Helping children process and heal from strong emotions

My daughter, who’s on the verge of turning 3, recently had a brief scary moment where she couldn’t find me at the playground. Though it was less than a minute before she spotted me again, for a child that young, that’s a long time and it can really leave an impression.

As I scooped her up into my arms, she started to cry and said, “I was looking for you everywhere. I couldn’t find you!” In the moment, I empathized with her sadness and acknowledged that it had been really scary for her. I held her for a while and then suggested we ride the swings, which is her favorite thing to do at the park.

After this incident, occasionally, she’s wanted to talk about what had happened. Sometimes when we mention that playground, she’ll talk about “one time I didn’t know where you were,” or when we’re snuggling at bedtime, she’ll suddenly start reminiscing about it and going over the details of it again. She also occasionally replays other upsetting moments — like when she was running outside her brother’s school and skinned her knee. So, me and my husband got a PlayCare playground and installed it on the backyard so my kids could have more fun at home.

Often parents try to stop their child from reliving a sad or scary moment, worrying that it will only upset them more. Since the moment has passed, it could seem like nothing good can come from being sad over it again. In reality, many children need to talk about upsetting moments multiple times as they work to process the intense emotions they felt. While it may seem counterproductive, this helps them to work through it.

Trying to stop a child from discussing it again can actually cause them to stuff the emotions inside and never really resolve their pain. Talking about it can help them to feel better.

When my daughter brings it up now, after I acknowledge her feelings again, I also remind her, “But then you found me and I hugged you. Then, I pushed you on the swings.” I want to make sure she remembers how I comforted her afterwards and that we turned it into an opportunity to connect. This way, it doesn’t seem quite as upsetting, and it helps to turn it into more of a positive memory than one that makes her sad. I hope that in this way I’m helping her to process her emotions and to show that I’m there to support her through them.

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Inspired to read more about children and strong emotions?

Identifying emotions

Creating space to “hold” your child’s

Helping children through divorce

Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions

Tantrums

Tantrums are opportunities to connect

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

How little we really know about the topic of shame

4 tips for cultivating a “yes environment”

kelly-shealer-and-daughterChildren hear the word “no” about 400 times a day. Being told “no” constantly doesn’t feel good and often times can be frustrating. The more children hear it, the more likely they are to have tantrums and power struggles, and feel disconnected from their parents.

Creating a “yes environment” can help families to feel happier and more connected.

This doesn’t mean you must say “yes” to literally everything, or that the word “no” should be nonexistent. It’s important to keep boundaries and to set the limits that are right for your family. The point of creating a “yes environment” is to save the “no” for the occasional vital situations — safety reasons, things that go against family rules, or times when something truly isn’t possible to do.

Here are 4 tips for cultivating a “yes environment”:

  1. Make sure your “no” is really a no — Sometimes we say “no” to a request before we even really think about it. It’s important to take the time to think before answering children’s requests. For example, Is it really unsafe when my sons are roughhousing? Can I make it safer by removing obstacles from the room and helping them set some ground rules? Or, Do I have the time to do this art project? Am I inclined to say “no” just because I don’t want to deal with the potential mess? There are many times when my children will ask to go the playground, but I simply don’t feel like it and I want to start thinking of every excuse not to go. However, when I try to stay in “yes” mode and give it a try, so often I have more fun than expected. I end up feeling grateful that I chose to have that moment of connection with my children and to say “yes” to adventures and exploration.
  2. Save “no” for when it matters — When we say “no” all the time, the word loses some of its significance and effectiveness. “No” is a strong word. Our children need to know that it really matters. That’s important both in having them listen to and respect people who tell them “no,” as well as in situations where their own “no” needs to be respected by other people. When we save “no” for the situations that really matter, it makes the word more powerful — our children know that we indeed mean it.
  3. yes-1137274_1280“Yes…later” — Sometimes your child will ask to do something that would be a “yes” at a different time, like wanting to go to the playground shortly before you need to pick up an older child from school. Instead of saying, “No, we can’t go now. We don’t have time,” you might say, “Yes, we can go to the park after we get your sister from school.” Reframing your words in a positive way, rather than using negative language, is helpful to children.
  4. Explain the “no” — Imagine your toddler is pulling your hair. Your first inclination may be to say, “No!” After all, it hurts, you’re angry, and you want to make it clear that it’s not OK. A more positive way to handle it would be to remain calm and say instead, “That hurts Mommy,” as you move her hand away from your hair. You’re not using the word “no,” but you’re also not allowing the behavior. Explaining it to her in this way will help her understand why you’re stopping their behavior. It also helps develop empathy and gives young children exposure to more language than just “no.”

Building a strong parent-child bond through Playful Parenting

father-1633655_1280One of the most important and challenging undertakings of parenting is to build strong, close bonds between children and their parents. A strong parent-child connection enables children to become confident, independent, develop healthy relationships, and become a peaceful adult.

In his book Playful Parenting, Dr. Lawrence Cohen points out that through play, children explore the world, work through challenging situations and get connected with the people they are close with.

