Monthly Archives: August 2014

More On Making Feelings OK

Last week we wrote about the important role that adults play in helping children to be OK with feelings. We have a few more things to say about this, befitting the huge impact emotions have on our lives. 7655456286_073299fa81_z It feels like a fools errand to talk about a subject so complex as emotions in a short blog post. The impact of emotions on our experience of life is huge. The great majority of psychological disorders that can be diagnosed today have at their root problems with emotional regulation. But everyone has emotions and you don’t have to have a disorder to be affected. And what are we talking about anyways? Emotions and their effect might be connected to the experience of a family escaping a war zone (who feel anxiety, vulnerability, dread, fear …), or celebrating a wedding (… joy, happiness, delight, hope) or saying goodbye to a beloved grandparent (… sorrow, grief, loneliness).

We can’t make simple assumptions about what emotions run hot in your home, but we can say, simply, that big emotions have big effects: those who study stress tell us that we are equally stressed by weddings and divorces. And as we said last week, children can be pretty taxed by even simple emotions, though we can expect that situations that make us emotional can have a greater effect on them. Hopefully the balance of situations a child faces will be positive! Even then, don’t think positive emotions only add up to peace and serenity.

We remember the day that our daughter first laughed. She was so young that she was barely able to role over on the bed. We tickled her with a blue and white plaid stuffed bear from France (that we called Trés Bear). She began to giggle uncontrollably, and we laughed along with her. It was perfectly cute … until she started crying. It had become too stressful on her little body, and she didn’t know if this new feeling would ever end! She got tired and, we guess, afraid. So we stopped, of course, and tried to meet her in this new emotion, offering some comfort. We said last week that adults play a great role in helping children come to accept and understand that their emotions are a part of their life.

But what to do if an adult can’t regulate their own emotions? What if we had no one to meet us and to help us with our emotions when we were young? If we never learned to be comfortable in our own emotional skins, then the raw and unbridled emotions of our little ones are likely to be a bit of a threat to us. But anybody reading this would agree that we want better for our kids than we got, and that we don’t want to pass on the wrong kinds of lessons. What’s an adult with emotional troubles to do?

Emotional regulation is a great problem for adults who did not feel safe being emotional when young. It is hard to replicate the great classroom of a loving family, but if we grew into adulthood without that advantage, we are not doomed to constant troubled feelings. The truth is that we need the same help that our young ones need, only we might be our own first line of defense. Can we acknowledge that we feel, sometimes quite strongly? Can we tell ourselves that emotions are OK? One of the things that we offer a child is to name the emotion they feel, and we also name the cause of it; “you were scared by that big dog!” But we adults are a bit more complicated: our emotions are somewhat more loaded because we have longer histories of emotional trauma, memories that get stirred up when we face stressful situations today. This means that we may find it hard to understand why we feel huge emotions in a situation … are the emotions linked exclusively to the present moment? If so, we can reassure ourselves that our feelings match the situation. If our fear is greater than the current situation warrants, we may not understand why.

For the adult with big emotions, who struggles to understand their feelings, or who is not comfortable in their own emotional skin, it can be a great help to seek out someone to do for us what our parents might not have been able to. To help us name the things we feel, to help us understand the complex origins of our big emotions, to help us be OK with our feelings. By the time we reach adulthood, we don’t like to be treated like children. But, really, most of us could use a little loving care now and then. We may have a friend who can help us talk through our responses to the stressors in our lives. We may seek the help of professionals. The point we are trying to make is that it isn’t only children who need to understand that feelings are OK.

Image by Flickr user marvelousRoland

[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

Making Feelings OK

Adults who spend time with young children teach terribly important lessons about emotions. The “lesson” might be, “You’re feeling strong emotions and strong emotions are OK to feel!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is OK, that they are healthy and respond appropriately to life. Or we might teach a child, “Your feelings are upsetting or unwelcome to me!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is upsetting or unwelcome.


