Monday, November 10, 2014

Emotions Make Kids Smart

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There are three important reasons why helping kids understand their emotions makes them smart. First, when you help kids notice their emotions, they develop self awareness; second, when you help kids pause and problem solve on how to respond, they gain self control; and thirdly, helping them value their emotions helps them develop concern for other people’s emotions. Let's look at each one.

Self Awareness
When we help kids notice and name their emotions we help them become fully present to their experiences. Our attention tells them that what's happening to them is important. They can notice situations that cause them stress, or make them happy or sad. They can pay attention to how they're reacting when they meet new people, and distinguish who is trustworthy and who is not. Being attentive to their emotions gives kids a guide to determine which things are good for them and which aren't. This ability to observe emotions helps kids become more thoughtful. Not only will they observe how situations and other people are making them feel, they'll also be more aware of how their own behavior affects others. Kids who can reflect about their emotional reactions can strengthen their positive actions as well as accept their mistakes and learn from them.  

Self Control
When we help kids learn to pause after an emotional reaction we help them consider alternate ways of responding. Emotions are strong motivators for action and being able to stop this push toward action gives us the power to choose the best options. Yet, sometimes this option is not available to us because we have denied what we are feeling.  When we are out of touch with our feelings, our emotional reactions become unpredictable. They happen without our conscious input and rob us of the opportunity to make wise choices. Kids who can identify their emotions and pause before acting strengthen their ability to tolerate frustration. With time and practice they are less likely to respond impulsively and can become good problem solvers. Kids who can pause and consider their feelings are also more likely to express their feelings directly. It is much easier to help a child when we know exactly what's bothering him or her. These skills of sorting their best responses or expressing needs directly gives kids a sense of their own competence. When kids are able to manage their emotions they can extend this control to other situations, at school or home, or with peers or adults.   

Helping kids accept and value their feelings helps them value and respect the feelings

of others. While we are hardwired to recognize emotions in others, this skill needs to be actively cultivated or it atrophies.We can strengthen this skill by helping our kids be kind and caring towards themselves. This means helping them accept their positive as well as their negative emotions. It's easy to accept positive emotions, but much harder to see our kids ashamed, angry or deeply sad. Yet all our emotions serve a purpose. They help kids express the full range of their feelings, which will give them comfort, confidence and emotional flexibility. They will be able to comfort a friend who's sad or be joyful when there's something to celebrate. Kids who are able to establish empathetic connections with others will have relationships that offer comfort, safety and support. These relationship skills will also make them cooperative classmates, teammates and loyal friends. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Help Kids Identify The Emotions Behind Their Behavior

Photo Source: TopNews.In

For many of us identifying and expressing emotions does not come easily. And for kids it's sometimes even more difficult. Young kids, while expressive and full of drama, often don't actually know what they are feeling. They might be able to tell us they feel "good" or 'bad," yet are unable to name the specific emotion they're experiencing.

This fuzziness about how we're feeling is not an uncommon experience for most of us. We might be aware that we're tense and restless, yet confused because we can't identify the emotion we're feeling. Often we'll remain puzzled until we can identify the event that's caused our distress. Then we are able to link that experience with how we're feeling. We remember, for example, how a friend seemed impatient and short with us, or that our brother didn't call to wish us happy birthday. Once we understand what's happened, our unease and tension make sense and we can label what we've been feeling as sadness or anger. Sometimes, though, we can't figure out what's bothering us and it takes another person's observations of us to help us to label the emotion we've been acting out. Luckily we are all wired to recognize emotions in others.

When our kids are unaware of their feelings, we can offer them similar help. We can notice and reflect back to them the emotion we're seeing in their behavior. For example, you might say: "I see you're frowning and sound annoyed. I wonder if that means you're mad?" or," I see you skipping with a big smile; did something happen to make you happy?" Perhaps your son's best friend moved away and you might comment, "I'm noticing that you've been very quiet and hanging out in your room a lot. Do you think it's because you're feeling lonely and sad?" Or maybe your daughter is reacting to a movie that frightened her and you could say, "I notice you've been staying close to me and seem uneasy, I wonder if that movie's still on your mind and scaring you?" When we comment like this we help our children make sense of their experiences, name their emotions and develop self-awareness.

Our comments also provide reassurance that their emotions are okay and can be expressed. Kids are comforted knowing that we're on their side and available. This encourages them to open up and share their feelings. Being able to talk to a caring adult, rather than hold emotions in, will help emotions dissipate. Otherwise, emotions fester and grow and come out in unexpected ways. Noticing emotions as they happen helps avoid this problem, and instead provides the necessary release for pent up energy. When we encourage expression and open up discussion, kids will know their emotions are safe to talk about.

