Want a trick to help children clarify, then let go of their upset feelings? Offer to write their emotions down. When a four-year-old was extremely angry that he couldn’t immediately draw with chalk on the walkway outside his classroom, he wasn’t distracted by the offer of other fun activities until he could have a turn. He kept screaming that it wasn’t fair. Instead of repeating logical reasons why it couldn’t work for him to do chalk drawing in that moment, I asked him, “Want me to write down what you are feeling?” The little boy stopped and immediately said, “Yes!”
I got paper and pen and asked, “What should I write?” He said, “I was angry that my friend was drawing and I couldn’t.” As he talked, his explanations became more clear and understandable. When he was screaming, it was assumed his upset was about having to wait, but my offering to write down his feelings allowed him to express a fuller perspective on the whole event.
The process didn’t change the fact that he couldn’t do chalk drawings at that time, but having his emotions recorded allowed him to let go of the incident. He, like most children, insisted on keeping the piece of paper that contained his words.
I have had countless experiences of writing down children’s upset feelings over the years, and it works with older children as well as preschoolers. In the midst of extreme upset, it’s hard to sort out what emotions are. Having to express feelings to someone who is trying to write them down allows the upset person to incorporate thinking into the experience and allows for more clarity.
The role of the writer is only to record the feelings, not to comment or try to problem solve, no matter how irrational the child’s perspectives on the situation sound. The deep listening required to write the feelings leaves children with the sense that they are really being heard.
As children practice talking about their emotions for someone else to record, they can get interested in writing their own feelings down, which can form the basis of journal writing, either digitally or in a paper journal. Writing in a journal, even for a few minutes a day, reduces stress at any age and helps children get to know and value themselves.