Did you ever grow up going to summer camps? I sure did and one of the classic summer camp games we did was a “trust-building exercise” that was supposed to help us come together as a group. I remember being blind-folded and then spun around in circles 5 times. My partner would then stand behind me giving me ONLY verbal directions and no physical guidance. I recall thinking, “I am literally in the dark! I have no idea where I’m going or what I may run into.” My partner had to raise his voice as I almost ran into a big rock or a tree out in the middle of the forest where we were camping. As I participated in that exercise, I felt totally in the dark and completely dependent on another person to navigate my way forward.
It’s that sense of being in the dark and totally dependent that is your child’s lived experience every day when it comes to their feelings, emotions, and behavior. Your child is really “in the dark” when it comes to navigating their feelings. And surprise, surprise . . . your child has big, raw, unbridled feelings that seem to come out of nowhere without warning. And they need A LOT of help to identify their feelings, calm down, and successfully move on.
And it’s because your child is running around in the dark with these feelings that you see the behavior that you do. Your child hasn’t learned yet how to manage all of those huge feelings that come like a speeding car out of nowhere to run everyone over. So, what they really need to move past the behavior is for you to be their emotional guide. Being your child’s emotional guide requires that you sense, embrace, identify the feelings, and then offer comfort. In doing so, you can give your child the tools to handle those big emotions before they turn into behavior.
How To Be Your Child’s Emotional Guide and Change Their Behavior
Something that’s really important to know is that one of the most critical ways your child learns about his own feelings is through yours. However, to identify your own feelings, you need to sense them first. The best way to do this is to pay attention to your body. It most often comes into your awareness as a subtle or sometimes intense sensation; a churn in your stomach or an ache in your neck. You may even notice areas of tension or a change in your breathing. All of these signals are your body’s way of alerting you to a feeling.
When you start to tune into all of those sensations and stay with them, you will later be able to identify what the true feelings are underneath them. Take notice of your body. What sensations do you feel? Where do you feel tension? Is that sensation staying in one spot or moving around? Once you’ve felt it in your body, you can more easily give it a name later. A simple mindfulness practice can help develop this ability to notice your body’s sensations. Dr. Dan Siegel has a great, short meditation practice available here. Headspace also offers a series of free guided meditations that would be a great place to start in cultivating a more daily practice of mindfulness.
Now, of course, you will not be doing this in the heat of the moment with your child. I recommend carving out 5 to 10 minutes to do this at the start or end of your day. With repeated practice, you will be able to sense more readily in that moment with your child.
If you’re like every other human out there, when you sense a feeling coming, you often tense up. Especially when it comes to kids’ feelings, everyone is bracing themselves for impact. But I want to encourage you to soften and welcome those feelings, good or bad, with arms wide open. I previously talked about some ways that you can really get through to your child that are also very effective in embracing your child’s feelings. When you embrace instead of brace, you create a wonderfully safe space for them to fully express themselves, get in touch with those oftentimes scary emotions, and build the resilience they need to move through them. Circle of Security would say that you are being a “secure base” or “safe haven”.
What is both wonderful and beautiful about this is that as you lovingly embrace your child’s full range of emotion, you are embracing your own emotions as well. What’s funny is that we often have this reflexive response to rescue or even minimize our child’s emotions. This is actually a sign of our own discomfort with them. Embracing your child with empathy, strength, and gentleness can actually serve to begin healing your own childhood experiences of feeling stifled, suppressed, or scorned for your emotions. Loving your child in this way is also a way of loving and healing yourself.
If you stick with that process of sensing your body’s sensation and embracing it, a picture of your feeling will begin to emerge. The tension in your chest begins to feel like despair or your shallow breathing begins to feel like fear. Take the time you need to stay with the feeling long enough to let it reveal itself until you can give it a name.
Now, in as few words as possible or with pictures, tell your child what feelings come up for you (e.g. “When you broke the toys, I felt scared.”). You can then ask, “Are you feeling this way, too?” You can also provide them with a simple feelings chart with pictures of feeling faces and allow them to point to the face that matches their feeling. Oftentimes, when you first start this process, your child may not be able to identify their feelings. (After all, kids are no different than us adults when it comes to this.) If they can’t seem to identify one, choose a feeling that is most likely what they are experiencing and allow them to confirm it.
Once you have done this, it is so important to offer and provide loving support and comfort. Depending upon your child’s unique needs, comfort will look different from one to the next. So tailor your comfort to their unique sensory profile and individual temperament. Offer hugs, a gentle touch, rubbing their back, or simply just being with them for as long as they need. Perhaps they are still pretty worked up and need your help to calm down. Model deep breathing and reassure them that you will stay with them as long as they need you to. Use of a positive time out space can really be helpful here with a collection of comforting toys, objects, and visuals or even music. Positive Discipline offers some great ideas on this.
Just like I needed my trusted partner to give me clear and calm directions as to where to go during our trust-building exercise, your child also needs the same trusted guide (YOU) to navigate out of the darkness and into the light of understanding their emotions. This process of sensing, embracing, identifying, and comforting your child requires repeated practice. But soon, you will become your child’s most trusted guide through the unknown and sometimes scary world of feelings and emotions.