I have found that approaching common parenting struggles with Playful Parenting techniques to be very effective, and it helps to make things easier and more fun for everyone in our family.

Through play, we get to join our children’s world — promoting mutual respect, exploration, and cooperation while enjoying each other’s company.

Using Play to Manage Parenting Struggles

Parents of young children experience many situations where the child resists when they’re asked to do something: They don’t want to pick up their toys or get dressed to go out; they don’t want their hair washed or their nails cut. The list goes on. Making a game out of these tasks can help. It instantly makes the activity more fun and enjoyable for the child and makes it something they’re much less likely to resist.

When my toddler son was into recycling and trash trucks, we made a game of cleaning up his blocks by saying, “Let’s put all the trash in the trash truck.” The blocks were the trash, and the container was the trash truck. When he was 3 and very much into firefighters, we made a game of getting dressed to leave the house by saying, “There’s a fire! It’s time to get in the fire truck. Let’s get on our fire coats and boots!” He’d then be quick to get on his shoes and coat to get in the car.

Many times, parents think they don’t have time for such games. You’re in a hurry to get out the door, so why add in a game and waste more time? But I find that when we play our way through it like this, it actually takes less time for my children to get ready.

Some critics say that parents shouldn’t have to do this and that a child shouldn’t need a game to make them listen. While it’s true that they don’t need it, and there are many other ways to help children cooperate, it does make it more enjoyable. Just like, as an adult, I find it’s more enjoyable to clean while listening to music, or to fold laundry while watching TV. It’s the same concept.

Playing Your Way Through Fears

Play can help release tension and can make what seems scary into something silly. In this way, it can be used to help children work through their fears.

When my son was 4, he was scared during thunderstorms. The sudden sound of thunder was too startling for him, and it kept him tense at bedtime. One night during a storm, I said to him, “What do you think that thunder sounds like? I think it sounds like a train rumbling down the track.” He loved Thomas the Train, so I suggested, “Maybe it’s Thomas!” He started to laugh, and I kept going: “That was really loud. It must’ve been Gordon, because he’s so big!” This turned it into a fun game and made the experience less scary.

Play can also help with minor stresses. A child may come home upset after a hard day at school but then may get to work out some of those emotions by playing school where he is the teacher and in charge.

Dr. Cohen talks more about the idea of using play to handle childhood anxiety in his book The Opposite of Worry.

Connecting with Children Through Play

One part of Playful Parenting is about strengthening connection between parent and child. Children who feel connected and attached to their parents feel closer to them and thus want to cooperate with them. One simple and effective way to connect with our children is to sit and play with them.

Playing can be hard for adults: We’re out of practice, or have low patience, we may have forgotten how to play, or simply feel like we don’t have the time for it. Some people may feel awkward or embarrassed about being silly and goofy if they participate in children’s imaginative play, like a dad who may not want to sit and play with dolls with his young daughter.

However, when we make the effort to be involved in our children’s interests and carve out even as little as 10 minutes a day for one-on-one child-led playtime, our children notice it and respond positively. Deepening our connection with our children makes them more likely to respect us and to want to do what we ask of them. It helps them feel secure and loved, and makes us all happier.

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

“Growing up in a household where your emotions are either actively discouraged or punished, or simply ignored takes a toll on you, a developing child. You internalize the message that your feelings, your needs, your views don’t matter. It’s a belief that’s rooted in childhood feelings. That belief/feeling is powerful, and it stays with you throughout your life.” ~ Jonice Webb, PhD, in “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Psych Central

Sad ChildIn this week’s Editor’s pick, Attachment Parenting International is shedding light on a form of maltreatment of children that is often kept in the dark: emotional abuse. Unlike physical abuse, there is little awareness concerning emotional abuse — it’s less visible and is rarely covered by the media.

Emotional abuse is often misunderstood, as it’s complex and more difficult to recognize. Although it’s pervasive, and can be as damaging and painful to children as physical and sexual trauma, it’s not considered as troublesome as physical abuse.

Emotional abuse of a child is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that has negative mental impact on the child. It’s also referred to as psychological maltreatment. Some examples of mental abuse are:

  • name-calling
  • verbally insulting
  • shaming or humiliating
  • threatening violence (with or without carrying out threats)
  • ridiculing or criticizing the child’s appearance, abilities or fears
  • failing to express warmth and tenderness to the child
  • neglecting to show interest in the child’s thoughts, feeling or activities.

Emotional needs are intrinsic to our nature as human beings. Attachment Parenting promotes an approach that applies sensitive parental response and practicing nurturing parenting methods that foster strong emotional bonds — also known as secure attachment — between children and their parents. Secure attachment, trust and mutual respect are the building blocks of a strong, healthy emotional foundation that follows children into adulthood.

