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Casey O’Brien Martin: “Skills for Big Feelings”

Imagine what the world would be like in twenty years if every child was taught the skills to cope with their feelings more effectively! Skills for Big Feelings is a practical guidebook for educators and mental health professionals to teach kids these important social-emotional learning skills. I wrote this book because I believe in the […]

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Imagine what the world would be like in twenty years if every child was taught the skills to cope with their feelings more effectively! Skills for Big Feelings is a practical guidebook for educators and mental health professionals to teach kids these important social-emotional learning skills. I wrote this book because I believe in the power of preventative, tier-one mental health support for all children.

All children should be taught social-emotional skills, including the ability to understand and cope with their thoughts and feelings. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that our children need these skills now more than ever.


As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Casey O’Brien Martin, LMHC, REAT, RN.

Casey O’Brien Martin is the author of Skills for Big Feelings: A Guide for Teaching Kids Relaxation, Regulation, and Coping Techniques. She is a School Adjustment Counselor, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Registered Expressive Arts Therapist, and Registered Nurse with a passion for helping children develop healthy coping skills and grow into confident individuals.

Casey draws on her unique skillsets to create mind-body programs designed to promote holistic wellbeing and emotional regulation in children, helping them to achieve their highest potential. She believes that teaching kids how to cope with and understand their feelings is an essential part of their personal growth, and she’s honored to be a part of this invaluable process.

Casey graduated from Lesley University, where she currently serves as an Adjunct Faculty member in the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences. For more information, visit www.wholechildcounseling.com.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I was raised in Massachusetts by a single mother who had schizoaffective disorder. She loved me dearly but at times her mental health challenges impacted her parenting. Because of this, there was a lot of adversity for me growing up, and the educators around me didn’t seem to realize what I was struggling with. I don’t think there was awareness regarding the importance of social-emotional learning that there is now. I used the arts as a tool to cope and when I was a teenager I learned how to meditate. These two things were game changers for me and tools I still use to this day. My challenges during childhood are what drove me to study in the mental health field. Although it was a difficult time in my life, I know I am a very resilient person.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

At around 15 years old I was at the library after school and I picked up a book on the shelf called The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy Malchiodi. After taking it home and reading it, I decided I wanted to become an art therapist. My parents hadn’t graduated high school so going to college and then to graduate school was kind of a radical idea at the time but I was extremely inspired by that book. I had been using art on my own as a coping tool, and before reading that book I hadn’t realized there was this whole field of study, and even a career I could pursue to help other people through the healing power of the arts!

After reading The Art Therapy Sourcebook, I became extremely driven to become an art therapist and so I started college at 16. I was the first person in my town to participate in a dual-enrollment program, where they sent me to college while I was still enrolled in high school. Sometimes I wonder where my path would have led if I didn’t randomly pick up that book at my local library! Today I am proud to say that I am a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist (REAT) and I also in the Expressive Therapies Division at Lesley University.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early on in my career as a School Adjustment Counselor, I made a pretty big mistake: when a child had a problem, I would try to swoop in and be the counselor who was able to calm down and de-escalate the child’s feelings. The issue was that I became their coping mechanism. This was not empowering to the child at all!

I reflected on this and realized that this approach was not effective. I started to shift my focus to empower all children by teaching them these important self-regulation skills. They needed to learn the skills themselves, not have a counselor swoop in to rescue them from their feelings.

I wrote Skills for Big Feelings as a fun, structured, and developmentally appropriate way to teach children coping skills. My hope is that by implementing these interventions earlier and with more children, we can help prevent the development of some mental health concerns.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

Imagine what the world would be like in twenty years if every child was taught the skills to cope with their feelings more effectively! Skills for Big Feelings is a practical guidebook for educators and mental health professionals to teach kids these important social-emotional learning skills. I wrote this book because I believe in the power of preventative, tier-one mental health support for all children.

