The first strategy in Chapter 5 of The Whole-Brain Child addresses feelings. While we are striving to get our children to understand their feelings, we also need them to understand that their feelings change: “… feelings need to be recognized for what they are: temporary, changing conditions.” Siegel and Bryson explain why this is an important distinction:
“When children experience a particular state of mind, such as feeling frustrated or lonely, they may be tempted to define themselves based on that temporary experience, as opposed to understanding that that’s simply how they feel at the moment. Instead of saying, ‘I feel lonely’ or ‘I feel sad right now,’ they say, ‘I am lonely’ or ‘I am sad.’ The danger is that the temporary state of mind can be perceived as a permanent part of their self. The state comes to be seen as a trait that defines who they are.”
My oldest child is four, and she is not defining herself by her emotions – yet. But she can definitely get stuck in an unpleasant cycle of her emotions. So what do you do? In the book there is an illustration to demonstrate how to teach that feelings come and go. There’s a little girl who is mad at her dog for ripping her picture, and she hates her dog. The adult acknowledges her feelings, points out that’s how she feels in the present moment, describes a scenario when she felt love for her dog, and then uses those two moments to point out how her feelings change.
Right before the teaching example is the example of when we dismiss and deny. The adult says, “I’m sorry, honey, that Moby ripped your picture. Don’t worry though, you’ll get to paint another one at school.” I do that. I dismiss and deny my daughter’s feelings. Since reading this, I have caught myself several times. My intent is not to dismiss and deny; I think I’m helping my child get past their feelings. But what I’m really doing is shoving their feelings out of the way so I don’t have to deal with them. And then everyone “looks” happier.
I began making an effort to teach my four year old that feelings come and go — especially since I just needed to replace a little sister for the dog in the above scenario. Well, I’m hoping I get better with practice. So far I’ve felt clumsy with my words. I am really good at saying, “I’m sorry that you are angry that your sister has a toy. Remember when you were happy to play with her when she woke up this morning?” But I couldn’t ever remember how the cartoon demonstration ended: “See how sometimes you feel love and sometimes you feel anger? Your feelings change all the time, don’t they?” That makes sense, but whatever I said probably didn’t. Plus, my four year old daughter usually corrected me on what emotion she was feeling, so I probably need practice there, too.
For now, this strategy of teaching that emotions come and go is helping me be present through the emotions (usually I want to run far away from the screaming and crying). But I also think it would be helpful to revisit this idea of emotions coming and going during a calm, happy time. I found my daughter and I were using the strategy mostly during an angry or sad time referring back to a happy time. I wonder what connections my daughter could make when we referred back to a sad time when she is happy?
Or maybe I could just comment on her beautiful smile and ask how she feels, so that I can point out that her emotions changed. I figure it’s worth the try, and I need the practice.