The past year has come with a heap of transition for our school. In September we began our second school year at Elm House, our program that includes children who are twelve months to three years old. There have been many tears. Children being dropped off at a new place can be challenging and full of emotion for both the children and their primary caregivers. One of our Elm House teachers, Mage Baltes, wrote a heartfelt and helpful piece on saying goodbye.
The idea of tears and feelings has of course come up at the beginning of the past six years in the preschool as well. And of course it comes up for each of us throughout our lives… We say goodbye to loved ones as they die. We say goodbye to those who live far away. We transition from being children to adults and we must say goodbye to our parents in a new and potentially frightening way. Or we might encounter the pain of saying a curt goodbye to those that we wish we could have loved differently. The transitions in our worlds sometime feel painful. And unrelenting.
A preschool parent recently borrowed a book from our shelves called Tears and Tantrums by Aletha J Solter. She commented: “It was helpful in reminding me that crying, even rage, is a beneficial, inevitable release for children.” Her comment reminded me of another beautiful piece written by Mage called Connect Through Crying.
Personally, I have been trying to do more crying in my day-to-day life. A few months back I found myself cut off from my emotional self, unable to release the huge emotions that I am processing about the world (my children, other people’s children, the teachers that I care about and mentor, my impact, how to do better, be better, do more, grow more, the struggles of others, children in jail, public servants killing people, and a narcisstic misogynist running for POTUS, and now elected as POTUS- to name a few). Since, with support and love from those I trust most, I have been able to tap in to my emotions again.
This is important stuff. As adults, we are becoming more disconnected from our emotional and spiritual selves. Which makes it challenging to tap into the emotional and spiritual lives of Other.
But why is teaching children about emotions important? And is it just kind of important? Does it help just them? Does it extend into the later parts of their lives? How does it help to heal us as adults? These are some questions that I have been asking during this time.
At our school, coaching around emotional awareness has become part and parcel of our learning processes. We say things such as, “You are feeling so sad right now. I understand. Sometimes I feel sad also.” And we will, as Mage explains in their piece, simply hold children and sit with them and honor their emotions. Afterwards we might say, “It looks like your feelings have changed. Now you feel happy!” These practices provide a process of metacognition for children- or thinking about their thinking (or feelings in this case).
Many times, we see parents out and about whose children are upset, and they are trying to help that child “get over” their emotions. I am sure all parents and educators can understand this- sometimes we want the emotion to simply go away! We want to stop feeling embarrassed by either a) our perception of how others might be viewing us at that moment (too lenient, not ‘in control’ of our kids, overly empathic, etc) OR b) our actual feelings of remorse or judgment about how our kid is ‘acting’.
Here’s what we also see and experience out in the world. Children who experience their emotions, feel connected to a parent or caregiver during that emotion, and then move past it- safely, securely, and while being loved by someone else. And I might add, with CLEAR boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not in terms of behavior.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at each picture.
In the first totally understandable and reasonable situation, we have a child who is upset about something. Everybody gets upset. In this situation, this child is receiving information that leads them to believe that their emotions are not necessary. That their emotions are not worthy of time. And that their emotions are not interesting. However, when we as adults approach a child’s emotions in this way, the emotion does not simply ‘go away’. The child does not simply ‘get over’ these emotions. They are stored and reacted to within their bodies.
Zoom out more. How does this impact their relationships with others? If I can put myself in their shoes… I am receiving the information that emotions are not necessary, worthy, or interesting. If I turn that around and treat others the same way, my parents get upset with me for not caring or having empathy for others! How confusing.
Zoom out even further… Into the future… We have children running around who are unable to effectively slow down, listen, and have empathy for the emotions of others (or themselves). The unprocessed emotions are acted out over and over again.
In the second situation, a child is able to process their emotions, in the moment. They know that someone is listening. They might feel gentle arms around them. They might see a face that mirrors their own emotions. They might hear words of understanding. “I hear you. I can understand why you are sad. You fell down and that hurt. Sometimes I feel that way too when I fall. Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?”
In wondering about how these moments impact a child’s relationship with others, let’s think again about ourselves. When we feel rejected in our emotional capacity, are we able to reach out to others? I can think of many times that my emotional life was rejected when I was younger. My reaction was usually to run and hide. In time that led to emotional build up, intensified emotional pain, self-mutilation, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity and unhealthy risk-taking. How we treat young people and their emotional lives is important, not just in the moment, but as they build their futures. As we are thinking about children who are able to process their emotions, we might think of them as beacons of hope. They will be more willing to help others, to communicate their needs, to be in the moment, and to focus on what is happening in front of them.
If we can commit to these processes in ourselves and our children, we may look far into the future. These children are adults. Let us envision them as our future counselors, teachers, healers, leaders, and business owners. When these leaders in our community are able to live their full emotional lives, everyone benefits.
As we enter into this huge transition, into a our new US (which for some is the old US), we must view this time as a transition for emotional awareness as well. In my mind, the lack of awareness around this issue is a looming contributor to the choice that we just made as a nation. As educators and parents, we have the wherewithall to help children become accustomed to feelings as part of their bodies, others’ bodies, and the greater collective body. This is happening on a mirco level, with the relationships that families members have with each other. And when we teach our children to extend this knowledge to others, to treat others as a communal family, we have the opportunity to extend it to the macro level, allowing it to blossom out to more and more people. Empathy, concern, compassion, relating, forgiveness, and the offering of information are all part and parcel of this work.
When children learn how to feel, we all benefit.
Thanks for reading! -Sarah Lu