I forced myself to look back. Right now there’s only so much I can look for in a nonverbal child. We’re still learning what some of her newly forming emotions relate to. For example, we’ve realized that she wants us on her level. Freya gets exceedingly upset when one of us (or both) isn’t on the floor right there with her. So we’ve had to adjust things so that at least one of us can get something done.
As we go along we’re figuring out her nonverbal cues and attempting to adjust our behavior as we see fit. We know there are going to be some things that she just has to learn to deal with. We can’t hold her all the time and there are going to be places she cannot go in the house and things that she cannot touch, but we want to clue into the cues that we can adjust for as well.
So in that vein, I want to look at how we can listen and look for understanding in our children’s feelings. I’m going to start with the book I’ve been reading and expand from there. If you didn’t read Monday’s Post, it is called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. You can find it on Amazon or maybe at your local library.
How to Help with Feelings
1. Listen with your full attention
It’s discouraging when you walk up to someone and they’re only half listening. It’s easy to give lip service to listening and then fail to do so in our actions. When we do acknowledge the feelings of others with our listening ears turned all the way up, our child is going to feel like we care (as well they should). Not to mention that they might just need someone to listen to them. Sometimes they don’t need us to do anything but listen. Not to mention that when we listen in this manner we are following a pagan principal. We are engaging in “To Be Silent”. We know that now is not the time to speak and we are teaching our child by example when to listen and why.
2. Acknowledge their feelings sincerely.
In my experience with kids it works better to let them get it all out before you even consider giving them any advice. When we listen to the child’s or adult’s full story first, we let them get out their frustration. This is far better than just starting in with questions, blame or advice. Think about this example, Suzy has lost her (insert valuable here) and her mom starts asking her how she lost it or blaming her for leaving it out on her desk. Or she jumps straight into saying what Suzy should have done. That child is going to feel attacked.
I remember a girl I had at camp who had lost her stuffed animal and was blaming another girl. The first counselor she went to accused her of losing it. When I later found her crying, I asked her what was wrong and let her tell the whole story. All I said were very simple statements like “Oh no.” “Really?” “That’s not nice.” Etc. She got to explore her feelings and it made her think of another place to look and eventually the solution to another problem she was having. I also learned about an issue she was having with another camper, which enabled me to be proactive in preventing further problems between the two campers.
3. Give their feelings a name
We have to give them a name for what they are feeling. I remember one time growing up we had gotten some goldfish at a fair. I went off to summer camp and they died while I was gone. Of course, my parents couldn’t just keep them there. They died within the first two days of a two week horse camp. Nor were they about to tell me about it in a letter.
When I got home I was so mad when I found out that they had just flushed them down the toilet. I was hurt. At first my parents said “There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s just a fish we can get you another one.” Of course, this just made me more upset. While I hadn’t had them long they were my first pets and I had cared for them. It hurt that they had just been flushed and without any consideration for my feelings.
Eventually my parents realized their mistake and apologized. We buried a photo of them in the back yard and put a place marker up. Just think of how much easier it could have been if they had recognized my feelings on the subject. Once we had talked about what I was feeling, I actually felt better and I’ve found that most children react similarly.
And it makes sense. When we start out, emotions are confusing. Heck, they can still be confusing as adults. Children need an extra adjustment, an explanation to understand what they are going through. This was something that did, despite that one incident, occur frequently in my family. My mom was always sick and instead of hiding the details we talked about the feelings that her illness provoked within me. It made me feel better when we talked and worse when all the other adults wanted to hide it from me. It just fed the fear. So think about that the next time your child is sacred, worried, or concerned. You might just ease those feelings while building their trust in you.
4. Give them their wish in a fantasy.
I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t get something I wanted as a child. It was frustrating, but it was a fact of life. Sometimes we didn’t have this snack or couldn’t do that activity. My parents would try to reason with me, but I just got more and more upset.
When the author pointed this out I wondered why and I looked back to my days of child psych and child development in college and I realized something that should have been obvious. Children aren’t as capable of the logic we have as adults. If we look to Piaget’s theories on cognitive development we realize that we don’t begin to see the inklings of logic and reason until a child hits seven and it’s not even fully developed during their teenage years.
We’re expecting a child to understand something their brain hasn’t learned or fully grasped yet.
It doesn’t work.
Sometimes a child just needs you to understand how much they want something. I remember my mother doing something similar to the example in the book when we didn’t have my favorite box of cereal. She told me that she wished she had a magic wand that could make a box appear. It didn’t make things all better, but it did allow me to take my moment before moving on to something that I could have.
Putting it all together
We have to remember that all of these methods require both patience and compassion. A child is going to see through anything else and read it as manipulative. You need to either have or learn to have true empathy for the feelings of your child despite whatever frustrations and anger you may have towards them in the moment. It’s something that takes time and practice. I’m good at it with elementary aged children, but I have shown to be less patient with younger children in the past. It’s something I’m personally going to have to get over. So you’re not alone in the struggle.
When we talk to our children we have to identify the feeling and acknowledge it. If the bus driver yelled at a child they are most likely embarrassed and we have to acknowledge that by telling them that we would probably feel the same way. And often, if we think back to that point in our lives we can relate. If our children say that the teacher is dumb for canceling a field trip they may be displaying anger and we have to let them know that it’s okay to feel that way, but that there’s nothing we can do about it in that moment.
If you watch those who watch your children (if you’re involved in day care or school) you may notice that some of the educators or caretakers of the younger children are particularly good at this skill. It’s part of what makes the children love them. You’ll also notice that the teachers the majority of them dislike are not so good at it.
Second, one of the biggest potential mistakes you can make with a child is to try to interject advice before they have told you the whole story. When you listen and acknowledge, you’d be surprised how a child can come to their own conclusion or solution. Now granted, if that child’s solution could get them in trouble, at the end of the conversation you can ask a leading question to gently push them back onto a logical track, but let them come to the answer themselves. You’ll be doing them a favor in helping them learn conflict resolution early.
The book has a wealth of knowledge if you want more examples, some comics, and even a few roleplaying exercises you can do with your partner. I plan to eventually use this to work with my own significant other so that we can come together on the same page.
I also think I’m going to take the author’s advice (once Freya can speak) and keep a journal about the feeling discussions we have. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with it amidst everything else, but I think of it as a learning opportunity.
Regardless, think about how you deal with your child’s emotions. You may find that you have perfect communication, but I’m fairly sure, that if you’re honest in your reflection, you’ll find something, no matter how small, that you can improve on as well. After all, no one’s perfect.