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Teaching Kids about Emotions

Teaching emotional intelligence is an enormously important thing for a parent to do. But how? For younger kids, it’s all about giving them the language to conceptualize and communicate about their experiences. This is worth repeating: kids must acquire language tools that will allow them to (a) conceptualize their experiences, and (b)
share/communicate about them-and the child’s emotions are a very important part of their experience. So, it’s important to teach this stuff, and luckily, it’s also pretty easy. 

Step 1: Identify your own most common emotions. You can choose from a very wide variety of emotions (happy, annoyed, silly, angry, loving, sad, excited, frustrated, anxious/worried, joyous), but pick 3 basic ones to start. 

Step 2: Start describing your own emotions, and say why you are feeling them. (out loud, in front of your child.) Deliver this information in an emotionally neutral way, as much as possible. It may help if you first identify predictable times/events when you feel those feelings, so that you’ll be prepared with a bit of a script. (For
example: annoyance while driving, joy at the end-of-the-day-reunions, feeling silly or happy during playtimes…) 

Step 3: At essentially the same time, begin reflecting for your child what emotions you think they might be feeling
at any given moment. For example: “Ooh, you look really frustrated.” or “You look like you’re feeling proud of yourself for that!” If you have a child with a good attention span for discussion, you could add in an extra sentence that clarifies what s/he was doing that suggested a particular emotion. For example: “You’re yanking on that strap and
yelling-I can tell that you are really frustrated!” Also at this stage-start describing emotions you observe in other people around you.  “Look Susie, Billy is crying. He feels sad because you grabbed his toy.” Or, “Wow, John, look at Grandma’s big smile-you really made her feel happy when you said that.” (Note: for those of you thinking: “You
can’t make anyone feel a particular emotion… I agree with you-but this is a conversation with a small child. They’re learning vocabulary and observational skills. We’ll save the higher level self-actualization lesson for 4th grade. ;^) ) 

Step 4: After you’ve been describing your own emotions and reflecting your child’s emotions for her/him for a few
weeks, start asking your child if they are feeling a particular emotion. For example: Oh, “did that loud noise scare you?”  or “Are you feeling angry that I took that away from you?” The goal here is simply to support their understanding and use of emotional vocabulary. 

Step 5/Level 2: Once your child begins to use emotions in their daily vocabulary, give yourself a pat on the back! Annnddd…  now you’re ready for level two… time to begin talking about how you manage your emotions.
For example, you might say: “When I feel scared, I take a deep breath and talk about it with someone I love.” Or “When I feel angry, I take a deep breath, close my eyes and count to 10.” (side note: taking a deep breath is both an ancient wisdom and a modern miracle-a technique that we’ve know about for eons, and one that modern research repeatedly
finds to be effective in managing many things.) Anyway, this conversation teaches your child some all-important coping skills (for dealing with the inevitable stressors of life) while underscoring the message that you are an empathetic and supportive parent.) 

Allright, there ya go! Good luck, and take care. 

Update: a silly (but cool!) graphic to illustrate this entry: 


Top Parenting Conflicts, part 1

It can be such a relief to know that other people are struggling with the same challenges that you are. It can also be
comforting, in a way, to find out that there are problems out there
that you don’t have. (well, it’s true!) To that end, this post is the
first in a multi-part series about the most common parenting conflicts.

I did a small survey and have summarized the results below. (In other
words, this is neither scientific nor exhaustive.) But I think you’ll
find common ground all the same.

Typical areas of conflict between parents:

  • Discipline: (strategies, thresholds, undermining vs united front.)
  • Anxiety: (differing levels and differing triggers)
  • Self-care: (Who gets personal time! Who is getting more! There is Never Enough!!)
  • Sex: (hormones, feeling over-touched, the importance of reconnection.)
  • Lifestyle issues: (diet, TV, language, work vs play)
  • Balance and Sharing: (household labor, ‘owning’ the kids, reading parenting books, extended family, role modeling, competing for love.)

Steps that can help:

  • Define a common problem.
  • Use “I” statements. Avoid blame and ‘making wrong.’
  • Active listening skills (body language, focus, “uh huh,” rephrasing, empathetic response.)
  • Reach out. Ask friends, family, professionals. Ask for help. Ask
    for camaraderie. Ask for distraction. Ask for advice. Both parents must
    reach out!
  • Acceptance, compromise, communication.
  • Counseling. You get the help of an ‘expert’ with training and
    experience in these exact issues, plus a dedicated hour each week to
    focus on growth.

In future posts, I will delve a little deeper into the different categories. First up: discipline. Come back for more!

