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

Raising compassionate kids in a violent world

logo that hopefully doesnt change colorEditor’s Note:  This post was originally published on 6/24/2016. Through this year’s AP Month theme, “Nurturing Peace: Parenting for World Harmony,” we have been focusing on promoting peace and harmony in the home as well as around the world. This article is a great reminder that despite the many challenges violence can pose, we can still cultivate compassion and peace in our children.

API promotes parenting practices that create strong, healthy emotional bonds between children and their parents. For life.

So they can take those bonds with them into their adult lives and share them with their children. And their children can do the same.

A life cycle of compassion and connection.

Today, we are featuring resources from the National Association of School Psychologists that offer guidelines for dealing with the difficult subject of children and violence — in particular, war and terrorism.

In recent years, increasingly, there have been numerous heartbreaking mass shootings and terror activities in the United States and around the globe.

In the aftermath of such distressing incidents, many parents are wondering how to react: How much information? What and how should we communicate to our kids? And as we reflect on such painful incidents and move towards healing, another imperative question we need to ask ourselves is, What role do we play, as parents to children who will become the adults of tomorrow?

With ongoing wars, mass shootings and terrorist threats, it can be challenging to escape the display of violence from the extensive media and internet coverage — it’s a heavy dose for children to bear. While we should do our best to limit our kids’ exposure to violence, we should also acknowledge that this is the reality of the world we live in, and we need to navigate around helping children find comfort and provide them with the support they need. It is our responsibility as parents and caregivers to address our children’s emotional needs — to that end, they need us to help them understand and cope with the phenomenon of violence.

heart-pain-shadowIt’s unrealistic to think that we can completely shield our kids from being exposed to incidents, such as the recent one in Orlando. Albeit, as parents, we can foster a secure environment in our homes for our children to be resilient in the face of tragedies. API promotes a secure emotional bond in the parent-child relationship — cultivating trust, a sense of security, social competence, confidence, and empathetic qualities in a child…all of which are beneficial when experiencing adversities.

Open communication, honesty, and trust between a parent and a child are essential ingredients for developing a strong relationship — one that is valuable when dealing with sensitive, emotional-trigger situations. This guide explores tips for parents and educators to help children cope with terrorism.

Naturally, children may feel angry and frightened in their reaction to acts of violence. To help them work through emotionally charged issues in a positive way, is it helpful to teach them compassion, empathy, and kindness in our homes and our schools.

The following are some helpful tips to consider in promoting compassion and acceptance in crisis:

  1. Model compassion and acceptance of differences — Children take their emotional cues from the significant adults in their lives.
  2. Provide useful information — Accurate information about people, events, reactions, and feelings is empowering. Use language that is developmentally appropriate for children.
  3. Stop any type of harassment or bullying immediately — Make it clear that such behavior, in any form (in person, online, social media) is unacceptable. Talk to the children involved about the reasons for their behavior.
  4. Explore children’s fears — Even children who can describe what happened may not be able to express fears, questions, or describe assumptions or conclusions they may have made. Use activities, role-playing, and discussions to explore their fears about the events and their feelings about various groups from diverse cultures or lifestyles.
  5. Identify “heroes” of varying backgrounds involved in response to traumatic events — These include firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, military personnel, public officials, medical workers, teachers, faith leaders, public figures, and regular citizens who work to help keep students, families, schools, and communities safe.
  6. Read books with your children or students that address prejudice and hate — There are many, many stories appropriate for varying age groups that can help children think about and define their feelings regarding these issues.

Parents are their children’s first and most empowering role models. Meeting our children’s needs by nurturing them with sensitivity, kindness, and compassion serves as a model for children to observe and learn how to conduct themselves in this world. We are making the most precious investment there could be: As today’s children will become tomorrow’s adults, a life cycle of compassion and connection will pave the way for a more peaceful, compassionate world for future generations.

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.”

Want your child to learn self-control? First, teach self-validation

playing-1436907A child’s ability to form healthy self-validation is a vital goal of child development. In fact, a child’s capacity for self-validation has everything to do with the development of emotional safety — the overarching developmental goal of childhood.

To use the word “validate” in the context of relationships, we’re referring to the process by which a person values that which she (or he) knows and feels is true and right for herself, and then acts in accordance with her inner knowing in support of her own self and her own needs.

As we raise our children to be intimate with what they feel, sense and know, and to honor and support themselves in their knowing, we are providing them with this fundamentally valuable tool for successfully navigating their internal and external experiences throughout their life.

This is the foundation for a child’s capacity to acquire the more complex self-regulation skills he (or she) needs to actualize his potential. It’s the very important task we have of validating his unconditional goodness, and what he feels, thinks, desires and knows — which then tells him he is “right” in the world, that his experiences are important and that his dreams are valuable.

It’s we — the parents — who largely determine how a child comes to validate him- or herself. Let’s keep this in mind as I describe “Sarah.”

Sarah is 4 years old, joyful, full of life and wicked smart. I was called in to observe her and consult with her preschool teachers and parents due to her “impulsive, inattentive, non-compliant, emotional, potentially dangerous” behaviors of refusing to sit in circle time and constantly banging into objects: outside with her tricycle, and inside where she would run into and purposefully, though playfully, try to topple both other children and adults. Sarah could also be irritable and angry, displaying explosive behaviors when caregivers attempted to redirect her and minimize her complaints.

