As we move through our days, we experience a roller coaster of emotions from excitement to disappointment and everything in between says Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence This is just as true for children as it is for the grown-ups in their lives.
Although we can’t expect to be happy all the time, “during the pandemic, our research has shown that, unfortunately, many of us are spending about 70-80 percent of the time with unpleasant feelings…from anger, anxiety, and fear to loneliness, grief, and sadness,” explains Stern. “Our goal is to shift that balance to experience pleasant feelings much more of the time.”
It makes sense that we’re emotionally out of balance. “We are living in a time of multiple pandemics—COVID, economic and racial inequity, and climate change—and we have prolonged stress from that. Our stress levels are so high that many of us aren’t showing up as our best self every day.”
“So, if a child’s morning begins with hearing scary COVID news or listening to parents arguing, how well do you think this child can concentrate when he logs into his online class? How well do you think you can focus when you’re caught up with similar feelings of anxiety and fear?”
So, how do you help your child to navigate the emotional landscape?
Begin with giving yourself permission to feel, according to Marc Brackett, PhD, the director of the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence. In his new book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotion to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, he tells us that our feelings provide clues to the underlying emotions that drive our behavior, and that self-awareness will equip us to be better role models for our children.
Allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions, even the unpleasant uncomfortable ones, “because they give us valuable information about ourselves and others,” explains Stern. “Know and tell yourself that all emotions are okay. There is no such thing as a bad emotion.”
“Since we know that emotions impact every area of our lives, our ability to learn new things, to remember, to make good decisions, and to have clear judgment,” Stern says, “the key is learning to be skillful with our emotions—in order to achieve our goals. “We use the acronym RULER to describe the five skills of emotional intelligence:”
Recognizing emotions in self and others
Understanding the causes and consequences of our behavior
Labeling emotions in self and others.
Expressing emotions at the right time, with the right person, in the right degree.
Regulating your emotions and co-regulating with others.
How can you help your child begin to unlock the power of emotions?
You can borrow a page from an early childhood educator and use story time to help your children learn how characters feel, explore how they might feel in a similar situation, and discover new ways to connect with peers with kindness and positivity. Stories can also help us work with our children to explore creative ways to respond to unexpected changes, to think about what brings them joy, and how to enhance and affirm life’s happy moments, even in the midst of challenging times.
In her practice, child development specialist Karen DeHaven, MA, BC-DMT, LP, a child therapist and the owner and director of AHA! Studio for Integrated Therapies, LLC, has developed a four-stage social emotional approach, using the creative and performing arts to teach these skills that lead to becoming emotionally smart.
Below are seven effective story time strategies that build on Karen DeHaven’s program. They provide fun, engaging, non-threatening ways to step into your child’s world and gain insight into your children’s psyche, to grow a healthier relationship with your child, to find opportunities to teach emotion vocabulary, and to help your child to connect with the story to work through challenges and focus on the positive aspects.
“First teach them how to feel what’s happening in their body,” advises DeHaven, “and what emotion that translates to. We can use our body to understand what we are feeling.” She suggests reading, Listening to My Body, in the afternoon after a snack, “so the brain is energized, and the body is well fed and hydrated.” Read the two-page spread, do the practice activity together, and then always follow up with a fun activity. She says, “each lesson plants a seed, you germinate the process, and then let it go until the next day.”
Children will notice sensations in their body, like when I get excited or cold, I may have goose bumps. That process of self-awareness unfolds naturally and leads to learning how to take better care of themselves.
Then when your child says, “I’m feeling sweaty under my arms, and a little shaky,” a parent can frame that and say, ”Oh, when I feel a little sweaty in my arms and shaky, I feel anxious, or I feel nervous.” Listen, model, and mirror back what your child is saying, and label the emotion.
Story Time can be a judgment- free zone “where your child is felt, heard, and seen,” says Gwyn Drake, mom of three young girls. “There’s a necessity today to help your kids understand the feelings that they are going through,” so she uses the magic of story time to gain insight into her children’s emotions, teach emotion vocabulary, and connect with character’s experiences.
