The feedback from last week blew me away. To be honest, I never envisioned using this platform to discuss grief. It’s beyond personal and takes a vulnerability I didn’t think I had. However, the words came when I sat down to type. And from the feedback I have received, I’m glad I let them flow.
Grief is highly personal, complicated, messy, beautiful and maddening. It’s also something that can be shared and definitely not something to hide. As Winnie the Pooh said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
September is a new beginning. A new school year. A new start. This September is unlike any other. School has never looked stranger in all of my time as a student and a teacher. While I am on maternity leave, I empathize with all of the teachers; this is not what we signed up for.
This feeling of “this is not what I signed up for” is ringing loudly for everyone right now. None of us, given the choice, would sign up for living through a pandemic. Wearing masks, staying away from friends and family and feeling as though much of our lives have been put on a permanent hold is not a comfortable feeling. There was no Signup Genius and yet we still got signed up.
With the start of school, many of us think of ABCs and 123s. Whether it’s Kindergarten or 12th grade, our kids are taking math, reading and writing to advance their academic skills. But what about their emotional skills? Where is the curriculum for that?
Alphabet and Emotions
Every kindergarten classroom has the alphabet posted prominently in the classroom. It is referred to often to identify and write letters and letter sounds. Can you imagine learning to read without a visual of the letters to support you?
The same should also be true of emotions. How can we expect kids – and adults – to learn emotional regulation without the emotional vocabulary? Many of the following ideas are inspired from one of my favorite books, “Are My Kids On Track?”
When a child is taught a strong foundation of letters, they often become a skilled reader and writer. The 26 letters are the building blocks for future academic work. Without this foundation, a child is not a proficient reader. Similarly, when a child melts down or “loses it,” they are lacking skills in emotional regulation. Both letters and emotional recognition are skills that must be developed and practiced. Like any skill, the more practice, the better one gets whether it’s cooking, baseball, reading or emotions.
Emotional Regulation Progression
- Teach feeling words – kids, and adults, must develop an emotional vocabulary
- Use feeling words in statements – once you have the words, you can say things like, “I feel upset – no one will play with me.”
- Use statements to lead to actions – once feelings are identified and articulated, you can take the emotion to something constructive — like finding someone or something else to play with.
We wouldn’t hand a 2 year old a copy of Harry Potter and expect them to read it. Similarly, we have to build up emotional regulation skills before we can expect kids to be good at regulating them. “Emotional literacy is a prerequisite to regulation, practiced empathy, resourcefulness, and healthy interpersonal relationships.”
Listening is key
“Relationship is the bedrock of emotional development for our children.” The more we listen, truly listen to our kids, the more we help them identify their feelings and emotions. The stronger our relationship grows, the more we can support their emotional development. How do you obtain a stronger relationship with your kids (or anyone for that matter)? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I listen without judgement?
- Do I listen without correction?
- Do I listen without giving unsolicited advice?
I know I have some work to do on all three of these questions, especially on the last one. I have to remind myself to stop talking. Because if I am talking, my kids are not. If I am the one problem solving, my kids are not. Which doesn’t help them develop these vital skills.
Also to note, some days I find I have to push the “reset” button in order to repair the relationships with my kids. My nervous system is on overdrive and there is little my kids can do that doesn’t annoy me… When this happens, I will usually remove myself to take a shower, get water, count to 10, step outside, etc. to attempt to help shift my head space. The relationship needs to be repaired and I can’t expect my preschool aged children to spear head that change. *more ideas to come on how to shift this mindset when you start to hear the shark music playing.
I’ve talked about this before. The best way to develop the emotional vocabulary is to have a feelings chart. Or five — one in the kitchen, the car, their room, the family room and the bathroom. A strong emotional vocabulary is key. I purchased this one when I heard David Thomas, one of the authors of this book speak last year. There are tons of free ones online as well. You can even make your own.
Another option is this emotion flip book. We keep it on our kitchen table and both kids love it. We look at the different emotions and come up with different scenarios. For example, maybe the monster is jealous because his friend is using the swing he wanted. We used to have this on our table and for the last week or so have brought it back. I have heard Grace using more emotional vocabulary since which has been a great reminder to keep it out and accessible.
Next time you are watching a show with your kids or reading a book, talk about the characters and how they are feeling. These are easy opportunities to get the discussion going. It also takes the pressure off as the emotions are about fictional characters.
Express your own emotions
This is why I decided to cry in front of my kids last weekend. “…kids learn more through observation than information. They will learn more from watching you express emotion, point to the feelings chart, and navigate your own emotions than they will from any instruction you give.” Be vulnerable and normalize emotions. When you are sad, you might cry — and that’s not a bad thing. Missing someone is difficult.
*I want to clarify that expressing emotion is not the same as placing the emotion on the child. When I cried in front of Keener and Grace last weekend, I did not expect them to make me feel better. While it warmed my heart that Keener’s default was to hug me, in no way was I looking to a 2 and 4 year old to offer me emotional support — except to snuggle during cartoons. Expressing emotion is very different than expecting a small child to help you work through your emotions.
Use “I” statements
I’m frustrated, I’m feeling upset. I’m annoyed. When we accurately label our own emotions for our kids, we are modeling exactly what we want them to do. It’s also important to make sure your tone and words match. If you are telling your kids “I’m not angry” through gritted teeth and clenched fists, this sends a confusing message. She looks angry but she says she isn’t. Therefore the greater your own emotional vocabulary is, the more accurate you will be able to identify your own feelings.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention 9/11 and the grief associated with this anniversary. I can’t believe it’s been 19 years. Watching the footage brought it all back to the day it happened and flooded me with emotions. I felt angry, troubled, drained, restless and down. Hearing the personal stories from families who lost loved ones was almost too much to bear. But I let myself feel all of those feelings, as unpleasant as they were. However, I also spent time outside on 9/11 and felt a sense of calm, comfort and peace. Another great reminder that feelings are not linear. We are complex beings and need to show compassion for ourselves and those around us.