Of course when we talk about feelings, we are not talking about something essential about a child’s nature, but about simple emotional reactions to a situation. Emotions are not under our control, are not individually part of what is essential to us (that is, just because we are ‘sad’ doesn’t mean we are a sad person, just that sad is what we are feeling in response to a situation). But, of course, a child does not know this: when a young child feels strong emotions it can be frightening, like something is wrong with them and maybe even with the universe, and an adult’s reaction helps the child understand how to accept and think about their own feelings. Adults who are comfortable with strong feelings, knowing that they come and go, are able to simply acknowledge their presence (“You’re very angry.”) without being threatened by them, which validates the child’s inner world, helping them understand that their feelings are not a cause for alarm.

However some adults are threatened by strong emotions. They may experience emotions as a judgement against them or as destabilizing (or, just exhausting), and reject or threaten a child’s feelings (“You’re not really sad!” or “You’d better calm down!”). There are times when every adult wishes a child could regulate their emotions, turning down the intensity. But the hard reality is that causing a child to feel that their emotional responses are not OK makes regulation so much more difficult. At any age, having our feelings acknowledged, which is to say validated, effectively makes the emotions themselves less powerful. But when a young child is given the impression that their emotions are wrong, that causes a whole other range of complicated emotions to arise: shame, fear, anxiety, etc.

When a child is having a tantrum, we might naturally think that if we “validate” all this emotion it will simply encourage it. However, to validate an emotion is to acknowledge a child’s predicament, which has the effect of reducing the fear, shame, and anxiety that comes along with strong feelings.

A common occurrence on a preschool playground: child A is riding a trike on the track, gets off to go get a toy that needs to be held or put on the passenger seat of the trike; child B sees trike is free and gets on; child A returns to continue the trike ride, sees child B on the trike and screams and grabs handles pushing child B off the bike. Yowza.

There can be a lot of emotion swirling by the time an adult steps in to help. Before there can be any kind of reasonable-ness, justice, or fairness, you have to deal with emotions. In fact, while most of us grown-ups will think that our main job is to enforce an environment of fairness or justice on the playground, often all we need to do is help children recognize the strong emotions at play. In a conflict, naming the feelings of both parties, and helping each to consider the other’s, not only makes it OK to feel, but empowers each child to come up with their own plan to help the other child feel better. Justice and fairness is a tough sell to any pre-schooler. But helping another child who is feeling bad? Easy (and priceless).

Image by Flickr user Mindaugas Danys

Post first appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula Blog


We were visiting Dave’s parents this last weekend, and mooching their nice fat weekend newspaper. While Dave honed in on the comics page, Anghelika announced her find: a couple articles on what makes a great teacher. Before she got a chance to read them, Dave’s father asked her what she thought the secret was. The answer: “Engagement”. A great teacher is one that engages kids’ interest. We believe you can teach kids simple, mundane, even dull things in an interesting way. That’s the magic behind the best lessons. Indeed this was the essence of one of the articles, but it went on to highlight several key skills of a great teacher. (adapted from Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green, out this month.)

We’re going to focus on one of the key skills – the one that caught us. (To read the whole article go to

The rule: a great teacher should never say, “Shhh!”

According to the article, when a teacher says, “Shhh!” it could mean a number of things. It might mean “Don’t talk now”. Or, it might mean that the teacher simply wants the student to talk quieter.

But what does it do when a teacher says, “Shhh”?

According to the article, shushing is ambiguous. Is it meant to be instruction or a correction? Is it about setting a mood, or is it about one child’s interruption or misbehavior?. One thing is certain: it’s rarely clear what positive behavior a shushing adult is expecting. Imagine a child excitedly blurting out an answer only to be corrected for their disruption with nothing but a “Shhh!” Will that child be excited to try again? … be motivated to continue to participate? … be encouraged?

How can a teacher keep an excited student engaged?

Both parents and teachers in training learn that encouraging and guiding children towards positive behavior is more effective than highlighting bad behavior. So when a child has an enthusiastic, noisy eruption, what is an adult to do? Avoid the ambiguity of the “Shhh!”, and go for specific, positive, and direct. Encourage a child to share their enthusiasm in a way that helps you hear them. Think through the environment that you want, the environment that provides the best chance for the most success for the greatest number and then describe that environment positively as often as possible. How loud or quiet will work? How wild or mellow? Describe, model and reinforce successes with your attention.

And if you are ever tempted to let loose a great “Shhh!”, we think it’s ok to say it, once … to yourself!

[This post originally appeared on Parenting on The Peninsula’s blog]