Sarah had a typical complaint of wanting to do what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it. She argued that she could in fact listen while doing other things during circle time; however, the teachers wanted all the kids sitting “criss-cross apple sauce” on the floor, eyes on them. Because of her complaints, fidgeting and refusal to cooperate, Sarah was made to sit in a chair at a table removed from the group, and to color while the rest of the class conducted their weather discussions, reviewed the alphabet and learned the letter of the day.

Although this decision to exclude Sarah from circle time appears to wrongly shame her, one of her teachers demonstrated both compassion and insight to see that this form of physical structure — sitting on the chair at the table — with an activity to calm her mind and busy her hands — coloring — in fact enabled Sarah to participate fully in their discussions and add to it with more intelligent, creative contributions than most of the other students.

It took some prompting in this rigid classroom, but the staff learned to tweak their expectations and appropriately loosen their requirements of the children, who were then given the choice to sit for circle time or not. Sarah was no longer shamed for being different, and she experienced validation from her teachers that her way of participating in circle time was best for her.

Her teachers’ validation of her translated into her own self-validation for speaking up about what she knew to be true for herself.

In the play yard, we reviewed Sarah’s sensory needs that were mistakenly seen as aggressive in intention. The plowing into objects and people instead suggested she was seeking physical gross-motor input in that she displayed no anger at these times but seemed to have a lot of fun doing the plowing. It served her.

In addition to creating safe places for Sarah to get this physical input — like jumping onto heavy mats from a not-too-high step during scheduled and play intervals throughout the day — we got her mom’s written permission for teachers to give Sarah frequent, deep-pressure hugs and squeezes as a preventative measure to the more impulsive plowing behaviors. I also made a referral for a physical therapy consult. We asked Sarah to let us know when she was feeling out of sorts and to seek the big, bear hugs that immediately calmed her, as soon as her body began to tell her that she needed them.

Her caregivers at school and home began listening to her more — and began seeing her more clearly as a child who needed their support to speak up about her experiences and needs.

I also recommended a nutritional consult, and as a treatment team, we began incorporating the foods into her diet — and eliminating others — that would prove to seem to balance her nervous system so that some of the impulsivity diminished.

Additionally, we built in the time, place and space for her to enjoy more creative, stimulating activities to express herself, learn and teach us about herself: how she thinks, feels, senses and relates to herself, others and the world.

What worked for Sarah is that we were able to see her through various lenses of her holistic health and well-being. By using protocols within the sensory, biology-physical expression, creative self-expression, nutrition and attachment-relationship lenses, we successfully learned to honor what Sarah knew to be true for herself, and we provided her with more knowledge and supports that she needed to further know and support herself.

Sarah learned how to validate herself by internalizing 2 concepts:

  1. “I am someone who needs, seeks and gets big hugs and squeezes, special play activities and the best foods to make me feel calm, balanced and safe.” She knows that these are the right things for her. And because Sarah taught her caregivers that they need to listen to her and to fully see her and learn from her, Sarah was able to internalize an aspect of her identity as a person of value in the world.
  2. “I am valued. What I think, feel, want, experience and express matters to others. I am worthy of being heard and seen and respected.” She needed us to validate her so that she could further validate her own self and know that she is doing the right things to keep herself in balance and feel safe.

You can substitute just about any example of a child’s life situation here. The experiences and lessons will likely be the same: We want our child to know what it is that she (or he) knows, to honor what it is that she knows and, when old enough, to seek the supporting knowledge to inform her decisions further.

The thing is, we need to really see our child and listen to him (or her). We cannot try to make him fit into an old ideal of how he “should” behave, act or be. We must meet him “where he’s at” and start there. Our goal is that we use and teach skills sets containing “ways of thinking and doing” to support children in being themselves throughout the trajectory of their lives.

Children can and do fall through the cracks. If we had continued to ignore what Sarah was telling us, she may likely have developed increased shame, anger, rebellion and, over time, an attitude of “Forget you, you’re not listening to me. I’ll do what I want and feel good about it.”

She might have someday came to validate herself in other ways that create rage, division and resentment. She very well could have tied in with peers who not only validate these emotions but — worse — use them to fuel deeper discord, judgment, intolerance, hatred, retaliation and violence.

To some, Sarah’s classroom experiences may seem small. It may seem like the negative outcomes I postulated are a stretch to what actually happened in the classroom. I am telling you, this is so not a stretch. This is how it begins: We do not see our children, so we do not listen to our children and then we try to put them under our thumb. This is not holistic child care. This is not the way we promote secure attachment at home or at school.

In another scenario, Sarah may have other tendencies. Perhaps instead, she withdraws — becoming depressed and later numbing out with drugs, food and dysfunctional relationships. Are those fates any less happy for her? With another who validates her anger and aggression, at least she feels like she’s accepted and belongs somewhere. In all cases, she’s only simply seeking to keep herself safe.

Feeling balanced on the inside by people and circumstances who support her and provide balance “on the outside” do this. We do this. Our child’s emotional safety, her (or his) happiness and her success depend on us. The level of peace in the world depends on us.

I’ve seen the outcomes of ignoring kids’ true needs before, and so have you — in the variations of the same tragic stories that we hear about in the media so often we are becoming numb to them. Do you see that this is an epidemic?

Do you see that we can stop violence, and all that goes with it, in our children if we pay more attention to how we see them and relate to them? It is a simple concept — though a complex process that requires work and perhaps new paradigms for teaching teachers, supporting parents and addressing mental health.

We’ve got to fully wake up and act on how this dynamic works for the sake of helping our children grow up happily, confidently and peacefully. We have no one to blame if we do not target this now.

Editor’s note: Photo source

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