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  • Eileen Ward

Adapting DBT Skills for Children

My daughter’s elementary school begins teaching social-emotional wellness in kindergarten. It was so exciting and encouraging to see these small children engaged in learning calm down techniques, mindfulness exercises, and conflict resolution from such a young age.

I love it, but my daughter struggles with calm down techniques, especially when she is already upset. She isn’t interested in trying them when she’s calm, to learn the skill, and then when she’s upset, she just screams, “I don’t use calm down techniques.” Yes, my dear child, that is abundantly clear right now! But how can I help teach my emotionally dysregulated 5-year-old mindfulness?

One day, I realized that I could teach her a version of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) conveyor belt skill. The conveyor belt skill is a Mindfulness exercise that has a person sit comfortably, shut their eyes and imagine all of their thoughts, worries, anxieties, and fears coming towards them on a conveyor belt. The person doesn’t hold on to them, but simply lets them pass. They work on letting go, and not holding onto those fears and anxieties.

This seemed like a great visualization activity for my daughter’s excellent imagination, but I changed it a little to appeal to her more. In her exercise, she closes her eyes. She thinks of what is worrying her, what is making her angry, what she is holding onto. Then she imagines taking these things one at a time and putting them in their own boxes. She then seals the box and sends that box down a belt onto a plane.

To illustrate this, I tell her that she is putting her boxes on a plane and sending them to the North Pole where the polar bears live! Now, instead of getting angry, she giggles. She closes her eyes, and goes through what is bothering her, puts it in a box, and sends it off to the polar bears, where it won't bother her anymore.

This exercise works for a few reasons. One of them is that it pulls her out of her adrenaline response and encourages deeper breathing. It causes her to stop, examine each item that is worrying her and encourages mindfulness. It empowers her to take charge of her emotions and be in control of the situation.My daughter continues to teach me that it is never too early to start teaching DBT skills to our children.


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