Thursday, February 26, 2009


(Originally posted at Rational Jenn)

From the three-year-old screaming in anger because she was denied her chance to play with the latest video game, to the six-year-old shouting "Woohoo!" at an earsplitting decibel level because he just found that special rock that had gone missing from his collection, to the baby who freaks out every time Mom moves more than three feet away: little kid emotions are anything but little.

And I don't know for sure, but I suspect, that the emotions continue to be big as the kids get older. :o)

One of the greatest benefits I've gained from all of my research into positive discipline is learning some excellent techniques for helping my kids identify and handle their emotions. And even better: I have improved at identifying and handling my own emotions, too.

Everyone has heard of "The Terrible Twos," that developmental stage where a child's Big Emotions emerge in Big Ways and can often be overwhelming for everyone to deal with. As I was contemplating mommyhood, I was very nervous at the thought that I would one day be faced with such a creature, since it was often so difficult for me to handle some of my own big feelings.

And it has been difficult at times. It's really hard to remain calm and collected when someone is freaking out in your face. Or when multiple someones are ganging up on you to make you lose your mind having diametrically opposed issues (that is, the only way to satisfy one person is to disappoint the other). Or when you needed to leave the house 15 minutes ago. Or when you happen to be caught up in your own strong emotions.

I can honestly report that I'm getting better all the time. :o)

Call A Spade A Spade

When the kids were very small, we told them the names of the emotions they were experiencing. This may sound like a "well, duh" kind of thing to do, but I am amazed at how often I have encountered parents who have not done this. Identifying the emotion is the natural first step to belong a child understand and control his emotions.

When someone seems upset, I take a stab at what they might be thinking and say something like: "You seem mad." I learned early on that I would be corrected if my guess was even slightly off.

  • "It's frustrating when you can't break apart those LEGOs."
  • "You're sad because you can't find your special leaf." (True story.)
  • "Wow, you must be so proud of yourself!"

Even with the baby, who as far as I can tell only understands the words milk, kitty, Daddy, and possibly his own name, I am naming his emotions for him. Because one day he will understand what I'm saying and feel the need to correct me.

Listen Actively

Back when I used to have a Real Job (ha ha!), I managed people for a living. (Hmmm....that's actually a lot like my job these days.) I went to a few classes to learn about how to manage people and one thing I found really useful was something called "Active Listening." Oh hey, look! There's a website!

One of the techniques for active listening is to "reflect" or paraphrase what you're hearing in order to empathize and make sure you're understanding everything correctly. Sometimes, it's enough to just know that someone cares adn understands, you know?

Many of the PD books offer the same advice when dealing with kids. I find this works well in combination with the Naming the Emotions ideas, too. Some examples:

  • "You seem so sad. You didn't like it when she pushed you."
  • "I know, it's hard to wait for your turn."
  • "What happy news! You completed your project!"

Ayn Rand noted that emotions are not tools of cognition. In the essay "Philosophical Detective," from Philosophy: Who Needs It, she writes (emphasis added):

An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something.

Active listening--naming the emotion plus reflecting what's happening--is so useful in the moment, because it helps the child connect the big emotion he is experiencing with something in reality. It helps him begin to understand that emotions are not causeless and random; that emotions give a person clues to what is going on inside his own mind and in reality.

When the emotions are strong and overwhelming (as in Meltdown, Fit, Tantrum, Knock Down Drag Out, Spazz, what have you) and the child is out of control, it can be very scary for her. Helping her identify what she's feeling, and why she is feeling it, is an essential part of comforting her. Eventually, she'll be able to do those things for herself and say things to you like:

"ARRRGGGHHH! I'm so frustrated because I can't open the lid to the Ovaltine and BBBLLLEAEAARRRGG!" (Also a true story.)

And while such a statement might begin and end with a scream, it's the middle part that will (hopefully) stick in her maturing brain. By the time she's an adult, she'll maybe be able to just go with the middle part!

Be An Example

Kids are benevolent little parent-stalkers; they are watching your every move so that they can learn how grownups behave. They're trying to figure it all out because they are working so hard to become grownups themselves, so they observe--and imitate. [Insert "Memorable Evil Laugh" here.]

