Counselling Parenting

Inside Out

Inside Out
Abigail Smith
Written by Abigail Smith

One principle that we focus on in our home when it comes to conflict is that it is not wrong to FEEL an emotion, but it is what we DO with that emotion that matters greatly.

In order to do this, my husband and I have created a rule for how we talk about feelings in our home. When we ask our children to change their behavior they know WHAT to do, HOW to do it, and WHY to do it. You see children have complex emotions as much as adults do. The difference is that they haven’t developed mechanisms for dealing with those emotions. As parents we cannot tell our children to stop behaving or feeling a certain way if we haven’t given them the ability to know how to do it. How many of you were told by your parents to change your attitude, but had NO IDEA what the word attitude meant until you were almost a teenager?

My oldest daughter and I had a heart to heart talk the other day because she has recently been wanting to get her way with a lot of things. If she doesn’t get what she wants she gets upset, throws things, walks away or remains with a grumpy face. At times she will go sit on her bed and begin to cry, hoping that she’ll get her way. She’s going to be six years old next month. This means, she is at a development stage where she is beginning to develop reasoning skills and the complex ability to see two sides to an issue. She is also developing the ability to choose a side and defend it. She might not have an actual logical reason for her argument, but it does makes sense to her. This seeps into all of her daily activities, whether it is what to wear for the day, how to do her hair, what to eat, etc.

On realizing that these efforts represent a very normal stage in her development I wanted to consider how to address her behaviors based on her developmental stage. It is my duty to help her move through this stage while teaching her life skills that will help her in the future, rather than dismissing her emotional development by focusing only on the behaviors. So I chose not to subdue her by using force and expecting immediate obedience. Instead I chose to help her learn how to deal with the emotion that she felt each time she was told ‘NO’.

I don’t know if you’ve watched the movie Inside Out or not, but it is definitely a must watch for ALL kids and their parents as well. The movie takes place in the mind of an 11 year old girl where five personified emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust — try to lead her through life as her parents move the family from their hometown to a new city. When my children watch this movie it helps give them a framework to name their emotions. Each time my two older children are feeling strongly about something, they name the emotion right away based on the film’s characters. The other day I was in the kitchen making something and my 4 year old son, who loves to watch me cook, started touching something. I spoke strongly and told him not to touch it. My oldest daughter immediately responded, “you’re feeling anger right now mama.” I agreed and went back to my cooking. Then my son also chimed in and commented, “sometimes I feel anger too.”

It was a perfect segue into talking through what emotions we feel and when we feel them. By doing this regularly you can help bring an increased awareness that when things are happening around us they raise feelings within us.

In my opinion, this is the key to healthy conflict management — an awareness of what you are feeling. This gives you the foundation to then move towards handling that emotion in a healthy way.

Going back to my heart to heart with my daughter; I asked her what she felt when she would get upset. She told me that she would feel angry that I had said no to her and that she couldn’t do what she wanted. So we talked about how it was ok to feel angry.

Too many of us were told that it was not ok to feel anger.

But I’m here to tell you, and to continue to tell my children and myself, that it is OK to feel anger. What is not ok is to act selfishly or destructively because of that anger. Helping our children to learn what to DO with that anger is the goal of parenting them through complex emotional development.

My daughter and I talked about what not to do when she felt anger. For example, she should not throw objects, she should not yell or use her body in a forceful manner (i.e., hitting or kicking). She should also resolve to not stay mad for a long time.

And then we talked about things that she CAN do when she feels anger. She can go find a solitary place in our home to be alone for a few minutes (like her room). She can take deep breaths to breathe through the surge of emotion. She can practice self-talk to readjust her attitude from being angry to being calm. Once she is satisfied, she can come back out and use a normal voice to talk about what she is feeling angry about.

We have practiced this a few times already and…IT WORKS! Why did it work? It worked because she needed a framework that gave her the ability to manage her emotions. Otherwise she would continue to feel out of control or need me to step in. By developing her own steps, she is equipped to grow into the necessary, complex and beautiful emotions we’ve all been given.

The other day she didn’t want to eat her sabji, because it was aloo and bundh gobhi instead of bhindi (her favorite). When she was served, she started to revert to a bad mood. I asked her if she needed to go to her room and take some deep breaths to adjust her attitude or if she could stay at the table and choose to begin eating. She decided that she wanted to stay at the table and eat her food.

Wow! I was a little surprised that she chose to do that because I had only recently started using this technique.

The next step for me was to affirm that her choice to eat, whether she went into her room or stayed at the table, was a good choice. Affirmation is much more powerful as an agent of transformation with children than any other tool in the parent toolbox.

These steps are what children need (and what parents need) in order to figure out how to manage their emotions — emotions which they have only recently begun to manage. Remember, we as parents have been doing this for a long time – they have only just begun. We, as their parents and as those who have been working on and feeling our emotions for much longer, need to mentor them through what they are feeling. Discussion with your children about how they feel can be a daily occurrence and should not be bypassed, especially as they relate to conflict — conflict with their siblings, conflict with playmates, frustrations when they can’t figure something out, or anger when they are told to eat their sabzi and don’t want to.

Here are some steps your child can learn to manage their emotions:

Name the emotion
Most counselors have a list of different emotions (sometimes in the form of smiley faces) up on their wall. They use these charts as a tool to help clients assess their emotions. The same tool can be made, even with
your children, and then posted somewhere in your home to help your children name what they are feeling. This step creates awareness. Or you could use the characters from the movie Inside Out. This way as soon as a
situation occurs where your child is feeling an emotion, as the parent, you can stop all activity and ask him/her what they are feeling.

Calm down
Next it’s important to help your child (and us as well) calm down before they begin any form of conflict resolution. You need to have some concrete steps of calming down that the children are well aware of. Here are some examples:

1. Count to 10 (or a 100!).

2. Take a little time out and sit in your room (or a quiet spot in the house).

3. Take 5 – 10 deep breaths.

4. Close your eyes and imagine a stop sign.

Describe the situation
Once your child has calmed down then have him/her return to the situation and use a normal voice to describe the situation. It’s important to remind them to use a normal voice. If they are whining, they might need to go back to calming down. If it is a situation where the child needs to address another child than they should now use their own words to describe their frustration to that other child. Help them to use I statements. ‘I am feeling….;’ I am hurt because…;’ ‘I didn’t like it when you….’

Understand the problem
Guide the other child in restating the description that the first child gave. This helps the first child know that he/she has been heard and it helps the second child acknowledge what the first is feeling/experiencing.

Respond to the situation/problem solving
Now help the second child respond to the first child and describe what they were feeling or what their intentions were. This leads to problem solving and helps the two children move towards a resolution that both can agree on.

Follow up and affirm
Make sure that both children feel that they’ve been heard and that they are satisfied with the resolution. Make sure they know you are proud of them for their good decisions.

At the end of the day we need to remember that it’s difficult to experience and manage emotions for the first time – a reality that children are tasked with in their development. When a child doesn’t have a framework to function by, whether it has to do with feelings or behaviours, whether it is at home or in a public setting, they will struggle a lot. As their parents it is our duty to teach them by giving them expectations matched with simple tools that, if practiced, will give them daily successes with their growing emotions.

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