Today, a thought.
It seems that lately, articles on how to teach our kids to self control are overflowing my feeds and every time I read one, I can't refrain from screaming: "NO!!!!" In all of these articles, we are being taught all kinds of techniques to pass on to our kids on how to control their emotions when they get upset. Breathing, imagery, going out for some fresh air, retreating to a quiet place, you name it. It seems that the whole idea is to suppress those feelings, make them disappear and keep on going as if nothing had happened. The problem though, is that something did happen.
Children's feelings are BIG and OVERWHELMING (same as grown up feelings) and kids can't simply stop, reflect on them and make them disappear. They either aren’t developmentally ready to do that yet, and/or they don’t know how to, and if you think about us adults for a second, you will realize that even we have a very hard time doing so. Can you imagine yourself overwhelmed with feelings and someone telling you to "calm down and breathe"? Exactly! To this request most of us would get even more upset! We are angry, disappointed, powerless, fed up with a situation, and we are being told to calm down and think!? But we just want to exploooooode!!!!!
Now imagine that you are 3, 6 or 13 years old.
You’ve got it. It's even worse.
I’d like to invite you to think of overwhelming feelings as a sort of ticking bomb trapped in our body. They are in there, their power building up by the minute and if we don’t release them in an appropriate way, they end up exploding, most possibly at the wrong time, in the wrong setting and in the worst possible shape, damaging everything that’s around. Think about yourself again: have you never "exploded" out of nowhere at your spouse or a trusted family member after a hard day at work or with the kids? Feelings can't be kept in, they are a ticking bomb, and they can't be forced to disintegrate or disappear by breathing or meditating. They need a channel to exit the body in a safe, efficient way. They need to be named, expressed and processed, and this is what we really need to teach our children to do. Until then, we won’t be really helping them.
So how do we teach our children to name, express and process their feelings then?
1. Modeling: verbalizing our OWN feelings and the strategies that we use to deal with them, is a great way to teach our children how to name, express and process their own feelings. Children learn from what they see and hear us doing/saying, so when you find yourself dealing with challenging feelings, think about the possibility of sharing them with your children, always making sure that they are child appropriate or the damage will outgrow the benefit. After sharing your feelings with your children, it is crucial that you also share with them your thoughts about the different possibilities for handling these feelings (again, please make sure that you do it in a child friendly way). For example: "I feel upset because my friend made me feel powerless and now I feel like hitting her. I won't do that though, because if I do, she will hit me back. I'll also probably get in trouble because it is illegal to hit a person. I think I have two options: ignore her or talk to her and explain how my feelings are hurt. I'm not ready to lose her friendship, so I'll try talking to her. I'll say something like M, when you said abc to me today, I felt xyz and I'd like to understand why would you say such thing OR I'd like to ask you not to use those kind of words when you relate to me."
The only way a child will learn to name, process and verbalize his feelings is by seeing us doing so.
2. More modeling: after solving your own personal conflict, come back to your children and share the experience with them. In a child friendly manner, share with them how your exchange with the person who provoked your overwhelming feelings went and which changes you had to make on the go to make things work. If your case does not involve interacting with a provoking person but is about dealing with a situation itself, once you have dealt with it, share your experience with your kids. By doing this, the learning will keep on happening: your kids will have had an opportunity to learn how a person can possibly react to one’s requests and which options are there available to solve those possible challenges, as well as how you dealt with your feelings when the situation demanded so.
Now there’s one last thing. Learning is a process and your kids won’t learn how to name, process and verbalize their feelings from hearing you doing it a couple of times. They will need you to do it on a regular basis, many, many times before they can be independent and do it on their own. Also, they will need you to be their guide in their learning process. How? When you see your child overwhelmed, the best thing you can do is be empathetic and guide your child through the thinking process you would have done if you were the one who’s overwhelmed. Ask these questions out loud and help them think: What is bothering you? Which are your options? Pros and cons of each option? Which one do you choose? What are the possible consequences of your choice? Are you willing to go along with these?
You being a role model and a guide is what it takes for your children to learn to name, process and verbalize their feelings. This is the real learning that they need to do and once they are savvy on this, they will be effective at thinking, breathing and calming down.