Note: This is the third installment of a multi-part series. To read the first two parts, click on: http://cindyterebush.blogspot.com/2012/09/real-keys-to-success-after-preschool.html
Children with healthy self-esteem feel capable. When children feel confident and capable, they are better able to face challenges and manage disappointment or stress. Academic skills that are introduced during the elementary school years and beyond seem far less daunting when children have developed a healthy sense of self because they know that they can make decisions, solve problems and work through tough situations.
It is essential that young children know that their emotions are valid. We like when children are happy. It is, however, just as acceptable to be sad or angry as it is to be joyful. One emotion is not more valid that the other. When a child is sad, it should be safe for that child to cry without criticism. Telling young children not to cry or not to be sad invalidates what they feel. When we tell children of any age that they are being silly or have no reason to be upset, we send the message that their feelings aren’t real or don’t matter to you. Sending a child from the room when upset sends the message that sharing emotions leads to isolation. Is it any wonder that a child whose emotions were invalidated grows to become a teenager who won’t tell adults how they feel? To make a child feel safe, confident and to promote communication, we must let the child know that we hear and that we care. Whether we can see their point of view or not, is inconsequential. We need to give merit to their feelings. Saying “I see that you are sad. What can we do?” makes the child feel acknowledged and begins a path from the sadness to a solution. Children who are acting out of frustration will calm faster if we say, “I see that you are frustrated” than if we express exasperation.
One of the most important gifts we give to young children is the gift of words. From the time they are infants, we point to things and name them. Woefully little time is used giving them words for their feelings. We tend to use only about four emotion words with children – happy, sad, mad and scared. There are many degrees of these feelings and adults should give children the emotional vocabulary to name them. Children and adults can be joyful, happy, glad or ecstatic. They can be sad, gloomy, or distraught. It is possible to be mad, angry or infuriated. Sometimes we are scared, frightened or terrified. None of these words means exactly the same thing. When we give children the tools with which to more accurately describe their emotions, they can become more expressive about what they are feeling.
Our job is not done when we have helped children to express their feelings in a safe environment. We must give them the confidence to know that they can cope. There are two ways that we teach children to cope – by helping them to problem solve and by coping with our own frustrations and emotions calmly. Children believe what they see. If they are emotionally out of control and the adults start yelling, they learn that the only way to cope with frustration is to become emotional. There is no better time to remain calm than when our children are at their most emotional. Assure children that they are okay and that we can help them when they are calmer. Give them the physiological tools to calm their bodies. When we are upset, our hearts beat faster and we breathe faster. A message is sent to the brain that there is an emergency and hormones are released. We need to teach children how to reverse this process by breathing deeply. Deep breaths slow the heart rate, increase our oxygen levels and tell the brain that all is well. Knowing to take a deep breath is a powerful tool. At first, adults need to coach children to breathe deeply. Eventually, you will see that they have learned this mechanism and will use it independently to calm down. Once calm, it is our job to help them problem solve. Discuss what they can say or do when in the same situation in the future. Critical thinking skills are, in fact, a part of coping with emotions. Just as we help children to solve a puzzle or build a tower, we need to walk them through the steps of coping with their feelings.
Coming soon – Part 4: Self Help Skills & Independence
Copyright 2012 © Cindy Terebush
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