Helping Kids Deal with Emotions

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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.

Helping Kids Deal with Emotions

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.”

That’s debatable.

“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 and Multicultural Mothering.

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NICU Names: Guilt, Anger, Sorrow

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Categories Anger, Emotion, Fear, Frustration, Grief, Guilt, Mommy Issues, NICU, Parenting, Prematurity, Theme WeekTags , , , , 4 Comments

Prematurity Awareness Week 2013: How Do You Do It?

World Prematurity Day November 17In the United States, 1 in 9 babies is born prematurely, 1 in 10 in Canada. Worldwide, over 15 million babies are born too soon each year. While not all multiples are born prematurely, a multiple birth increases the probability of an early delivery. Babies born prematurely, before 37 weeks gestation, are at a higher risk for health complications in infancy, some of which can have long-term effects. Full-term infants are not all free from their own health complications, of course.

In honor of November’s Prematurity Awareness Month, led by the March of Dimes, How Do You Do It? is focusing this week’s posts on The Moms’ experiences with premature deliveries, NICU stays, health complications, special needs, and how we’ve dealt with these complex issues.

Aside from the times I truly feared for the health, happiness, and life of my babies, one particular thing stand out when I think back on how very emotional the NICU can be: my children’s names.

My husband and I had given so much thought to their names. We’d discovered they were both boys when I was 18 weeks along, and had full names picked out for them by before I was 20 weeks. We always referred to them by name from then on, never as Baby A or Baby B. We chose names that were very different but harmonized well. It was important for us that their names not reflect their status as twins: we very much wanted them to feel like they had individual worth from before they were born. (This is a personal thing, I know, and I am not disparaging how others name their multiples; I am simply stating how things were for us.) Even before they were born, we felt that they (particularly our Mr. A) fit perfectly with their names.

One other thing of note: I kept my maiden name. We discussed what to do with the boys’ surname—mine, his, hyphenate, combine, make up an entirely new one—and eventually decided to give them my husband’s last name. We both like the name, and as my husband is both adopted and an only son, we thought it might matter to their paternal grandparents.

When they were born, the boys were on record as MyLastName,MyFirstNameBBA (for Baby Boy A) and MyLastName,MyFirstName,BBB. And they kept those names. And kept and kept and kept those names. The nurses made nametags with their given names and placed them on their warmers, but everything else was MyLastName,MyFirstName,BBA/B.

namesThe names on their ankle bands. The names on my wrist bands. The names we had to give when calling to ask for updates. The names we had to state at the intercom to be admitted to the NICU. The names we had to sign in under to visit them. The names on the whiteboard. The names on the labels I stuck to each bottle of expressed breast milk. The names on the records—with a huge red NAME ALERT marked, to remind doctors and nurses that there was another patient with an extremely similar name, and so meds and procedures must be very carefully checked to ensure that they had the correct patient. The names printed out on the instructions and med dosages for Code Blues taped on their warmers. The names the doctors used at rounds.

I hated it. I cannot even begin to describe the feelings of anger, sorrow, and helplessness I felt about their NICU names. Not a single part of those names were actually my sons’ names. At heart, I felt like I was not their mother; that they had been stolen from me and renamed what the hospital thought was best. I knew my boys needed to be in the NICU, and I accepted that. But it was hard, so very hard, to not feel like their mommy. I didn’t change their first diapers or put on their first outfits (which came later). I wasn’t the one who decided what and when and how much to feed them. I couldn’t even hold them without permission (although that quickly ceased to be the case with Mr. D). And they didn’t get their real names, their true names, the names we had loved and loved them with, until they came home. Even when Mr. A was transferred from his birth hospital to the children’s hospital, he was admitted as MyLastName,MyFirstName,BBA. I raged and pleaded, but “nothing could be done”. A simple matter of hospital protocol meant that my sons had been robbed of their identity.

I realize this is not rational. I even realized it at the time, despite being overwhelmed with postpartum hormone shifts and scary diagnoses and not being able to watch my sons breathe as I fell asleep. I think I channeled most of my grief at the whole situation onto the issue of their names. But recognizing this intellectually is not at all the same as feeling it emotionally. And emotionally, I felt like their names had been stolen from me, along with all those precious newborn moments I missed, shared with strangers, or experienced in a setting that made the whole thing feel incongruous. My babies were simply not my own: they were shared with a very large staff of doctors, techs, and nurses (some of whom I never met or only briefly met) and all the love in the world could not change that. And their names reflected that. It hurt, and even now, a year and a half later, I am not “over” it. I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t see how one ever could be.

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Discipline and Love

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“Why are you acting like you love J and not me?” my 5-year-old M asked me this morning, her voice full of tears.

That was quite the knife through the heart. Within minutes of learning that there were two little people growing in my womb, I had promised myself two things: I would never play favourites, and I would treat our children as individuals.

I wasn’t playing favourites today, of course. M would be allowed to snuggle up against me with her blankie too, once she’d served her well-earned 5 minutes in time out.