Children are in the process of learning about controlling their impulses, tolerating frustrations and making good choices. Our loving presence and receptivity to their emotions helps foster their ability to learn self-control and appropriate behavior. As you practice helping your children identify their emotions, you might find my book, “Yell and Shout, Cry and Pout, A Kid's Guide to Feelings,” helpful. In it, I've outlined our eight primary emotions, and discuss their purpose and the common situations that trigger them. The book is also a great jumping off point for talking about the many ways your children have already experienced these emotions in their lives. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Frozen In Time: Why Disney's View of Women Fails To Be Progressive

Frozen has been a topic of conversation with some of my young female clients and I finally sat down with the DVD the other day to watch it. While Disney certainly created beautiful scenes and wonderful music, I was mainly eager to be introduced to a newly empowered Disney princess. Certainly the song “Let It Go” seemed all about embracing your true nature and personal power. How refreshing I thought to not have a princess in a coma, kidnapped, locked up, tricked or treated as a slave. Maybe even someone who didn't need to be rescued by a charming prince. I was certainly ready for a princess that was powerful, strong and who could use her abilities to govern wisely.

But, no, I was wrong. In Frozen, Elsa, the princess, has to be isolated and locked away, her powers a danger to everyone. Really Disney??? Are we still so unwilling to portray female power in a positive light?

If this story had a male prince with similarly out of control powers what would have happened? From Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter exceptional powers would be tamed and controlled through support, practice and wise counsel. Luke could consult with Yoda and Harry had Hogwarts and Dumbledore watching over him. In other words, a male would have been portrayed as mastering his powers and then with confidence taking on whatever leadership was needed. Why couldn't Elsa's parents have provided this for her? There could have been great scenes of her practicing her powers, making silly mistakes and then getting better and then taking full control of herself and her powers.

So, what instead, happens to Elsa? Elsa, having had no support or guidance, is fearful of her powers. After her coronation, she recognizes her lack of control, and fearing she will harm others, escapes. The song “Let It Go” comes from all the pent up frustration of having to suppress her exceptional powers. Of course, we've all felt this way. Either we've never been recognized for our uniqueness or have been asked to deny it. I think this universal feeling is why the song has been so popular.

Elsa belts out the song, elated at being able to exhibit her power and in so doing creates a magnificent ice castle and a new image. Elsa's physical transformation, though, is disturbing. She lets her hair down, dons a shimmering dress and is suddenly becomes a sexy Barbie doll. This is not a strong image of real power; it is, in fact, an image of dis­empowerment. There are no symbols of strength; her only freedom comes from her isolation. She is still fearful of her powers. Why couldn't her escape to the forest and high mountains have included finding a wise wizard or the original troll king to tutor her in managing her own powers?

When her sister Anna, comes to find her she is still fearful of hurting her and sends her away. Anna, though, isn't easily deterred because she is so glad to have Elsa back in her life. Elsa then resorts to creating a snow monster to scare her away. Perhaps I'm naive about movie plots, but couldn't this have been a perfect opportunity for the sisters to have an honest talk? Couldn't Elsa have told her about what happened when they were young and why she had to stay so guarded and fearful? Anna, whose memory had been erased, could then have understood their separation as not rejection, but her sister trying to protect her. Together they could have come up with some solutions.

I know the movie's moral is about sisterly loyalty and love and I'm all for sibling solidarity. I'm glad we were not subject to the “saved by the prince's kiss” theme, but this entire movie and even the ending were a disappointment to me. I was just hoping that this time Disney might have provided us with a fully empowered female heroine. Guess it's going to take awhile.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Complete Apology

My last blog was on apologies.  I thought I had found an effective formula for making a sincere apology, but I'm reconsidering my formula based on a blog I've just read.  It adds an aspect to apologies that I hadn't fully considered.   

At a teacher's training, blogger Jo Ellen was taught an approach to apologies that includes having the offending party consider why their behavior was wrong and how they'd change it in the future. I think this is an important expansion to the idea of apologies. My formulas for apologies focused on showing empathy to the person who was offended, but I think asking the offender to consider their own behavior is equally important.  Too often we say “we're sorry” automatically without truly considering how our behavior was out of line. When we have to think about our misbehavior, we articulate to ourselves what social norms we've crossed. We can't engage in excuses or blame someone else. This self reflection is not easy, and can make us uncomfortable or even ashamed, but perhaps this discomfort is needed to motivate us to change and consider new ways of acting in the future. 