Oh, Good Question!

Earlier this week I had an initial appointment with a physical therapist. Towards the end of our visit, he gave me some instructions for things to do at home. I sortof understood, but wanted clarification, so I asked a question. This is where things went downhill.

Apparently, my question was a dumb one. I know this because the PT told me so. He tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, smirked a bit, and then repeated what he’d just said, with extra emphasis. The overwhelming message was “You should not have asked that-you should have been able to figure it out. Something must be wrong with you if you had to ask that question.”

Really? Really?

In the Beyond Birds and Bees workshop, I tell parents to first respond to their kid’s questions about sex by saying “oh, good question!” While there are many reasons to do this, the primary reason is that it reinforces to your child that you are an askable parent. I think I want this PT to take my class. ;^)

From the perspective of the well-informed, basic questions can seem a little funny. But let’s remember 2 things-1, to be “ignorant” simply means that the person hasn’t learned it yet. And 2, each of us also started out with small steps, teasing out nuance and learning how to make our own inferences. If 1 + 2 = 3, does 2 + 1
also equal 3? …that sort of thing. That equation looks laughably simple now, but it was a lot harder when you were 5.

As parents, we know that learning is a life-long process, and that no one is an expert in everything. Children who are encouraged to ask questions, who see their parents acknowledging that they don’t know everything but will work to find answers-those kids are better prepared for a successful adulthood. Kids who don’t get that-the ones
who are made fun of for asking “dumb” questions-will stop asking questions. It’s sad, too, because as the questions stop, the learning slows. At the end of the day, the people who asked questions are the people who will know more.

So this week, in whatever you do, consider responding to every question with: “oh, good question.” Because, really, they are all good questions.


Is your school-aged child being teased? Kids can really be mean to
each other, and when our kids hurt, we hurt, too. The older they get,
the harder it is to fix things for them. The good news is that there
are concrete, positive steps you can take to help your child handle
Respond to this problem on two levels.

  1. First, focus on your child’s emotional needs. Don’t rush to
    problem-solving too fast. Allow your child to feel their feelings and
    vent them in a safe place with a safe person (you!) Actively listening
    (which includes eye contact, focus, repeating back, and empathetic
    noises like “uh-huh,” etc.) will actually provide a measure of relief.
    It feels good to tell your story to someone who cares and is really
  2. Then, when your child is done venting, ask if he wants your help,
    and if so, how he wants you to help. You may discover that all they
    wanted was to talk about it. That really happens! Even kids sometimes
    just want validation, not problem-solving. Alternatively, your child
    might ask for a “fix.” Depending on your child’s age, a phone call to
    parents or teachers, etc might be appropriate. However, no one can
    really make them stop, so we’d better move on to level two.

One of the most important things we parents must do for our kids is prepare them for The Real World.
The Real World is imperfect and full of unfairness, bullies, and
cheating. Much as we might like to, we cannot shield our kids from
teasing (or other unpleasantness) for their whole lives. It will find
them, so we’d better teach them how to deal with it on their own.

Here are steps to take and lessons to teach your child in order to
better equip him to deal with teasing (or other crummy peer behavior).

  1. Overall ego-strengthening. If a child feels anxious about a
    particular aspect of themselves, they are likely to react more when
    teased. The reaction is the teaser’s reward. (This is why some people
    say to “just ignore them”). But, a child who can recognize her own
    diverse strengths will have an easier time internally rejecting the
    rude comments. If your child doesn’t feel sensitive or vulnerable to a
    comment, they won’t react. This makes it less ‘fun’ for the teaser, so
    it won’t happen as much.
  2. Humor. Nothing disarms like humor. There’s a great scene in the old Steve Martin movie “Roxanne
    where his character (who has a very large nose) makes fun of a guy who
    had made fun of his nose. Steve Martin embarrasses his teaser by
    humorously pointing out that the teasing comment was uncreative and
    common. What a way to reclaim the upper hand!
  3. Insight into the other person’s possible motivations. It helps to
    know, for example, that kids sometimes tease because they feel insecure
    themselves. This also emphasizes the important life lesson “It’s not
    about you,” which can be powerful and life-changing.
  4. Teach your child the power of not being defensive. “Yeah,
    I’ve got a big nose. And, I’m the 4th grade champion at basketball.
    Wanna play?” In this example, the child being teased acknowledges the
    truth in what the bully is focusing on (which eliminates any ‘sting’,
    and the shifts the power) then refocuses the conversation onto an
    aspect of himself where he is powerful and capable.

I hope that these ideas are helpful. For more information, or to ask
questions, leave a comment or send me an email through the website!