In his sojourns greeting children on the kindergarten and elementary play yards, elementary school Co-Principal Vince d’Assis sometimes has opportunities to help an upset child do what clinical psychologist Becky Kennedy calls “making friends with their own feelings.”
Recently Vince told the story of asking an upset kindergartener what he was feeling. The boy had shut down and said he didn’t know. Vince consulted with the teachers and learned he hadn’t felt successful at a movement activity with his classmates, so he asked the child, “I wonder if you were feeling embarrassed?” The boy’s face lit up and he nodded yes. After talking more about his feelings, the kindergartener seemed relaxed and gave Vince a hug.
Actually, their conversation could have focused on any strong emotion and positive ways of handling it. However, in those few minutes, the boy gained something crucial – the belief that he is worthy of being seen, that his uncomfortable emotions are understandable, and he doesn’t have to struggle with them alone.
The idea of making friends with feelings starts with learning to name them, feeling safe expressing them, and trusting that someone else can understand. In her book Good Inside, Kennedy says when adults ignore or dismiss children’s feelings (“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about”) or tell them some emotions are wrong (“How could you say you don’t like your baby sister?”), children can feel that parts of themselves are bad and they need to keep them hidden. Instead of developing confidence that they can find words to express any feeling, no matter how difficult, they experience negative emotions as alien parts of themselves that they can’t manage.
Research shows that the intervention of a calm, empathic adult (“Everyone feels embarrassed sometimes”) lowers stress and allows children to better manage their behavior. When a child can say “I’m angry at you” in words, he is less likely to hit the other person. Learning to “name and tame” feelings is a gradual process that usually gets established in the preschool years. That’s why extensive social-emotional learning is so crucial to establishing positive interactions when a child is young.
Yet having someone who can listen to our feelings without judgment is important for emotional health at any age. Kennedy likens the process of feeling understood to “having our minds held by another mind.” With over a million followers on Instagram, she has heartening messages for parents that also apply to teachers.
Dealing with children’s strong feelings can trigger difficult parts of ourselves, and it can be exhausting. We won’t always do it right, but it’s important to remember that in spite of all our mistakes, we are good parents and teachers.
In this five-minute YouTube video, Daniel Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, describes what happens in the brain when we “name and tame emotions.”