Performing Parenting

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Do you ever find yourself performing as a parent? I know that I do. When we’re in a public place, among other parents and children (and especially other adults without children), there is a tendency to want to show them that we are doing the right thing; that we are not neglecting our duties; that we are on top of things.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We have four girls, and according to some yardsticks this is classified as a “large family.” Having a “large family” prompts such statements as “you must really have your hands full” and “you must be busy!” These can feel like judgments even when they aren’t (and sometimes they are). When another person is trying to walk down the aisle in the grocery store and see that we are taking up the entirety of the space, it’s easy to notice what we perceive to be a sigh of exasperation or a narrowing of eyes that suggests annoyance. We don’t want to inconvenience people with our big (even if often joyful) presence. And when our kids are having a hard time to boot, that feeling is increased exponentially. Really, we might think, why are we trying to shop for food right now? In public?

Or how about this: we’re at the library and there’s another family whose children are maybe not as well put together as ours just now. We might put on our best parent voices and say only the most positive, affirming things, thus reinforcing our superior skills and making a display of how good our children are. We did this, is the implication we are trying to get across. Or maybe we are the other family, whose children are struggling, and are probably hungry or tired or in any case just not wanting to be at the library right now. In the face of this pressure, we feel the need to show we are in control, so we begin to perform this for our audience. We chastise the kids for making noise, for not keeping still; maybe threaten a time out. The message is: We got this.

In all these cases, what’s happening is that we are not parenting authentically, but giving a performance: rather than meeting the needs of our children, we are accommodating the other people in the room. And this is not helpful.

What’s the solution? We have to hold our kids in priority over what we imagine will be thought or said by others. After all, we probably don’t know what other people are thinking anyway, and in any case they’re not coming home with us.

I often say that the toy aisle at Wal-Mart is a fabulous place for a toddler to have a tantrum. It’s roomy, it’s well lit, and the muzak is not that good anyway. Let the child do what he or she needs to do. In the end, they’re the only audience that matters.

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Use Your Words

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“Use your words.” This has been a familiar refrain in my household. Maybe you can identify. We want our kids to articulate their feelings and their needs when they are able to do so. This often turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

First, the child has to be old enough to have the words. My daughters, through a combination of exposure to wordy adults and siblings and a steady dose of audiobooks (often read in an English accent), have a lot of words at their disposal and know how to use them. The assumption I often make as a parent, then, is that they are able to connect the words to their feelings: that they know what it is they are feeling, and can identify to themselves what they need. You know what they say about assumptions, right?

Most behavior in children is the expression of an unmet need. We know that when they are cranky, or suddenly burst into tears, or are uncooperative with our requests, or mean to their brother or sister, there is something they need that they either can’t put their finger on or don’t know how to tell us about.

  • The first step for parents is knowing that this is what is happening (and not, say, that they are being defiant or trying to manipulate or thwart us in some way).
  • The second step is helping the child to recognize this. In our therapeutic classrooms at the Relief Nursery, there is a lot of work put into helping kids distinguish their different emotions and what they look and sound like. If they can see them in others, they can better negotiate their tiny social milieu and know how to respond to kids and adults. If they can see them in themselves, they can develop a vocabulary for the changes in their own moods and emotions and, ultimately, to tell us about them.

A toddler can tell us he is angry by biting us in the ankle. This is a very effective way of communicating a feeling, but for obvious reasons it is not ideal. The goal is for him to be able to know that he is angry and to tell us in a safe and appropriate way: through facial expressions, through body language, and ultimately with words.

As with pretty much any skill, there is a learning curve, and there are steps that we can take to bring us to understanding. Here’s how it works most often in my family:

Four year-old: (taking swings at her sister.)

Parent: “You’re feeling angry right now. We need you to be safe. I’m going to help you move away from your sister.”

Four year-old: (crying loudly.)

Parent: “You sound sad. Do you need a hug?”

Four year-old: “YES!”

(Hugging ensues).

 

Or:

 

Seven year-old: (Sitting at table, making loud huffing sounds.)

Parent: “I can tell that you need something. Did you want to ask me for help?”

Seven year-old: “No one is getting me oatmeal.”

Parent: “You’re hungry and you would like some help. What does that sound like?”

Seven year-old: (Still clearly not amused) “Please can you serve me some oatmeal.”

(Eating ensues.)

 

Or:

 

Nine year-old: “I’m COLD.”

