My 20 month old daughter, splayed out on the sidewalk, carefully rested her head on the pavement and forcefully announced, “Fit!”

“Oh, you need to have a fit,” I observed. “Go ahead. Let me know when you’re all done.”

It wasn’t the first time she had made such a proclamation; a few months ago, when she first demonstrated the need to have a “temper tantrum,” instead of reacting with dismay, I told her, “It’s okay if you need to have a fit. You can lay on the ground until you’re done.” In the weeks that followed, she didn’t have meltdowns very often, but when she did, stubbornly dropping to the ground in that classic toddler maneuver of non-compliance and protest, I would acknowledge that she was having a “fit” and calmly wait until she was done.

Imagine my surprise when, after this had happened a few times, she began to inform us, “Fit!” before she threw herself to the ground. In a way, I felt almost proud.

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Knowing Yourself as a Parent

In the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on myself as a parent- particularly my strengths and things I suck at areas that could use some improvement. A few weeks ago, over at The HerStories Project, I wrote a post about using your Myers-Briggs personality type to help understand your style as a mother. As an ENFJ, identified as the “Heart-to-Heart Mother,” I determined that my personal strengths lie in nurturing my children, communicating openly with them, and readily discussing personal concerns, both theirs and mine.

I first read the book that inspired this post, MotherStyles: Using Personality Type To Discover Your Parenting Strengths, by Janet Penley, when my oldest daughter was barely two, and as I absorbed this very astute assessment of my personal strengths and struggles, I wondered, “When exactly are these “skills” of mine going to come into play? When will I find myself thriving as a “heart-to-heart mother?” I finally feel I have arrived at a stage of parenting where I can see how my natural tendencies are helping me to thrive in certain areas. Last week I wrote a somewhat controversial post about using profanity, and one of my assertions was that a priority of mine is to raise emotionally intelligent children. The term “emotional intelligence” may mean a variety of things to different people, so for the sake of clarity, I am going to focus on four areas that represent my own vision of emotional health. They are:

  1. The ability to identify feelings as they are happening.
  2. Expressing these feelings in a way that is not harmful to others
  3. The development of empathy towards others
  4. Articulating one’s emotional needs to others clearly and appropriately

Use Your Words

We hear it repeated over and over by parents, desperate to get their kids to communicate with them: “Use your words!” they implore, hoping to get their child to resemble a modern human instead of a caveman. When my oldest daughter went through the tantrum stage that was typical of 1-3 year olds, she developed some behaviors that, while age-appropriate, were somewhat problematic: hitting, throwing things, and even a brief foray into biting (shudder.)

We started to encourage her to stomp her feet and shout, “I’m mad!” instead of lashing out- it was surprisingly effective. Adding a physical component- stomping, banging a drum, etc- helped to add a satisfying outlet to the verbal expression of her frustration.

As she grew older, she continued to be skilled at putting a label on her emotions- frustration, disappointment, fear, anger- and I continued to reflect her feelings back to her. When our kids are little, it is sometimes necessary to help them find a voice for their struggles. I try not to force an emotional response onto my child by saying things like, “You’re sad” or “You’re mad,” since we can’t always tell exactly how they are feeling. Sometimes I will observe, “You look frustrated,” or even add my own viewpoint, “When I can’t get what I want, I feel disappointed,” and “When I fall down I feel really angry and embarrassed!”

A colorful spectrum of emotions

A colorful spectrum of emotions

I think one of the most essential things we can do to help our children begin to recognize and express their feelings is to model our own emotional responses. Rather than the 1950’s model of pasting an eternal smile on our matriarchal faces, it is OK to tell our kids, “Mommy is really angry right now because her favorite vase just broke,” or “I am really sad that Grammy and Papa went back home today.” I collaborated with my childcare provider, Teresa Linder, who happens to be one of the most experienced child development experts I know, to brainstorm for this post. She emphasized the value of parents modeling healthy expression, and added that reading stories with our children and discussing the underlying feelings and situations is another helpful strategy.

In my post about swearing, I referred to the “Alterna-Swear” that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher taught them to say when they were upset- “Mr. Padinky!” I received an abundance of comments from people sharing their diverse opinions on profanity and self-expression for children, ranging from moms who allow their children to swear at home, to people who think that displays of extreme emotion are tacky.  However we do it, I think it is important to help our kids find a way to express all their feelings- even the deep, dark, ugly ones.

The Value of Empathy and Validation

When my oldest daughter was three, my husband and I took a Love and Logic parenting class. We both found the information to be extremely helpful in dealing with a variety of parenting challenges (I highly recommend you visit their website and explore their literature!) and were easily able to put much of it into practice.

One of the most useful things we took away from the course was the importance of integrating empathy into our interactions with our children. (In fact, this goes a long way with adults, too. The next time your spouse is venting about a problem, try responding with an empathetic comment such as “That sounds really frustrating” rather than providing a solution they may not want to hear.) When I have reached my boiling point mid-tantrum, I try to muster up enough empathy to say, “Oh, man! What a bummer! You threw your ice cream cone on the ground and now it’s all gone,” even though I may feel like saying, “Serves you right, you little whiner!”