All children should be taught social-emotional skills, including the ability to understand and cope with their thoughts and feelings. And with the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that our children need these skills now more than ever.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I don’t have a “story” as the book is non-fiction, but here is a description:

Skills for Big Feelings: A Guide for Teaching Kids Relaxation, Regulation, and Coping Techniques is a comprehensive and powerful handbook which seeks to empower children to cope with their feelings, manage anxiety, and learn to thrive, written by School Adjustment Counselor and Licensed Mental Health Counselor Casey O’Brien Martin. Built on a 12-week program based on cognitive behavioral techniques, mindfulness, breathing exercises, visualization, and gratitude, inside you’ll find a wealth of engaging activities for helping kids develop healthy emotional growth and coping mechanisms.

This book provides a wealth of social-emotional exercises for kids, including identifying and accepting feelings, dealing with unhelpful thoughts, and acknowledging triggers, as well as practical tools for adults such as S.M.A.R.T. treatment plans and IEP objectives, family handouts, letters, and surveys. Skills for Big Feelings is an invaluable tool for educators and mental health professionals working with kids.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I work in a public school and I noticed lots of kids were struggling with anxiety and self-regulation skills, so I developed the initial Skills for Big Feelings curriculum for the kids I was working with. I collected surveys from the children that were very reaffirming about the work. And then, inspired by Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability, I started collecting surveys from their parents. When I saw the comments that the parents were making about the changes their children had made at home, due to the skills they had learned with me, I was inspired to share this work with the world on a wider scale!

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The impact of this work has been reaffirmed to me time and time again. One day I received an email from a counselor at a different school that said they were working with an elementary student whose sibling had recently died. When this student came back to school, he said that his cousin, who was a student at my school, had taught him relaxation skills to use when he was feeling sad.

I read that email and cried. It was an important moment for me because I realized then that children were out in the community teaching each other these skills, by themselves, on their own time, without any encouragement from me!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I would love to see schools funded more equitably, as well as more funding and research put into social-emotional learning, and funding for mental health professional staff (school counselors, expressive arts therapists, social workers, psychologists, etc.) in all schools. Many school districts are not working with the suggested counselor to student ratios, so incentivizing districts to follow those ratios would be very helpful. I think grants and scholarships to train people to become school-based mental health professionals would also be great, as we need more staff and this would encourage people to serve, as they wouldn’t be discouraged from entering the field due to an exorbitant amount of student loan debt.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I define leadership as the quality of inspiring, encouraging, and guiding other people toward a common goal. A good leader is willing to do anything they ask other people to do. They help instill confidence in others to take healthy risks and do their best.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

5 things I wish I had been taught about feelings when I was a kid:

1.) Your thoughts influence your feelings. You have the power to control your thoughts, so you can impact your feelings as well. And just because you think a thought — does not mean it’s true!

2.) All feelings are okay. It is such a powerful act to be able to name your feelings by saying how you feel. Your feelings will change — they’ll come and go, just like the weather, and that’s okay and that’s expected!

3.) Find a creative outlet to express your thoughts and feelings — whether that is through art, music, writing, dance, or drama. Find a healthy way to express yourself and connect with your creativity.

4.) Taking some slow, deep breaths is such a simple but impactful practice that will positively influence your day. If you can combine the deep breathing with some movement, then even better! Try to make your exhale longer than your inhale, and this can really relax you.

5.) There is so much power in the present moment. Don’t spend your time worrying about what might happen in the future, or stressing about what already happened in the past. Just find time to be present in this very moment. Try not to strive for things by thinking ‘as soon as I get this, I will feel that…’ Just try to be present, in this very moment, right now.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Frederick Douglass said that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” and this quote really resonates with me since I have dedicated my career to trying to make the world a little bit brighter by helping children with their social-emotional needs.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I have been extremely inspired by the powerful work of Brené Brown’s! Without her books and influence, I probably would not have written Skills for Big Feelings.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

http://www.wholechildcounseling.com
http://www.facebook.com/wholechildcounseling
http://www.instagram.com/wholechildcounseling

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


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