So, what would adding this element to the example in my original blog look like? In my example, the offender is 15 minutes late for an appointment. The extended apology might sound something like this:    

“I'm sorry that I kept you waiting for 15 minutes. This is wrong because it annoyed and    inconvenienced you. I was not realistic about my schedule and being late is something I need to examine. In the future, I will not schedule things with you if I can't be on time. "

This is fully taking responsibility for behavior that has been hurtful. It articulates why it was wrong and what changes can be expected in the future.   

Jo Ellen also has a step that requests forgiveness: “Will you forgive me?” While I have a step that is about making amends, “How can I make this up to you?” I think that formally asking for forgiveness is important.  It's slightly different from making amends and should precede making amends.  Making this request gives the offended party the opportunity to choose whether or not to forgive. Whether the relationship is restored is now in their hands and it reverses the earlier power dynamics. Now the offender is vulnerable and dependent on the offended party's response.  Perhaps it equalizes things; perhaps this new balance creates the possibility of repair to their relationship.     

I have wondered if the step of making amends is necessary. It would seem that if you forgive someone, you do it without conditions. You accept that they are sorry for what they've done, they have understood the impact on you and will make changes in their behavior in the future. This sounds pretty thorough, but perhaps making amends allows an additional opportunity to check for any lingering feelings of resentment. What if the apology, while complete and sincere, doesn’t feel equal to the offense? Or what if this has been a repeated offense and only now is being truthfully addressed?  In either case, something more might be needed. 

Adding amends then makes sense. It might act as a safeguard to assure that things really feel resolved for both parties. If things feel resolved the offended party would just assert that they don't need anything else to happen.Yet, if something else is needed, an additional act might make the difference. In my example, maybe being late was a frequent offense, so agreeing to do some service would indicate a serious commitment to change. A repair act might be paying for dessert or arranging an outing to the movies, or performing some chore, etc. It will be unique for each person, but hopefully it will be a reasonable request that acts to equalize things and restore the prior friendship.

While these new elaborations might seem cumbersome, hopefully their thoroughness can best reduce resentment and get relationships back on tract. Below is my new formula for giving a complete apology.

“ This was my fault and I'm sorry for ... 
   a. Be specific - being late, calling you names, not telling the truth  

“This is wrong because.......
 a. Describe how your behavior was misguided 
 b. Describe how it hurt the other person    

“I keep you waiting and wasn't thinking of you. You were inconvenienced and made to feel unimportant.”
“I was unkind and called you names. I didn't act like a friend and it hurt your feelings. “
“I told a lie and acted like I didn't do something when I did. You told the truth and got punished and I didn't.”

 a. Emphasize what you will do differently in the future. Not what you won't do

“I'll watch the time and I won't be late when we've scheduled a time to get together.”
“I will keep my mean words to myself until I've calmed down.”
“I will tell the truth even when I'm afraid of the punishment.”


“ How can I make this up to you?”

Here is Jo Ellen’s blog “A Better Way to Say Sorry” 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What’s a Real Apology?

I’ve recently been thinking about how we give and receive apologies and why sometimes an apology doesn’t seem to take.  Recently, I was working with someone who was the recipient of some unexpectedly nasty comments.   He decided to confront his friend about this and, while his friend apologized quickly, he also gave multiple excuses for his behavior.   It was clear to my client that the apology was insincere.   It felt hollow and rather than leaving him feeling better, it left him discontent.  
Why was he still feeling dissatisfied?   I think it was because he felt the person didn’t really mean it.  When someone recounts all the reasons why they did something, it feels as if they are trying to excuse their behavior, rather than take responsibility for it.    It seems that accepting what you’ve done, no matter what the extenuating circumstances, is an import component of an effective apology.   It takes courage to accept the reality of our hurtful behavior, and not make excuses in order to defend ourselves.   We want others to have a positive image of us and we don’t like to think of ourselves as thoughtless.   Yet, to truly apologize we have to tolerate our own distress, and without excuses, admit that we were at fault.

Aside from our total honesty in admitting fault, I think there is another important aspect to apologizing. It involves acknowledging how our behavior has affected the other person and being able to see the situation from their point of view. 

Let’s say you’re 15 minutes late to meet your friend for lunch.  Then just as you were leaving, you had to take an important call that couldn’t wait.   So, instead of explaining what happened to make you late, you first describe how your friend might have felt.  What were her thoughts and feelings as she was left waiting for you to arrive?    Here are some possible statements that would indicate you understood her experience:

 “Oh my gosh, I’ve left you sitting here for 15 minutes and you must have been concerned about where I was.   That’s a miserable feeling not knowing if I was coming or not. “   
“You didn’t get a text or anything to let you know that I was detained.  I know, I don’t like it when someone does that to me.    It makes me uncertain and even makes me wonder if I’ve gotten the meeting time wrong.” 