Parent: “You’re feeling cold. Is there something we can do to solve that problem?”

Nine year-old: “I can’t find any SOCKS.”

Parent: “You need help finding some socks to wear.”

Nine year-old: “They aren’t in my DRAWER.”

Parent: “You didn’t find them where you expected them to be, and you’re feeling frustrated. How can we solve this problem?”

Nine year-old: “But I’m COLD.”

Parent: “Have you looked in the clean laundry?”

(Dressing ensues.)

 

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The Parent as Coach

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I mentioned that I’m managing a softball team, and that this is a completely new thing for me. In this post, I wrote in pretty vague terms about how a family can work as a team. This week, I have some thoughts about that, from the other side of the fence.

One of my duties as manager is to place the players in the most effective positions on the field. In softball, this will ideally be based upon each team member’s talents, limitations, and dynamics when playing with others. Let me just say that there has been a steep learning curve for me. But it got me to thinking about how the creation of a team relates to the shape of a family.

In debriefing with my coach about our last game, I came across some examples.

  • One of the first rules of coaching a sport is to always use positive language. To exhort a player to, say, “stop twisting the bat at the end of the swing,” is not nearly as respectful, or effective, as giving the positive direction to “swing level.” In the same way, reminding our children to put their “feet on the floor” is preferable to “don’t you lean back in that chair!”
  • Some players have more knowledge of the game and its workings than others. Sometimes this knowledge will lead a player to take on the role of “micro-coach” and tell other players what to do. When we talked about this, I immediately thought of my oldest daughter, who often takes on the responsibility, usually unasked and without—to put it lightly—the appreciation of her younger siblings, to impart the Family Rules to them. I try to remind her gently that this is not her job, and that there are already two parents here to take care of it. It’s a matter of appropriate roles in the family. When her mom or dad, as coaches, ask her to watch her sisters or put her in charge of a task, this is an appropriate role. When she takes it upon herself to do so, not so much.
  • Finally, trying to figure out what is not working with a player might be a matter of determining what their unmet need might be. Does the infielder who misses a grounder need glasses? Or maybe to switch corners so the sun is not in her eyes? Does the third place hitter need more time in the inning to prepare? Could he go to bat further down the lineup? Did the manager (ahem) decide to eat a heavy dinner before the game, thus giving him a poor chance to run bases today? Similarly, when our children are not doing what we expect, or what we know they’re capable of, are they tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated? Have they outgrown their shoes?

My interest in the ball game started as a way to teach family dynamics to fathers. This father, at least, has already learned a lot more than he bargained for. And there are still eight games to go.

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Exciting Conclusion (Family Rules, Part 4)

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This week we come around full circle on creating Family Rules. In Part 1, I wrote about the importance of knowing what the rules are, and the consequences of not making them explicit. In Part 2, we discussed Values and Morals and how we express them, whether we intend it or not. And in Part 3, I compared the family to a team (by the way, our softball team played its first game last night. It was a lot of fun, thank you).

Throughout this series of posts, I have been stuck trying to figure out what our Family Rules actually are. I couldn’t say, and neither could the various parents and parenting educators I had talked to. So finally I did what I probably should have done in the first place, and asked my kids. They did not hesitate. Below are some of the Rules for my family, and questions and answers about them.

First of all, some FAQ I just made up.

Q: Are your Family Rules written down?

A: No. Turns out they don’t have to be. Though it is recommended in Nurturing Parenting that they are actually written and ideally posted on the wall somewhere, our Rules have been instilled through sheer repetition over the years. My girls know them well enough that I have to ask that they not constantly recite them to each other.

Q: Are your Family Rules connected to your Values and Morals?

A: I think so. At least, I could comfortably make that argument. But really, they mostly arose from situations in which my wife and I felt them just come up.

Q: Do my Family Rules need to look like yours?

A: No. It’s your family.

 

With this in mind, here are some of mine:

 

Eat What You Like, and Leave the Rest.

This is the cardinal food-related Rule, though my kids were able to come up with several corollaries, among them “Finish What is on Your Plate Before Taking More,” “Ask if Anyone Else Wants More,” “Wait Until Everyone Has Finished Their Firsts,” and “There Will Be More Food at the Next Meal.”

 

Use Your Words.

Often alternated with the question, “Did You Want to Ask for Something?” with the implication “Because I Didn’t Hear You Do That.”

 

No Means No.

This is fairly self-explanatory. And since I have daughters, I pay a lot of attention to this one.

 

There Are No Mistakes in Art.

My nine year-old, who is a very talented artist, disputes this Rule. But she is not writing this post.

 

So, there you go. This is my Family, so these are our Rules. I hope that this helps you to articulate your own. If that doesn’t work, maybe you could ask your kids.

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The Breaks

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines, and of keeping things consistent and predictable for children. I do think that this is one of the most important things we can do for them, in order to keep them feeling safe and nurtured. It helps them to sleep, to focus, to transition from one place to another.

Recently I was asked, when is it okay to break from the routine? How do you know when it is more appropriate to switch things up, or to make exceptions to the rule? In other words, are there situations in which it is better to just let things go?

I have to admit that this is hard for me. Those routines, I think, are often at least as important for my well-being as for my kids. Or at least it feels that way to me. But I ran into a situation that made me question this. It was bedtime, and as usual I was in charge of moving everyone through the pajama-donning, the tooth-brushing and the story-reading into the sleep zone. But my five and seven year-old, who had spent the day immersed in the high energy of their Nana (my dear mother-in-law), were not having it. They could not calm down. My attempts to keep the energy calm and cozy were calcifying into a general sternness and lack of amusement.

I sent them to say goodnight to their mom, who at this point, having had them for the day, was taking a well-deserved break. Her part in the bedtime routine has been scaled back considerably, consisting mostly of this last round of hugs and kisses. My two girls went to her and almost immediately I heard a round of giggling and whooping. She led them back into the bedroom in this state of tickling and joking and dancing around, and I was, needless to say, not amused. I have trouble with what I regard as excess jollity, whether in children or adults, that I just don’t have time to go into here, or really anywhere outside of therapy (though I do like to quote Mel Brooks from The Muppet Movie: “I detest the surfeit of provincial laughter”).

It quickly became evident, however, that this method of going with their rollicking energy, rather than attempting to put the brakes on it, was exactly what they needed. They were now able to transition into bedtime feeling understood and valued rather than badgered and thwarted. Point to Mom.

How do we know when it is appropriate to switch up the routines? When what we’re trying is clearly not working, especially if it usually does, it may be time to switch tack. Often it involves simply waiting and giving kids time to do what they feel they need to do. After all, when they are ready, they will be eager to return to those comforting, predictable rhythms.

And sometimes the impetus comes from the parents, for whom the usual expectations are just not working. For me, the iconic example is that summer evening (you know the one), in which ice cream for dinner really is the only answer.

Regardless of where the dissonance is coming from, it can be valuable to know when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, and when to let it go. They’ll come around to the routines when they’re ready, and be glad to do so.

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One Love

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I’ve been thinking a lot about one year-olds. I haven’t had one at home for a few years now, but at work I seem to be surrounded by them. I don’t mind.

The one year-old comes with a unique set of bonuses and challenges. The bonuses are so great it’s as if it’s your birthday whenever they’re around. They love to laugh, and it’s easy for you to be the funniest person they’ve ever met. They are working on their words and are delighted to share them with you. Walking, jumping, throwing things: these are great discoveries and the one year-old acts as if they’re the first one to get there and plant a flag.

The challenges, as with children of all ages, are a matter of timing. I know many well-intentioned parents who want to create structure and set boundaries who become frustrated when this doesn’t seem to be working. Here’s how it breaks down.

There are some things that a one-year old is just not ready to grasp at this point:

  • “No” and “don’t.” I have written about this elsewhere; how there are usually more effective ways to set limits. With the one year-old in particular, they simply don’t know what it means. Saying “no” in a firm voice will often stop them in their tracks, but this is because they know that the parent is displeased. They are not able to make a connection between the “no” and the behavior in question. Cause and effect is not yet part of the wiring.
  • As for directions such as “Don’t drop that applesauce,” The one year-old, scanning madly for meaning in your words, will catch “drop” and “applesauce” and will hear it either as an instruction (after all, testing gravity is a favorite activity at this age) or will simply be confused.
  • Positive directions have a much better chance of getting through. Putting out your hand and saying “Give me the applesauce” may get us to where we want to go, with at least a smaller percentage of applesauce on the floor.
  • Your rules. Parents are eager to articulate the rules of the family, laying out what is acceptable and what is not. But in the present moment of the toddler mind, rules (and their exceptions, because there are always exceptions) are too abstract to take root. So what works? Repetition, repetition, repetition. Give the same instruction enough times in context and eventually it will stick. Remember to keep stating, and praising, the behavior that you want to see.
  • What does work with a one year-old? Distraction will be your best friend. Trading out one toy or object for another, or simply changing tracks with a song, or a hug, or a funny noise, will reset the situation.
  • Ready to leave the house? Calling to the toddler to put their shoes on will look to a bystander like absurdist theater. Going to the toddler with the shoes is a better bet. And actually walking to the door is a pretty clear indicator that it’s time to go. One year-olds love to go in and out of rooms. You might want to let them close the door.
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On this Ship Together

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I intended this week to write about something that has been coming up a lot in my work with parents and, inevitably, in my own parenting. Namely, how to discipline children without getting our emotions involved. This is much easier to do when the children are not our own: as a parenting educator, I can see the behavior for what it is, and know that it is not connected to who the parent is.

With my own children it is not so easy. I have expectations for how our relationship is supposed to work; I expect them to trust me and to know that what I am asking them to do is the best thing for them. When they do not seem to understand this, it is impossible to keep myself, and our relationship, out of the equation. I feel that their difficulty in meeting my expectations is personal: that I am, or the child is, failing to honor the connection that we have. And that is when as a parent I start to “lose it.”

Here is an example. I have written before about my challenges in getting my six year-old to sleep through the night. I used to be able to comfort her and simply sit with her until she went back to sleep. Having a book to read on the reading app on my phone kept me busy. But then it stopped working. She would wake again in distress as soon as I tried to sneak out of her room. And my emotions would take over. I got frustrated, she reacted to this, and a drawn-out struggle ensued. Sleep would now be a long way away for either of us.

For a while, my solution was to move her to the other bed, next to her mother, and sleep in hers (it is…shorter than I am). Or, when all the struggling woke the four year-old sister, to move her to the adult bed and sleep in her (even shorter) one. As long as I was in the room, the six year-old could sleep and so could I, after a fashion. But this, I finally realized, was not solving anything.

So I had to set the boundary: adults needed to sleep in their bed, and children needed to sleep in theirs. Since I could not wait her out, I told her that I would tuck her in, give her many hugs and kisses, and sit with her for five minutes before going back to my room. This was the only logical solution, but after so long accommodating her by working around the problem, this was very difficult for her. For a few nights she would simply have to be sad in her bed after I said goodnight. There was much crying and calling out of my name. Though I am sure this was much harder for her, there was no way I was going to sleep next door until she settled. But I persevered. If she came back out of her room, I could tuck her in again and say goodnight, but I would be going back to my bed.

And so it went. It got easier, eventually, when she (and I) realized that this was going to be the expectation every time. She simply would not believe that five minutes had gone by until I started setting a timer (for some reason she believes my timer). And it got easier. Some nights are easier than others. But through consistent repetition of the plan, she is now able to put herself to sleep.

What happened? All of those struggles we were having with our relation to one another—namely, that she thought she was losing me and I thought she was staying awake to torture us both—were replaced by the expectation itself, and by our willingness to work together to make it happen. I agreed to be available when she woke in the night, and she agreed to go back to her bed because she knew what would happen. It is no longer about us.

Looking back, it is easy for me to see that this plan is the one I should have gone with in the first place. But my guilt and uncertainty (am I doing this right?), and her fear and anxiety (how would I react this time?) kept the struggle going. Having the expectation and sticking to it was the only solution.

How will it go tonight? I have no idea. But finally we both know what to do. We are on this ship together.

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About Time

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I’ve been thinking about time.

In a book featuring daily meditations for the Advent season, I came across this passage:

“The greatest gift I ever received,” said a successful young attorney, “was a gift I got one Christmas when my dad gave me a small box. Inside was a note saying, “Son, this year I will give you 365 hours, one hour every day after dinner. It’s yours. We’ll talk about what you want to talk about; we’ll go where you want to go, play what you want to play. It will be your time.”

In addition to wishing that I had come up with this myself, I was reminded of that phrase we always hear as parents, usually from older folks, about our children: “They grow up so fast.” It’s a cliché, of course, something that is said so often it threatens to lose its meaning. But like so many clichés, it is repeated because it’s true. We often hear it as a plea, its message being, “Pay attention to them. Give them time now, learn to be in the present moment with them, before it’s too late.”