In this area of emotions, being a good example for my kids has been a challenge for me. I never learned good ways to manage my own frustrations and anger. I knew this about myself going in, but it wasn't until I read some great books about how to better communicate with kids that I finally learned some techniques for just how to improve.

These days, I say things like:

"Having my pathway blocked with toys makes me feel frustrated and worried that I might trip and fall!"

Instead of:

"Arrrgghhh! Get these toys out of my way!"

The first way is better because it models the way I'd like my kids to speak; it identifies my emotions accurately (as opposed to appearing as if I'm inexplicably MAD); and it connects the feelings I'm having with something in reality, offering an explanation about why. Again--identify the emotion(s) and the Something in reality that is triggering the emotion.

Know Thy Temperament

I found the book Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Kurcinka to be so helpful in understanding my kids' temperaments, and my own, too. My friend Kelly suggested this book to me and it has become one of my go-to resources when I'm trying to understand something related to temperament issues. Another resource I refer to often is The Highly Sensitive Child by Elaine Aron, because both Ryan and I are off-the-charts sensitive types. Sensitive in this case is used in the sense of highly observant and HS people tend to be prone to being overwhelmed by external stimuli.

Each of my kids have different personality traits, even though they all came from the same place, which is so interesting to me. Some of those traits were present from birth, although it's easier to identify in hindsight than at the time.

Ryan, as I mentioned, is extremely sensitive and not terribly persistent. Morgan is extremely persistent and incredibly focused on her own inner world. It's still a bit early to tell, but if I had to make some generalizations about Sean's personality, it would be that he's somewhere between Ryan and Morgan on the sensitivity scale, and that he tends toward Big Passionate Feelings with extreme ups and downs (which blows over quickly, thankfully). Ryan is just like me--it's really kind of eerie. Morgan is even more eerily like her father, if you can believe.

Each kid handles emotions differently, and it seems very temperament-driven. When Ryan gets angry, he quickly and easily becomes overwhelmed and needs quite a bit of help calming down. The technique that has worked really well for him has been the Deep Breath Technique. We count "1...2...3..." and then he takes a deep breath. This must often be repeated over and over for minutes at a time. As he's matured, he can identify when he needs a Deep Breath, and can usually just do it himself.

When Morgan feels incredibly angry or sad, she needs to run and hide. If you try to intrude on her space during this hibernation period, she freaks out and you have to start all over again. So I let her curl into a ball in a corner somewhere, and just check on her occasionally until she is calm and ready to talk.

Our friend Livy needs a physical outlet for her big emotions. Once, when throwing a tantrum at my house, she moved from room to room, kicking and flailing her arms, using big motions. I let her have space to do this, but I did ask her to move away from the baby when she was getting a bit too close.

Help the child understand his personality. I don't how old a child must be before he is able to introspect in the same way an adult can, but there are ways a parent can help a child understand aspects of his temperament and encourage introspection. I have said such things as:

  • "You need space when you're feeling sad. I'll give you some space now."
  • "That sad kind of music makes you feel sad--you're noticing the feelings the composer put into the music."
  • "When you have a problem, you never give up--that's persistence."
  • "You always like to do things for yourself. You like being independent."
  • "When you're mad, you like to kick until all of the mads are all kicked out."

Helping the child introspect and understand his personality can help him figure out when his feelings and reality don't match. It's really good practice, being able to identify any errors that might have been made.

A parent often has to tailor their words, responses, and actions to each child's unique personality. I this is especially true when helping them deal with their emotions.

Don't Be Negative

I don't know if this was intentional on my parents' part or not, but somehow I came out of my childhood thinking that Anger is a Bad Thing. It has taken me, oh, until a couple of years ago to truly understand that Anger is a very useful emotion. It tells you: "Hey! There's some kind of injustice here! Figure out what it is and fix it!" Only in a very strong hard-to-ignore kind of way.

For a kid, the most difficult emotions to handle are the so-called "negative" emotions: anger, sadness, frustration. For a parent, those are the hardest ones for me to help my kids handle, too.

