Psychologist invents toys to help children identify emotions

“Emotions are invisible, so how can I make them visible, touchable for kids?”

A Sanford Health provider poses with plush toys showing different emotions.

Psychologist Amy Donnan remembers well the little boy who sparked the idea for stuffed toys she invented to help children communicate their emotions.

It happened more than 20 years ago. He was 4 years old when his parents went through a divorce that included arguments, violence and child protection calls. His preschool had kicked him out for disruptive behavior by the time Donnan started in-home visits.

“I was an unprepared young therapist wondering, ‘Who do I help first? How do I help him and his sister when I also have to help the parents?’ I was trained as a family therapist and had some mild success in getting the parents to calm down. But he was a boy who didn’t talk at all and there was no medical reason for it,” said Donnan, a developmental psychologist at Sanford Health in Bemidji, Minnesota. She specializes in infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

“Instinctively I knew he was stressed and upset and angry. He’d have this frown on his face.”

Universal language

One day as she walked beside him as he pedaled his bicycle she was reminded of the importance of labeling emotions. If even a preschooler could identify what he’s feeling, he would have more self-control. He has more choices other than to hit or kick others.

His response to her observation was heartbreaking.

“I said maybe you were sad, maybe you were upset, maybe you were mad. And he yelled at me the first time he said anything to me and he said, ‘I don’t have feelings and I never will!’ So I went home and I cried for him and wondered what I was going to do. And I doodled in my journal and I came up with these five faces.”

She sewed those faces into pillows and puppets and added evidence-based research. The toys convey the universal language of core emotions that people around the world recognize, regardless of country, culture or language: sadness, happiness, anger, fear and love.

“Emotions are invisible, so how can I make them visible, touchable for kids?” she said.

“With these faces, every human being automatically can recognize, ‘that’s me.’ The younger the child, the more they’ll pick up love and say, ‘that’s me,’ if they’re feeling good. Or if they’re mad. I had a little boy who said, ‘that’s me,’ and he’d punch him (the red anger pillow). It gives easy identification to a parent, a pediatrician, a child care provider, a teacher: ‘Oh, there’s an emotion connected to what’s going on here.’”

‘Emotion sandwich’

Donnan calls her set of tools Love My Feelings. The set also includes an audio CD, a toy with voice technology and miniature versions of the faces that can be carried in a bag. Besides English, she created toys in Swedish as well as Objibwe and Cherokee, two of the Native American tribes with members in the region of Northern Minnesota she serves.

Donnan used the smaller versions to help a 5-year-old girl stop and think about her emotions so she was less apt to respond in anger. The kindergartner was going into foster care and had been sent to the principal’s office for kicking another girl.

“She took the mad one and started beating up the sad one. And I said, ‘I wonder if you don’t like your sad feelings.’ And she beat it up a little more. Then she does the most miraculous thing. She piles them up and says, ‘I’m having an emotion sandwich.’ Whoa,” Donnan said.

“We begin to see how intuitively this is for children if they have something they can touch, feel and interact with because their vocabulary isn’t as advanced as adults. They need tools relevant to their age. And this provides these tools.”

Improved physical health

Few people have access to a counselor or therapist who can walk children through their emotions. The toys are designed to help anyone learn how to be an emotions coach by identifying what’s going on below the surface, Donnan said.

“I wanted tools that are really broadly available for many people to use at any stage. If a parent is frustrated with biting in a toddler, with hitting, kicking, aggression; a child who’s not sleeping; they’re going through a divorce. Any experience that’s stressful,” she said.

Helping kids ease those stresses when they’re young can help them be physically healthier in adulthood. From infancy, stress impacts the brains of children. Donnan cites a 1998 Kaiser Permanente study that found a connection between exposure to abuse or dysfunction in childhood and fatal health conditions in adulthood such as heart disease, cancer and liver disease.

“Adverse child experiences lead to medical conditions and other challenging situations later in life. If we can make that early period easier to go through when those stresses occur, that is my goal,” Donnan said.

Expanded reach

She’s working with Sanford Health’s commercialization team to identify ways to expand the reach of the interactive toys.

“Amy’s passion to help is evident and her engagement in the commercialization process has been invaluable as we explore how Love My Feelings toys could be used inside and outside of Sanford Health,” said Braden Bills, a member of Sanford’s commercialization team.

Sanford Health values the ideas and problem-solving ability of its physicians, researchers, clinical workers and support staff. Any employee with an idea for a device, therapy, software, tool or other method that helps patients is encouraged to contact the commercialization team and join the dozens of people at Sanford Health who are already inventing.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Bemidji, Innovations, Sanford Stories

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