My 7-year-olds have had a lot to deal with of late. It’s no secret that J finds it easier to express her emotions constructively than her sister. J certainly does her share of acting out, but she has a prodigal ability to identify the source of her feelings and concerns and verbalize metaphors that help her keep then manageable. M is a more typical child. She gets overwhelmed by her emotions and lashes out, not quite understanding why she’s behaving that way.
Recently, after her last explosion the night before, M had a question for her sister on the drive to school.
“With your angers, J, how do you throw them out?”
J had the expected response. “What?”
“I think what M is asking,” I attempted to translate, “is how you get yourself to stop being angry or behaving inappropriately when you’re feeling angry. Is that right, M?
“That’s what I said.”
“Oh!” J exclaimed. “I take a break until I feel calm.”
“What if you can’t take a break?” M wanted to know.
“I explain nicely that I need a break and will talk about it later. And I read a book or snuggle with Blankie and Blanket.”
“But what if you CAN’T?” M was started to need a break of her own.
“For example,” I tried to clarify, “like right now, when we’re all in the car together?”
“I take my deep breaths. I ask for help.”
“Okay…” M was unconvinced.
J said she remembered times that she’d cried because she couldn’t get away from a difficult conversation at school and times she’d burst out in anger. I was proud of M for recognizing that she needed to work on managing her emotional reactions, and proud of her for recognizing that J was a good role model.
M had a rough day. A kid at after school care had yelled in her face because she said she liked the YMCA. She’d had a stomach ache most of the day. I was certain that her stomach ailment had a emotional cause.
That night, while I gave the girls their bedtime snuggles, I told M that she and I had something in common.
“M, I think that you and I let our feelings about one thing affect everything. For example, if an ant bites me, I’m really angry at the ant, but I feel mad at everything and everyone around me. Does that make sense?”
“I guess,” M said.
“J’s different. She’s really good at knowing that she’s just mad at the ant.”
“I don’t get mad at everything except sometimes,” J added helpfully.
“Exactly,” I told her. “M, can I tell you what works for me?”
“I find it really helpful to talk to people I trust about what I’m feeling,” I tried to explain talk therapy and friendship in elementary school terms. “They help me figure out why I’m feeling what I’m feeling and then I can put my different feelings where they belong. After a lot of years of doing that, I was able to talk to myself inside my own head and figure it out.”
“I can’t do that,” M said, panic in her voice.
“You can’t talk to people?”
Her, “No!” was filled with frustration.
“You need to talk to people?”
“Yes! I can’t do it by myself. If I don’t talk to people I erupt like a volcano.”
“Sweetheart, you don’t have to do it alone,” I assured her. “Never, not until you decide you’re ready. When you’re 18 or 19, you may decide you don’t need someone else to help with your feelings, but I’m here for as long as you need me.”
We chatted about the things that were on her mind, the happy and sad, the easy and the challenging. We agreed to have a pre-sleep chat nightly to help her sort through her feelings for as long as she needed. I’ve noticed that when I ask the girls to tell me about the best and worst things that happened during the day, they can come up with one or the other, but rarely both. If my daughter tells me the best thing of the day, she’s had a good day. If she has something that’s “worst”, we’re in for a rough evening.
How do you conduct emotional education in your family?
Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.