I recently began reading the book Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and one of the most beneficial things I read was their suggestion to try to validate your child’s feelings. When an older sibling explodes and says something like, “I wish my sister had never been born,” instead of responding with, “What a terrible thing to say! You should be ashamed!” try instead to find something, anything, about their comment that you can validate. For example, a response such as,”It sounds like you’d really like some time alone with Mom,” or “It seems like your little sister is really getting on your nerves right now,” goes a long way to validate your child’s unhappy feelings.

I think this notion of validation applies to scenarios beyond dealing with sibling rivalry- I even try to apply it when my children come crying to me with yet another non-serious injury. I think as parents, our first impulse is to respond to a child who has fallen down with the standard, “You’re okay.” I fight the urge to parrot that mantra by replying with, “That really hurt!” or “That scared you, but you’ll be okay.” It may seem like a petty case of semantics, but the underlying message is, when our children fall down/bump their head/watch their brother destroy their Lego castle, they are not okay in that moment.

Allowing them to experience their reaction in their own way, while reassuring them that they will feel better, provides them with that dose of empathy and validation without dismissing their feelings.

Sharing our Feelings With Others

Young children often express themselves in ways that are inappropriate or harmful to those around them- pushing their friends, throwing their toys, hitting their parents, peeing on them, (just wanted to see if you were still reading) or even screaming in someone’s face. While I am all for self-expression, it is crucial to balance it with self-regulation and containment.

Teresa introduced me to some exciting research in this field by the organization TACSEI-Technical Assistance Center on Social Emotional Intervention for Young Children. TACSEI provides some outstanding resources to help children cope with challenging emotions. Visit their website to explore some free downloadable resources and learn more about their philosophy.

One of their resources is called the Turtle Technique, and features a story you can read to your kids about Tucker the Turtle and how he learns a new way to handle his anger.

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You can download the entire book from their website under "Turtle Technique".

You can download the entire book from their website under “Turtle Technique”.

With both of our daughters, we have read the Best Behavior series books (not quite as uptight as they sound) by Martine Agassi Ph.D. and Marieka Heinlen. Our favorite are “Hands Are Not For Hitting,” “Teeth Are Not For Biting,” and “Words Are Not For Hurting.” As parents, we don’t have all the answers, and the right response is not always readily available to us. Using books like this to provide instruction when we have absolutely no idea what to say to our kids can be a lifesaver.

The concept of “time-out” is somewhat controversial; many people swear by it, and others claim that it is overly punitive or doesn’t work for their kids. I don’t like the idea of “punishing” my six year old for being disappointed, but that doesn’t mean I am going to allow to her to sit at the dinner table and wail hysterically because we’re not going out for ice cream. There is a time and place to say, “I’m sorry you’re disappointed, and you can cry about it as long as you want to. However, we are eating dinner, so you may go cry in your room. See you later.”

Part of my job as a mom is to help my daughters realize that their feelings- all of them- are acceptable and worthy of being expressed. However it is equally important that I help them find ways to cope, self-regulate, and contain their emotional reactions.

It is not okay when your “freedom of expression” causes harm to another person, nor is it okay when a family outing or Mommy and Me class is interrupted by a ten minute long screaming fit. Sometimes a child needs to be removed from the action until they can get themselves together, in my opinion.

Coming Full Circle

One of the most rewarding things I have seen unfold as a product of my six year old’s emotional self-awareness is her awareness of other people’s emotional experiences. While she (okay, and her mother, too) may struggle with being overly emotional at times, she is incredibly empathetic. Her teachers, and even some other parents, have commented to me how nurturing she is when one of her classmates is hurt, disappointed, or sad. That makes me proud.

The other night I was frustrated because my husband and daughter’s new nightly routine of watching The Voice was interfering with our beloved ritual of “book-club,” when the three of us snuggle together in bed and read silently to ourselves. I looked at the clock that evening and realized they had spent so much time in front of the TV that we had no time for reading, and I snapped, “I’m tired of you guys watching TV after dinner! You’ve ruined our book club every night this week!” (Yes, I’m an excellent model of emotional health, aren’t I?)

My daughter dissolved into tears and replied, “I wish you had just said Please turn off the TV and not told me I ruined book-club.”

Wow.

In that moment, two things happened. First, I realized that she was exactly right, and I had used unnecessary and hurtful words rather than calmly asking for what I wanted. Second, it became clear to me that the lessons I wished to impart about honesty, expression, and emotional awareness were sinking in. Sometimes, as parents, we get things right.

 

While I am by no means an “expert” in child psychology, I have a lot to say on this subject, don’t I? I may need to do a follow-up segment, as this topic is too broad to be covered by one way too long post. But I’d like to hear your thoughts. What do you think constitues an emotionally healthy child or adult? Do you have favorite strategies for helping your kids express themselves or deal with challenging emotions? 

 

 

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