With increasing awareness and evolved societal norms, many people move away from spanking and other forms of physical abuse, check this article about how a sex crime lawyer can help if this happens at home. Consequently, however, there is more temptation to shift that punishment attitude toward verbal responses — which may seem innocuous — not realizing that some common responses are actually a form of emotional abuse. Here are a few examples of such comments:

  • “I wish you were more like your brother.”
  • “If you don’t do as I say, I will leave you!”
  • “You’re the reason Mommy is sad.”
  • “Shut up!”
  • “You are a bad boy.”
  • “You think you’re so special, don’t you?”

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional maltreatment and results in long-term harm. As noted in this Health Day article, “Yelling at Children (Verbal Abuse),” research shows that verbally abused children are more likely to:

  • become victims of abuse later in life
  • become abusive themselves
  • become depressed and self-destructive later in life
  • develop anxiety.

We are all familiar with adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But children and adults who have been verbally abused will tell you otherwise: Words are powerful and they do hurt, especially when inflicted upon children by their parents — the leading authority figures in their life and the adults children look to for protection, not only from physical harm but also emotional damage.

There are some who excuse name-calling, shaming or other forms of abuse as effective means to discipline or “toughen up” kids — an outdated idea to make them more resilient and better adapt to the “real world” — when, in fact, the contrary is true: These patterns of behavior by parents produce deep emotional and mental scars that undermine self-esteem and affect the ability to have healthy, trusting relationships.

In this Psych Central article, “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Jonice Webb, PhD, uncovers that the reason assertiveness is so much more difficult for some people to learn and practice than others is because “assertiveness is most difficult for those who grew up in households that either actively or passively discouraged emotional expression,” both examples of childhood emotional neglect.

Emotional abuse is painful. It penetrates into the heart and the soul of a child who needs to be loved, cared for, and responded to with sensitivity and compassion by his caregivers — not ignored, not humiliated, and not insulted.

A 2015 study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that regardless of the type of maltreatment endured — physical, sexual or emotional — children suffered similar consequences. As reported by Reuters, Dr. William Copeland, a psychiatry researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, stated that: “This study is about righting a longstanding error and prejudice about the differences between these common childhood adversities,” adding: “It suggests that whether we are talking about prevention, screening or treatment, our notions of childhood mistreatment need to be broader and more holistic than they have been. There are no hierarchies when it comes to child maltreatment.”

Choosing to Sit in the Dark

Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston whose work centers on shame, empathy and vulnerability. She has written several books and speaks all over the world on these important topics, which have a dramatic effect on the ways we live, work and raise our children.

I just love this segment of one of Brené’s presentation’s about empathy that was turned into an animated clip.

silver liningShe speaks about a topic that is so important for everyone, of all ages, but I especially love it as it applies to parenting. I know as a mom, I often want to “silver lining” things for my kids. They are struggling and having a hard time, and I want to help them feel better. I want to turn an unhappy situation around. My first instinct is to go for a response that minimizes the negatives and emphasizes the positives. It’s like I want to make my kids forget about what’s upsetting them so we can get back to being happy. To brush it under the rug.

But Brené makes an excellent point in that rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.

Instead of silver-lining things to help my kids feel better, I need to meet them where they are with those heavy feelings. I need to sit in the dark with them. I need to be present and not try to sweep their feelings under the rug just because they are unpleasant, but reach out and connect so that they know what they are feeling is normal. Only then will the weight of those feelings be lifted.

Here’s the difference between “silver lining” and “sit-in-the-dark” responses:

Child: “My friend was mean to me today. He didn’t want to play with me and just left me to play all by myself!
Silver lining: Well, you still have your other friends to play with.
Sit in the dark: Oh, I know you were looking forward to playing with your friend today. You felt hurt when he didn’t want to play.

Child: “I am losing this game AGAIN! I ALWAYS lose at games!
Silver lining: That’s not true; you do great at games! We’ll play another one, and I’m sure you’ll win the next time.
Sit in the dark: It’s so hard to lose a game. You feel really angry. I bet you wish you could win all the time!

Child: “I am trying to build a blanket fort, but it keeps falling over! One part won’t stay when I let go, and the other part isn’t tall enough. I can’t get it right!
Silver Lining: What do you mean? This is a great fort! Look, you have a little cave you can hide in!
Sit in the dark: Oh that sounds frustrating! It’s not working out as easily as you hoped? I wonder if there’s something you could do to help make it more stable.

Child: “I’m trying to do this magic trick, but it’s not magic at all! It doesn’t even float in the air like the picture shows!”
Silver lining: But now you have a cool magic wand to play with. You can use it as a prop with your dress-up set!
Sit in the dark: Yeah, the picture makes it look different, doesn’t it? That must be disappointing. You wish the wand would float all by itself, so you could see real magic.

Sitting in the dark with our children means understanding that their feelings are real. It means not minimizing them or trying to wash them away but validating and embracing them. It means teaching kids how to feel. We may not necessarily agree with a child’s feelings, but we must communicate that we accept them. This is the essence of connection.

We must listen not with the intent to respond but with the intent to understand. ~Steven Covey

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