I recently received a parenting question I’d like to share with you.
Can you share any resources to help my kindergartner deal with negative emotions? I think she prefers to distract herself or bury her feelings, and even avoids talking about negative things that may happen, such as a fight with a friend or being reprimanded by the teacher. Some of it may change as she gets older, but I want to help her express herself so that she can deal rather than mask what’s bothering her.
It’s absolutely wonderful, first of all, that the parent is reaching out, even while knowing that the likelihood is that her child will change over time, with age, and learn other skills about how to express herself. But why not dive in early, while they’re young, in Kindergarten, to give some support? Here are steps to follow to accomplish this.
Check Your Feelings
The first thing I like to suggest is that you check your own feelings. If your child is relaying a story about how they got left on the playground, the first thing we need to do is check our own response level and what we’re thinking and what we’re feeling. Do we know the story, or are we hearing a familiar story?
Sometimes as our children are telling us stories, our own emotional response is triggered. And if it’s something that we don’t feel good about, like, Oh I do remember how it feels to be left on the playground, that’s going to show up as we’re interacting with our child. So we do need to check in with our own emotions about things like being sad, being lonely, being angry—all those strong emotions are often difficult to manage for a lot of us. We need to recognize that those are our feelings, and our feelings are based on our experiences, but our children are not necessarily going to experience the same situation in the same way, with the same feelings that we did.
Remember, Emotions Are…Emotions
The question refers to “negative” emotions. Now, I understand what the parent is trying to say, but “negative” emotions could also sound like “bad” emotions. The truth is, emotions aren’t bad, and they’re not good. They just are. Feeling happy is just like feeling sad in that they are both part of a spectrum of emotions that we feel. So re-labeling that, not only to ourselves but to our children is really important. We don’t want to make feelings such as anger, jealousy, frustration, seem like they’re something bad. We want them to be allowed and welcome to be expressed. With that in mind, it’s best not to label them as good or bad, or negative or positive.
Give Each Feeling a Name
The other thing about labeling is, that in itself, naming it, Dr. Dan Siegel, in his books, talks about “Name it to tame it.” And what that does is it actually gives freedom to the expression of the feeling. It helps to process and release the feeling. Just being able to say, “I am feeling angry; I am feeling frustrated,” is so important. As our kids get older, we can give them more words, instead of just angry, frustrated, jealous, confused, disappointed. The older they get, we can give them more language, so that they can identify with different feelings. So really, “name it to tame it” is huge. If they are unable to name the feeling, offer it to them.
“Say, could you be feeling angry?”
“Might you be feeling frustrated that you didn’t get to play with the friends that you wanted on the playground?”
Go ahead and give them some language so that they can then start to learn how to use it for themselves.
Love Your Local Library
Another suggestion is using books. If you go to the library, the librarian should be able to help you find books about feelings. And those are the best tools. Because books speak kindergarten language, for example. I end up talking too much, I end up saying things that I don’t really need to say, or over explaining things, so if you use a children’s book, that book will speak to how it feels to be sad. How it feels to be angry. How it feels to be happy or confused and all of that. And it allows your child to then take some of that pressure and onus of their own feelings off of them and instead focus on the character in the book. And see the character resolves and navigates those feelings. So, I absolutely love books. I highly recommend you partner with your librarian, because they are absolutely wonderful in helping to find appropriate age level books that speak to feelings and emotions.
Refer to Your Own Experiences
Give your own examples! If my child is having a tough time explaining a frustration, or a sadness, or something like that, I might think back to a time that I felt those feelings, or in everyday life, like, Oh man, I was so disappointed I didn’t get to go hiking with you guys. I had to work and I kind of felt left out. I’m really happy you guys went, but I was also feeling sad that I was a bit left out today.
Something like that really shows that if the parent can handle that difficult emotion of sadness, they are now modeling what that looks like for the child. And our children learn so much from how we deal with our own emotions.
I let them in on it if I’m feeling sad. Let’s say there was a death in my family, and I was feeling sad about it but I don’t talk about that and I don’t show that I actually cried—that’s a disservice. We can share that with our children. We can tell them, I loved Grandma so much, and I am so sad that she has died. These tears are because I miss her. I know I’m going to be OK, and I know this feeling will pass, but right now I’m feeling sad.
That’s OK to share with our children. In fact, it’s very important.
The last thing I want to mention is drawing. This such a great way for kids to express themselves and express their feelings. When I used to work in schools, this was an activity I did a lot with kids as I was teaching them about labeling their feelings, and what those feelings looked like. We played a lot of games with kids with, What does happy look like? Show me a happy face! How would you feel if someone took your eraser? Show me that face, and they would show a sad face.
Drawing is another opportunity. It could be something specific, like, Oh it seems like you might have had a difficult day at school. Instead of telling me about it, do you want to draw a picture about what it was like at school today?
Or, having nothing to do with a specific situation, you might say to your kid, Hey, today let’s do some drawings. Why don’t we make a feelings book? I’d love to make a book about all the different feelings that we feel. Let’s draw a picture of you being happy. Show me something that makes you happy.
And allow your child to draw a picture of that. And then something that makes you sad, something that makes you scared or frightened. And that just gives you, again, an opportunity to make all these feelings OK. It’s something that’s not scary to deal with.
I really hope these ideas come in handy. If you have other ideas or suggestions, I’d love to hear from you!