She reads Grumpy Monkey to address her kid’s feelings. She believes “all our feelings are valid, and we want to understand them, so we can work through them. I love that it’s okay for the monkey to have a grumpy day and to let that be your emotion. But you also need to foster and encourage that understanding in age appropriate ways.”
She is helping them to recognize many different emotions. She points out, “You seem frustrated. It’s okay to be frustrated when your sister knocks down your LEGOs, I would be frustrated too.” Then she acts out that frustration with them “and we may need to stomp our feet a little bit or give them a huge hug. We help them recognize it, then let them feel it, and then either give support or just ride it out.”
“Adults really need to embrace that it’s not about the end game,” says DeHaven. Parents often think that it’s about finishing the book, “but for the kid, it’s actually the journey of reading together. They take in everything, the words, rhythm of the language, and connect with the content.”
In the book Flow, Flow, Flow, the pictures are rich with details and invite discussion, so DeHaven suggests giving kids opportunities to interpret what they see. Stop and choose one page and ask an open-ended question, “What do you think is happening here?” For the picture of geese flowing in or out, you might get a response like this: “It looks like these guys are coming in with boats, and this dude, he’s like, ‘I’m out of here.'” You would validate, Oh, I see. Instead of saying, That’s not in the picture, and ask questions to extend their thinking. “They will project their story onto the character they are describing, so check-in to get children’s perception.”
Bari Koral, a parent educator, kids yogi, and song-writer musician, says first read The Hungry Caterpillar to intellectualize the metamorphosis, then act out the process together by doing a sequence of yoga poses from egg to caterpillar to butterfly:
Discuss how it feels and then use her video to experience the process of becoming a butterfly.
Putting together this book, The Day the Hugs Went Away, has been a family affair of the heart for Drake, a new children’s author. The Drake girls illustrated and described every hug they love with cute phrases like the carry hug, sleepy hug, and upside down hug. “Where I think it’s been valuable,” Drake says, “is that reading the book opens the discussion for showing other creative ways to stay connected and show love.”
In their free eBook for children, Growing Friendships During the Coronavirus Pandemicchild psychologist Eileen Kennedy Moore, PhD, and Christine McLaughlin, a parenting and health freelance writer, refer to the need to rekindle “frenergy,” the energy and excitement generated from hanging out, by finding another fun way to maintain friendships from a distance. The book is packed with every imaginable kind of activity and helps kids work through problems in a positive way, geared for ages 6-12.
McLaughlin suggests another fun way to maintain friendships is for kids is to snap funny photos and share them with peers. “My son takes goofy photos of our golden retriever with glasses or dressed up, and he gets a lot of positive reactions and laughs from friends.” You could even have a contest for the funniest pet photo of the week.
Use My Many Colored Days to introduce a full range of emotions with colors and imagery. Help your children make a connection between how you feel and the color that represents the emotion. Then pair with Koral’s 15-minute guided meditation “Let it Go, Mindfulness with Bari Koral:”
Close your eyes, and if you have a thought that you don’t like, notice where you’re feeling it. For example, I feel it in my chest and arms. It doesn’t feel good; it feels tight.
Then you could give it a color. So, what color is it? If I had to give my unpleasant thoughts a color, it would be red or black.
You can write that thought down on a piece of paper in your imagination. You can put that thought or feeling in a balloon, any color balloon that you like, and let it float up, up, up.
And now it’s traveling so far up you can’t even see it. Higher and higher, and now it’s gone. Take three slow, deep breaths and let that feeling go.
And now think of something happy and peaceful. This could be a person you love to be with or a place that you like to go. Where do you feel it? What color is it?
Listening to her soothing voice and gentle guidance with peaceful background music can transport you and your children to a peaceful haven that calms the body down.
Koral suggests following up with having the child draw a picture of the pleasant feeling using the same color pictured during the guided meditation and color the unpleasant feelings using the other chosen color.
“Sometimes, all I need to do is close my eyes and picture my blue circle, and I feel peaceful again,” explains Koral.
Story time paired with mindfulness and the arts can be a creative, effective way to open the space to discuss feelings. If you let your children take the lead in a judgment-free zone, then you gain a new perspective on what may be challenging for them so you can be more supportive and empower them on their emotional journey.