap
- Baking soda
- Food colouring
- A funnel (optional)
- Plastic animals (optional)
- Sharpies to write or draw on the bottle (optional)
Here’s what you do:
Click the “play button” in the centre of the image to watch a video demonstration!
Here’s a step-by-step recap:
First, gather the materials and set up your work space. This activity can get messy, especially if you embrace the experimental process and allow your little ones to play with the materials, so it might be a good one to do in the kitchen, the bathtub, or even outside.
Stand your bottle (or volcano) in the centre of the tray.
Next, add a little bit of dish soap into the bottle. This will make the “lava” extra bubbly.
Add about an inch of water.
If you would like to have colourful “lava,” add in a few drops of food colouring. Watch as the colour mixes with the water and dish soap – it’s magical!
Next, add in a few spoons of baking soda. A funnel is helpful for this part, but if some spills into the tray beside the bottle, that’s totally okay.
Ready for the emotional reaction? It’s time to add the vinegar! I like to start with just a little bit of vinegar, so that I have time to really see the reaction build.
Watch as the vinegar reacts with the baking soda, and the “lava” rises up in the bottle! Does it reach the top? Did your volcano erupt? You might need to add some more vinegar. What happens when you add a little bit more? What happens when you add a lot?
Experiment with the materials to see what your volcano can do. What happens if you use a stick or a spoon to stir inside the bottle? What happens if you add more baking soda? More water? More vinegar?
Notice how, once the bottle is full, adding any new material makes the bottle overflow. Some materials are more reactive than others. Agitation makes the eruption more intense.
Repeat as many times as you like. Add different colours, dump the bottle and start again, and experiment with different amounts of each material.
Use this activity as a springboard for talking about real life feelings eruptions. See the “some things you might talk about” section below for ideas.
- Draw faces on the bottle to represent feelings that might be building and bubbling beneath the surface. These might be feelings that your child is reluctant to express, or they might be feelings that your child is just not consciously aware of (eg. feeling sad, disappointed, anxious, nervous, scared, embarrassed, frustrated).
- Add plastic animals in the tray. As the “lava” reaches the plastic animals, this becomes a great opportunity to talk about how feelings eruptions impact others.
Rationale (here’s why I love this activity):
- It’s a fun and playful way to externalize emotional experiences and demonstrate such an abstract concept.
- It’s a great way to shift the conversation away from blaming each other, and towards a shared understanding of what’s happening on an emotional level. Once you build awareness of everything your child is working to manage beneath the surface, it makes their difficult outward behaviours more understandable. For example, if we know that a child is feeling lonely and scared beneath the surface, it changes how we might react to their refusal to help clear the dishes. It makes sense that that feels too hard right now, on top of everything else. We would probably respond differently to a child who is feeling scared and lonely, versus a child who is being willfully defiant.
- This activity normalizes feelings eruptions. OF COURSE the vinegar and baking soda are going to react, just like anxiety and pressure will react when they meet. OF COURSE the bottle spills over when it gets full! The materials need somewhere to go! In the same way, our emotions need to be expressed. Your child isn’t “bad” for having feelings eruptions. Maybe they just need some help learning how to identify and express their emotions. Maybe they also need some safer outlets for their feelings.
- Once you have explored the volcano metaphor together, it gives you language you can return to when talking about feelings with your child.
Some things you might talk about:
- What feelings are building and bubbling under the surface for you and your child right now? Here are a few ideas:
- Feeling sad and missing friends who did/ didn’t return to school
- Feeling disappointed that plans keep being cancelled or changed
- Feeling anxious or worried about getting sick
- Feeling frustrated by having to wear a mask so often
- Feeling overwhelmed by all of the changes in day to day life
- Feeling stressed about keeping up with restrictions
- Feeling angry that we are still in the middle of a pandemic
- Missing the way things used to be
- Which feelings tend to spill over the top and “erupt?” For lots of kiddos it’s anger or frustration, often expressed as tantrums, hitting, hands-on behaviour, yelling hurtful words, or defiance. For others it’s sadness, often expressed as crying, refusing to do things, or melting down when asked to complete a simple task.
- What are the effects of a feelings eruption? What usually happens? Does the eruption result in getting in trouble? Hurting others? Wrecking things? Stopping us from enjoying fun activities?
- How do our feelings eruptions impact others? Do siblings feel sad or hurt? Do parents feel frustrated? Does one feelings eruption trigger another? Are there any patterns?
- Is it the bottle’s fault that it’s erupting? Can the bottle control the reaction? This one is really important. We don’t want kiddos to feel shame or guilt for having emotional reactions. It’s not their fault! We are here to help them.
- How could we stop the eruption in the bottle? Here are a few ideas:
- Dumping some of the material out to make more space inside the bottle
- Giving the bottle some time to settle
- Is there anything that would stop a real life feelings eruption?
A few tips for dealing with real life feelings eruptions:
- Find safe ways to let out some big feelings BEFORE they are at the point of erupting
- Running around outside
- Jumping on a trampoline
- Punching a pillow
- Safely throwing some pine cones or crab apples (check out my blog post from last fall for more about this activity)
- Scribbling feelings on a piece of paper
- Talking about our emotions
- Externalizing worries and putting them in a safe place
- Expressing feelings during art therapy
- Take a break in a safe space when a feelings eruption occurs
- Cuddle with stuffies or blankets
- Read a story
- Watch a show or listen to music to calm down
- Reconnect with your child after a feelings eruption
- Once everyone is feeling calm again, revisit what happened with a curious, non-judgmental approach. What else was going on below the surface? A feelings chart can be really helpful for this. As the caring adult you can say “I noticed that some angry feelings were erupting. I wonder if you were having any other feelings too? Can you show me on the feelings chart? Maybe some sadness? Or some confusion?”
- Express understanding and empathy for why the eruption happened. (eg. “Wow, that’s a lot of big feelings to keep inside and manage all by yourself! No wonder some angry feelings spilled out. It’s hard to listen and to concentrate on homework when we have so many big feelings inside.”)
- Lead your child through any necessary relational repair. (eg. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I was feeling frustrated too. Next time I will try stopping to take a deep breath, even if we’re in the middle of a feelings eruption!” / “It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to say mean things to your sister. That hurt her feelings. Are you ready to tell her that you’re sorry for hurting her feelings?”)
- Clarify any natural consequences, and then lead with confidence. (eg. “Phew, during that feelings eruption your clothes ended up all over the floor! I’ll help you pick them up and put them away.” / “It’s too late now to watch the movie. We will save it for tomorrow. Let’s read one book instead.”)
If your family could use some support navigating feelings eruptions, I’d love to hear from you. The best way to get in touch is to send me an email or call my office. It’s one of my greatest joys to help families feel empowered in the face of big feelings.
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT