Volume II- Issue IV Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:21am
When is the last time you truly listened to a child and let them know that you can see and understand what they are feeling?
Children need our empathic ears to help them to identify their feelings. We take for granted and assume that children even know what words like anger, frustration, disappointment, or sadness mean. Many children don’t have the vocabulary to express and name the emotion that they are experiencing; they simply know that they aren’t experiencing something pleasurable, so they try to find a way to express this “yucky” unpleasant experience. And lets face it, their attempt to communicate this unknown or unpleasant sensation can often look from the outside like kicking, screaming, whining, disrespect, crying,and tantrums! When children feel as though they aren't being heard they tend to just get louder and louder hoping that someone will listen. For them, is often starts with them hoping that if they get louder and louder we will cave in and give them what they want; but, with careful communication skills and compassionate interactions with them, we can shift them naturally away from the result they are desiring and help them to navigate this unpleasant experience bringing them more into the present moment.
Lets start with a little mock scenario. You are shopping at your local Target for catfood and garbage bags and as you are walking to the back corner of the store where these products are stocked, you happen to pass the toy isle with a gigantic colorful display of the new Stars Wars Lego Set. Your Son jumps up enthusiastically, tugs on your sleave and gasps "Look Mom, that is SO cool, I have always wanted that Lego Set! Can you buy it?" Your response goes something like this. "Steve, I told you already that we came here for cat food and garbage bags. I am not buying you anything, you always want something! I am sick of it. The answer is NO!" Does this sound familiar? All that child heard is NO. You aren't giving them what they want and you don't even care that they wanted it. In many cases, this would be the beginning of a very unpleasant shopping trip! Start by focusing on the emotional experience. Let the child know that what they are feeling does matter, and respond from that place. One possible solution might go something like this: "I can see that you are really disappointed right now. I get disappointed too when I can't buy something that I really want. Why don't I write the name of that toy in my little book in my purse on your wish list so we don't forget how much you liked it." What we have done in that response is:
1. Let that child know that we see and care about what they are feeling.
2. Let them know that we understand firsthand what that feels like. and
3. Let them know that, even though you aren't going to buy them that toy now, you care that they
It's important to remember that children, in emotionally charged moments are having an emotional experience. It is, by no means, rational. If we can compassionately examine our own life, we can all find a moment in the past that we were upset, and a probing friend or loved one was seeking to correct or help us to solve the problem, and we said in a fury, “I am just really mad (or insert any other emotion)” What the adult was saying was perfectly rational and would be a reasonable solution to the problem, and yet what we were really seeking was emotional validation. Many adults try to play connect the dots with children, or adults for that matter, between emotional and rational experiences. We seek to correct, deflect, or criticize the experience without starting first by recognizing and validating the emotional experience itself. The child is looking to see if we are really listening, understand, and care. Most of the time, they aren't even asking us to fix it. When we are able to stop and compassionately say, “I can see that you are very frustrated right now,” we hold space for that child to pause and reflect on how it is that they are feeling and give that feeling a name. Naming their emotions is incredibly empowering for children. It builds an emotional fluency that they need to be able to recognize and regulate their own internal experience. Unfortunately there is no hope in achieving this unless a child is able to gain the vocabulary and context to even know what these unpleasant sensations within them are called.
When we, as adults are able to validate and articulate our children's emotional experiences without judgment, we are not only letting them know that we truly care and appreciate what they are feeling, but we also let them know that they can take a moment to reflect on themselves in a contemplative way to understand and name the emotions that they feel. This is laying the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy, reflective contemplation of Self that will help to lead these children grow into happy, healthy, connected and balanced adults. But it begins with our empathic ear!