“I suspect it also might have made you feel that you’re not all that important to me.   I want you to know I was especially looking forward to our meeting and value our friendship.  I’m really annoyed with myself for having messed things up.  Will you accept my apology?”

Being addressed empathetically allows the other person to know their emotions are being seen as important, and that you are aware of the consequences of your action.  No matter why we’ve upset someone, if we first acknowledge their experience we are letting them know that we care about them.  I think this is the healing part of an apology    At least for me, when I have received an apology that speaks to my experience, I feel that my hurt has been taken care of and that my heart is open again.
I only we all could remember to do this simple step of taking another’s point of view before trying to defend our behavior.  Validating the other person’s experience would, I believe, avoid a lot of unintended hurt.   To do this, I think we need to have a pause to stop our automatic defense of ourselves, and to instead accept our imperfections and humanity.  Perhaps we defend ourselves rather than just accept ourselves.    Sometimes we will be inconsiderate.   Sometimes we may even be intentionally hurtful.   All of these behaviors are part of being human.   When we can accept our imperfections, we can learn from our mistakes and know that this one misstep does not define who we are.     Holding compassion for ourselves when we make mistakes can help us accept responsibility for our actions, and allow us to understand the other person’s experience rather than focus on ourselves.     There will be time later to give our own explanations what happened and find a way to make amends.
So, as I consider all the parts that make an apology really effective, I see it as a four part process.   I think that these are the steps that I would include:

Offer an apology:   “I’m so sorry.”
Except blame for what happened:   “This was entirely my fault.”
Be empathetic:   “You’ve been inconvenienced and annoyed and I can see why.”
Make amends:   “How can I make this up to you.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Keeping Your Cool When Kid's Lose Theirs, Part Three

My last two blogs have been about how to keep your cool in the moment when things are falling apart around you.    We all need quick techniques to help us restore our calm, when we know our stress is getting too high.   Yet, there’s another aspect to what makes us lose our cool and it’s about how our own childhood impacts our parenting.     Have you ever unexpectedly done something that was exactly like your mother or father did, and it is exactly the thing you swore you’d never do to your kids?  These unconscious actions leave us all aghast and ashamed because it is the exact opposite of how we intended to behave.   These unconscious reactions to our children mirror how we were treated in similar situations when we were young.   In order for us to act on our intentions, rather than be reactive, we need to bring more consciousness to these situations.    Here are some ideas and questions to ask yourself in a quiet moment when you have time to reflect.

Personal Inventory

Take some time and try to consider what kinds of situation is the most distressing for you.   Are there certain ones that are consistently hard?   What exactly do your children do or say that push your buttons?  Sometimes the things that drive us crazy have to do with emotions or behaviors that we were denied as children.   Check to see if this might be true for you.  

Think about the eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, shame, love, happiness, surprise and disgust.   Were these equally allowed expression in your family?    Which ones were okay for you to express and which ones were taboo?   Are the ones you were denied hard to accept in your kids?    Probably so, and just knowing this will help you be more tolerant and provide a much wider spectrum of emotional expression for your kids.

Now, think about some of the family dynamics you grew up with.   Ask yourself what behaviors were frowned upon and you weren’t allowed to express.  For example, if you grew up in an authoritarian family and were not permitted to question adults, you might have trouble when your children question your rules.  Or maybe you grew up in a family where decorum and restraint were expected, and you’ll be uncomfortable when your kids are exuberant and noisy.   Or perhaps you were saddled with unrealistic expectations of perfection and get annoyed if your kid’s performance is less than stellar.  Maybe in your family, you were expected to be neat and tidy, so it will be hard when your kids are sloppy and messy.  Or you grew up in a family that demonstrated little affection and expected independence, and you’ll find it hard to be sympathetic when your children request hugs and need reassurance. 

All these scenarios provide challenges that reflect some difficult aspect from our own childhoods.   Often we’re not even aware of what they are, so just becoming more observant of which emotions and behaviors annoy us is an important first step.  This level of self awareness is the key to being less reactive and having more control in choosing how to respond.   This is not easy to do; it takes time and effort, so don’t be discouraged.   Get help when you need it.   We all get stuck in old patterns and need others to give us perspective.  Ask friends how they handle similar situations.  Keep a log and jot down difficult situations and a new response for each.  And if you’re still struggling with stubbornly entrenched habits, consider therapy.   We all have the ability to make different choices and be more in control of our life.     Aside from your own sense of empowerment, you’ll also be providing an example of calm control which your kids can model and use when they have children of their own.   How exciting to think of our power to undo old negative patterns from our childhood and offer something much more positive to our children.