My focus has been on helping them understand that these emotions tell you "Something's wrong!" (A more accurate way to view the "negative" part of these negative emotions, I think). However, I try not to convey the impression that I think the emotions themselves are wrong somehow.

One way to do that is to allow the kids to experience the emotions. So many times--and I've caught myself doing this, too--I see parents wanting to fix the problem or distract the child away from the emotion, before the child is ready. And I understand the temptation--those emotions sure are LOUD and you want them to stop already!

Don't get me wrong--sometimes distraction is the thing that's needed. There certainly is a fine line between expressing your emotion and wallowing in it--especially for a kid like Ryan. But I also think that many times, simply holding a crying child and saying "I know, I know" while they work through their emotions can be extremely beneficial. (Is this a sensitive personality thing? I really don't know.) If every sad or mad emotion is met with a "Oh, you're fine! Look, a shiny new toy!" it can confuse the child, make him think that there is something wrong with feeling or expressing certain emotions, or even encourage him to hold those emotions in.

So it takes some thinking about and trial-and-error. Our general procedure is this:

  • Identifying the emotion, with reassurance that it's valid to be feeling that way: "It's okay to be mad/sad. That tells you something is wrong."
  • Letting them know that I'm here to help them solve the problem as soon as they are ready: "When you're done feeling mad, we can solve the problem."
  • Helping them find an appropriate outlet for those big strong feelings (a punching pillow, or a hidey-hole).
  • Once everyone is calm, work on solving the problem.
Another way to avoid inadvertently giving the child the wrong impression that Anger or Sadness is "bad" is to stay with the child while he's experiencing those emotions. When one of my kids is throwing a temper tantrum, as much as I want the noise to stop, or as overwhelmed by the noise I might personally be, I do not banish them from the room until they can get back in control.

Instead, I might say "You're screaming is so loud that others can't talk. Let's go up to your room and I will help you calm down." And then we go through the Deep Breath Ritual (with Ryan). With Morgan, she will usually run and hide, but sometimes needs help regaining control--with her, I have to really play it by ear. I might also say "You're out of control and I know you don't like that feeling. I'm here to help you."

If they are expressing their anger in inappropriate ways, such as throwing toys or hitting at people, I might say "You're mad. It's okay to be mad, but it's not okay to throw toys at me. I'm going to put these toys up until you are calm. Would you like to punch this pillow instead?"

There are times when I've not been physically with my tantrumming child, but those instances are the exception rather than the norm. Sometimes when I am becoming overwhelmed by all of the screaming, or need some space to give the matter some rational thought, or when the kid just couldn't stop hitting, I've stepped away from the situation. It's one of my last-resort coping mechanisms. Usually it doesn't come to that, thankfully.


I have one final thought. I encourage my kids to be completely honest about what they are feeling, even when that Huge Feeling of Injustice is directed right at me. Therefore my kids are free to say "I'm mad at you!" and "I HATE it when I have to pick up my toys!" or even "When you yell at me, that's mean!"

Any one of those heated declarations would have gotten me into big trouble as a child. But I think it's okay for them to be able to tell me how they're feeling--happy or sad. And you know, they are often justified.

There's a big difference, of course, between saying "I hate picking up my toys!" and "I hate you!" I haven't had the second statement directed at me very often (but remember, my kids are not yet teenagers), but when that line between "expressing your emotions" and "saying hurtful things because you are mad" gets crossed, it's important to redirect them back to what they are feeling.

One way to do this is to say "It hurts my feelings when you say that you hate me. Try saying 'I don't like it when you do that' instead." Or "You're mad at me--it's okay to be mad at me. It's not okay to call me names. Why don't you try telling me WHY you're mad?" It's very similar to how we handle inappropriate behaviors like hitting, actually, except saying hurtful things falls into the realm of words instead of actions.

There are so many other facets of dealing with emotions, of course. Are there any other areas I should write about, books I should be aware of, things I've missed here? But I think many of the techniques we use will help our kids use their emotions instead of being used by them.

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