This is a particularly hard lesson for me to keep in mind when parenting is difficult. My six year-old, who was once a champion sleeper (and, I have to keep reminding myself, surely will be again), has been waking in the night and struggling to rest without the company of an adult. So when sitting with her and waiting for her to drop off again proved arduous and ultimately unsuccessful—she almost always catches me on the way out—I had to choose between putting her in my bed, next to her mother, and sleeping on her toddler bed surrounded by stuffed cats, and moving her four year-old sister when she inevitably woke from the noise and sleeping in her (much shorter) one. I do not find this amusing, and neither do my knees.

What my daughter needs, though, in the middle of the night, is time with me. When nights are particularly hard and I am particularly tired, this is the last thing I want to give her. The message I am sending her is that I do not have the time. “Daddy needs to sleep too,” is what I keep saying because she does not seem to get it. “We all need to sleep in a bed.” She is not convinced by this logic, nor will she be comforted. And all I can think is that I need this time to pass and for her to become seven (and thus, developmentally, more likely to soothe herself back to sleep).

By refusing to be in the present with her, I am withholding the gift of time.

Being reminded of the value of this time, I think that the many wonderful and precious qualities of my daughter at this age, right now, will be changing as well: her wide-ranging imagination; her endless questions and charming observations; heck, the fact that she wants to have her dad around, just to be there.

My time may be a gift to her, but just as important is the time she is offering me.

She grows up so fast.

I need to pay attention.

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The “No/Don’t” Problem

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There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut again and again myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or to taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see, or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

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Feelings, Nothing More Than Feelings…

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Esther. 

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Many parenting education programs talk about feelings—why the emphasis? Are they advocating that we let our feelings dictate everything we do? Or that we encourage our children to let their feelings be their only guide?

No.

Actually, by identifying feelings we help children learn to control their actions, and to behave in responsible and socially acceptable ways.

Here’s why it works: When we aren’t consciously aware of our feelings, or when we ignore them, feelings are more likely to influence our actions than when we identify them. We may act without thinking. Identifying feelings helps us calm down and think about how to act.

One useful way of looking at feelings comes from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication.

He writes, “Feelings are like indicator lights on a car’s dashboard.” Unfortunately, feelings are not usually as specific as the light that signals the gas tank is almost empty. That’s why most of us need guidance and practice in identifying our feelings. And that’s why most parenting education programs spend time on identifying feelings.

It may help to think of our brain as having two parts: our emotional brain and our problem-solving brain. We need both parts of our brains. Feelings are in our emotional brain—our basic survival brain. They turn on like a warning light when something is important to our survival. When we let ourselves be aware of a warning light, we can use the problem-solving parts of our brains to figure out why it’s on, what we need, and what we want to do to meet that need.

Wait a minute—survival? My child is throwing a fit because her brother knocked down the tower she was building. That’s hardly a threat to her survival. Actually, from the emotional brain’s point of view, it may be. We all have needs: oxygen, food, safety, and many others. In order to get those needs met we have to have some control over ourselves and our environment. Children are born with a drive to gain control because that’s something they’ll need in order to get their other needs met. Not having control over that tower is a threat to her need for control. Because she is a child, her emotions and reactions are more primitive (that’s why she needs parents). According to Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, co-authors of No-Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child, at certain stages of development, the emotional part of the brain is more dominant, thus children are more likely to get upset.

Other threats to survival (hunger, fatigue, fear) contribute to an emotional reaction. And some people are more intense than others. (I confess to having similar reactions to trivial issues at times as an adult.)

Identifying feelings helps us (and our children) in several ways:

  • It requires us to focus attention on the child (or ourselves). We can’t assume we know exactly what’s going on, and our response needs to be tentative, “sounds like you are really frustrated.” Just being attentive, without directing or demanding, helps us figure out what’s really going on and helps a child to calm down.
  • Giving the feeling a name conveys that we understand what the child is experiencing and that we and others have experienced that same sensation. Learning that also helps the child calm down.
  • Giving a name to an emotional sensation engages our child’s thinking brain. That helps the child calm down and be better able to think and choose how to act.

By acknowledging the emotion, by giving the feeling a name, you can help a child to learn to control his or her actions and behavior. According to research by Siegel and Bryson, when we help a child in identify feelings, we help that child’s brain develop.

Yes, sometimes we have to intervene immediately to protect children from hurting themselves or others—but, once everyone is safe, we can help identify feelings. We can calm down. We can use our problem-solving brains to figure out what needs to happen next.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

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