Let them Feel and Let them Deal
I don’t know about you but I grew up with a very limited vocabulary regarding my emotions in early childhood. I knew the words; "happy", "sad", and "mad". And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t fully allowed to feel the latter two. I was expected to be happy most of the time. Read: stop that crying or I’ll give you something to cry about! Sound familiar to anyone? Now don’t get me wrong, I know my parents did the absolute best with what they knew. And they truly wanted me happy, fulfilled, and grateful. But, when we don’t allow children to adequately express what they are feeling, their emotional development can be stunted as a result.
Fast-forward to today and I'm a mom and a teacher myself. And it’s a very big deal for me to give the children in my life permission to feel any way they are feeling. I don’t ever want to stop them from feeling an emotion even a negative emotion. Yes, you read that correctly. That is not to say I want a child in my life to hurt or intentionally feel sadness or pain. However, it is through the difficult or negative emotions that we as humans learn to work through our differences, and how to overcome adversity.
Let‘s walk through an example together. Chloe is 3 years old and her parents' only child. She is also the only grandchild on mom’s side. She is used to getting frequent undivided attention. She has more toys than can comfortably fit in her room. She has a sweet demeanor but is on the verge of being downright spoiled. She starts at preschool and for the first time ever is faced with the situation where she needs to share the bucket of crayons with her classmates and take turns with the only princess crown in the dress up center. At snack time she only wants to drink from the purple cup and when it’s time to line up she wants to be the line leader. Every. Time. She isn’t comprehending when she doesn’t get all the crayons, or the crown, or the purple cup or the position of line leader. And when things don’t go her way, a tantrum ensues. As much as I don’t want to see Chloe upset or envious, jealous or disappointed, I believe it’s necessary for her to feel those emotions so she can then deal with them appropriately.
Feel to Deal.
These emotions, to go back to the example of my childhood vocabulary, are not necessarily “sadness” or “anger”. They are not that basic. Sadness for a child comes from missing someone or stubbing your toe. Anger comes from when a classmate purposefully kicks your block tower down or calls you a name. Not getting your way is a bit different and should be labeled "envy", or perhaps "disappointment." Either way, we want her to be able to feel the emotion, give her the tools to handle the emotion and give her the vocabulary and ability to express the emotion.
Let's remember that it is not disrespectful for a child to express they are feeling a negative emotion. It actually helps them and helps us in the long run. When the children in your life are able to express their feelings and emotions correctly your job will certainly get a whole lot easier!
So, how do we do this? Look at the child’s expression and body language. Review the circumstances. How might you feel in the same situation? Ask questions. Be an emotion detective. "Your eyebrows are scrunched up and you have a frown on your face. I've seen you try that puzzle three times and now you dropped it on the floor. Are you feeling frustrated?"
And please don’t tell a child he is OK. One of the worst things I hear adults say to their kids is, “You’re OK.” WHAT?!!! We don’t get to tell another person he is OK! I can’t decide if another person is alright or not. Would you say that to a peer? What if your BFF lost her job and you pat her patronizingly on the shoulder and say, “stop crying, you’re OK.” She might not be your BFF anymore! Or even worse is “There, there.” Can someone please tell me what that even means?! Allowing the child to feel lets him deal.
Let’s go back to Chloe. We explain to her that yes, the princess crown is very sparkly and pretty but Maritza is having a turn right now. When Maritza puts it down, it can be Chloe’s turn again. Also everyone enjoys being line leader, but we can only be line leader once a week. However. we can have a different classroom job on the other days.
It's simple. We talk about the situations. We talk about disappointment and what to do when it comes our way. My classroom has a few favorite sayings.
One is: “Shoot the moon!” And we do it with a huge exaggerated fist going in an upswing in front of our torso.
Another is: “When we win we win. When we lose we learn!” And the main thing I do is, give them the chance to come up with a Plan B. I tell Chloe, “the purple cup is not available right now. What is a good plan B?” And if her stubbornness takes over and she says, "no water!" I stay calm and remind her that we live in the desert and then,“If a choice is too difficult right now, I can make one for you.”
I frequently remind myself and others what a short time children have been on this planet. In the case of Chloe it is only 3 years. She doesn’t have the experience or the vocabulary yet. That’s my job! I don’t lose patience with someone who doesn’t fully understand why she’s feeling the way she’s feeling. I calmly explain what that feeling is called and what we can do when we feel it.
Let her feel so she can deal! There are loads of amazing books on the topic of emotions and I’m linking some of my very favorites!
(I'm super bummed that this is only available as a set on Kindle now. I LOVE this set. It's very well written for young children I love how it includes such a wide variety of emotions and explains what they are and how to handle them. )