An Educator Mama's Story of Helping with Big Feelings
by Katie Raher, PhD, PPS
This is a piece I wrote almost three years ago. An oldie but a goodie to share now that I've got the Constant Love and Learning blog...
As a parent or professional who works with children, there is so much power in what we choose to teach. We don’t often see the results of our efforts right away, but in some moments, we find gems of evidence that what we are doing is working.
My three-and-a-half-year-old had a major meltdown the other day, leading to him screaming, hitting, and kicking. I actually don’t recall why he lost it. There is a high chance that I cut his toast in half when he wanted it whole, or something outrageous like that, but I do recall what happened during and afterwards.
To manage myself, I used a lot of deep breathing, but it was no easy feat to ride the wave with him, as it never is. I was fortunate that we were not running late at this point and that I myself had had a decent night of sleep. With my mama feelings largely in check, I was able to help him through his emotional roller coaster.
After he got through the worst of it, his little body finally slowed down, his breath regulated along with mine, and he melted into my arms.
And as I held him, I reflected and validated the big feelings he had been having…
“Wow, your body was really upset… you were so upset with mama… now your body is starting to feel better… mama is here for you… I’m here as long as you need me… let me know when you’re ready to talk about what happened…”
Now I obviously wasn’t recording myself, so this probably isn’t verbatim, but these are some common go-tos for me, at least during those finer parenting moments when I myself hold it together – and don’t worry, there is no perfection here, as I too make many mistakes, especially when we are running late or my sleep deficits lead to my own cranky feelings.
As I continued to hold my little guy, he whimpered and finally spoke up, “Mama, I was sad. I was fusturated (‘frustrated’ in his adorable voice) you didn’t give me what I wanted.”
“Oh honey, that is frustrating.”
And disappointing. Not getting what you want IS a lot to handle when you’re just three going on four.
Now get this… My bowl of Kimochis© feelings (these wonderful plush feeling pillows with feeling words on one side and a matching facial expression on the other; Kimochis© means "feelings" in Japanese) were laying next to us, as I had laid them out to bring that day to use in my daughter’s class, and he grabbed the sorry feeling pillow.
“Oh, sweetheart, you want to tell me you’re sorry?”
“Yes, mama, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hit you.”
“It’s okay honey, we all make mistakes. Your body was really upset.”
“Mama, it’s okay to be sad but it’s not okay to be mean.” Yep, he said that! It’s a Kimochis Kotowaza (“wise wisdoms” that are catchy phrases to help with your feelings), and we work on this one a lot. And he remembered it!! It’s technically the Kotowaza for the mad feeling, but he adapted it remarkably well, and he likely had some mad mixed up in there as well.
I myself had moved from deep breathing to celebration – my mind was screaming, “What I’m doing is working!”
“That’s right, baby.” AND THEN he grabbed the loved feeling pillow. That is his favorite pillow.
“Of course you are loved baby. Mama loves you no matter what.”
And Mama is proud!! Of course I’m biased and think my little guy is extra special, but I must say he is only THREE years old (okay, technically three-and-a-half, and he would want me to be clear about that), so all of what he did was pretty amazing.
The thing is that most older kids I know and have worked with haven’t had this big of a feeling vocabulary or as much awareness of the difference between having feelings and having actions that follow. Sadly, many adults haven’t gotten this social and emotional learning and self-awareness down much yet either. Commonly, when you ask the average child (or adult) how they are feeling, happy, mad, sad, or the really limited response that puts me into high teaching mode – “good”- are all they’ve got.
What’s great, though, is that any kiddo, and any adult for that matter, can develop a rich emotional vocabulary and learn to communicate their varied feelings in positive ways when they are taught and coached to do so. And of course the Kimochis feeling pillows provide a fun, tangible way to support children's ability to communicate their feelings - in schools and even in your own home!
I’ve seen it time and time again in my work with students and clients and in the work of colleagues. And it can happen as early as age three, and even before I’d say.
In our house, we have lots of priorities, with feelings and kindness being some of the top items on the list. As a parent, I get to choose what I prioritize for my children, but why does this matter so much outside of my home as well?
Research consistently links children’s social-emotional functioning with their current and future school performance, well-being, and more (Aber, Butler, Danziger, Doar, Ellwood, Gueron, Haidt, et al., 2015; Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). When kids (and adults) are able to fully understand what they, and others, are feeling broadly and deeply – beyond simply happy, mad, and sad, and they are taught to manage those feelings in ways that are helpful, they are much more likely to have more fulfilling and successful lives. And the world becomes a kinder place to live. The kind of world I want to leave to my kids and all children.
Edited to add 10/9/19:
If, as part of your constant learning, you'd like to understand more about how Kimochis© can support you in helping children communicate their feelings and develop emotional intelligence, be sure to check out the different ways to learn with me, or reach out to connect and set up a free curiosity call.
Aber, L., Butler, S., Danziger, S., Doar, R., Ellwood, D. T., Gueron, J. M., Haidt, J., et al. (2015). Opportunity, responsibility, and security – A consensus plan for reducing poverty and restoring the American Dream. AEI/ Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity.
Jones, D.E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105, pp. 2283-2290.
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