Here’s what led up to this moment:

We had a small quantity of chocolate milk in the fridge, a spring break treat. I had split it evenly between two cups, and offered them to the girls to tide them over while I prepared breakfast. J took a cup from me and downed the milk in one swallow, while M tensed every muscle in her body before wailing, “But I wanted that cup!”

I offered her the other cup. I offered to pour her milk into the cup J had just emptied. She didn’t want milk at all, she informed me, because J had the cup she wanted. This sort of interaction was par for the course at age 3, but not now. Instead of having the milk go to waste, I offered it to J. That was when M started pummeling me with her fists. Instant orders to time out prompted her accusation of my not seeming to love her.

M has been having some major self control issues all week. It’s been a stressful time for the whole family. J is more in touch with her emotions than the majority of adults I know, including me, so she’s been weathering this period unbelievably well. M, on the other hand, is either unaware of what’s really bothering her or unwilling to talk about it. I sat her down with crayons and paper yesterday, and drawing seemed to help some, but she has a way to go.

While she has a legitimate reason to be generally upset, this doesn’t excuse rudeness or hitting. She’s a month shy of turning 6, and we’ve been working with both girls on a variety of tools to help them maintain their composure and handle their emotions since they were 2. Deep breathing, playing with water in the sink, and taking some alone time with a book or toy are standard ways that both J and M deal with overflowing anger to make their way to a productive solution.

She finally calmed down. I explained to M that it was because I loved her that I took the time to help her behave like a grownup. If I didn’t love her, I wouldn’t care how she behaved. Surprisingly enough, she accepted that response.

A little later, M asked to play a game on my iPad. I told her that I wanted to let her play, but the fact that she wasn’t controlling her body well made me worry that she would break the thing. That cued another tantrum and time out. Once she returned, I told her that if she went 3 hours without a tantrum, I would have enough confidence in her self-control to let her play a game. Classic bribery, I know, but we work with what we have.

She made it 45 minutes until the next tantrum hit. She begged me to lower the bar. A tantrum-free hour should be enough, she thought. I do not negotiate with tantrum-throwers, so I held my ground.

It was afternoon before she asked if it had been 3 hours; I’d been head down in work and hadn’t thought about her request for the iPad game. I realized that she’d been playing nicely with J for 5 hours, blowing bubbles in the yard and inhabiting up an elaborate make-believe world that involved pirates and restaurant owners.

It wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I noticed how M had worded her pain to me. (I jotted the sentence down immediately for use in this post.) She had asked me why I was acting like I loved J more. She didn’t actually accuse me of not loving them equally. Even in her deepest frustration with me, she was confident in the content and equal partition of my love, even if she didn’t like how I expressed it.

I think M’s going to be all right. We’ll get through this. I just need to take my deep breaths, play in the water, and take some alone time every now and then.

What’s your approach to fairness in parenting? How do you balance the needs of multiple children?

Sadia telecommutes from El Paso, TX to her job in Austin and is thankful that her 5-year-old identical twins can entertain one another 8 hours a day.

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Sister's Protector

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J is grieving, an emotion too big for one so small. The dog next door succumbed to breast cancer today, and J is heartbroken.

“I’m mad because I’m sad,” she told me. “I’m mad at you and I’m mad at M and I’m mad at the neighbour and I’m mad at God. It’s not fair. Our cat is alive and she is old and Chloe is dead and she is old and it’s not fair.”

According to the pop psychology I know, J’s expression of her pain, while hard to watch, is healthy. We talked about how much pain Chloe was in toward the end, and how her pain was now over. We talked about how the combination of sadness and anger that fills J right now is called grief. J asked if I would sleep in her bed tonight so she could feel snuggled. I agreed. She wanted me to go to bed when she did, she clarified. I agreed. Dishes can wait, and I can make up my workout.

J’s grief extends beyond Chloe’s death to another dog’s cancer. A close friend’s dog, Pumpkin, is also suffering from cancer. This friend, however, lives some distance away, and it’s unlikely that we’ll have a chance to see Pumpkin again. Wrapped up in J’s feelings about Chloe’s death are also the grief of Pumpkin’s illness and pain of the vast distances between us and the friends we left behind when we moved last year.

I’ve been holding J, listening to her, and acknowledging her feelings as best I know how. In the intensity of J’s grief, I’ll admit that I was glad that M was holding her own. As J moved from anger towards a quieter sadness, however, I began to worry at M’s complete lack of emotional response to the news of Chloe’s death. Instead of prodding her about it, I decided to let her deal with it in her own way, in her own time.

Over dinner I began to see what was going on. M was too busy caring for J to deal with her own emotions. She made fart joke after fart joke in an effort to get J to laugh. She got up, unprompted, to throw herself over the back of J’s chair. Her silly action turned into a long and heartfelt hug.

They’re only 5, but they shared a womb and every step since. They have a far deeper understanding of how to give one another comfort than I have at 32 years old, with 9 years of talk therapy under my belt.


I had the opportunity to speak briefly with M at bedtime. She told me that she, too, was sad and worried.

“Who are you worried about?” I asked her. “Chloe or J or Emily or …?” (Let’s call Chloe’s elderly owner Emily.)

“I’m worried about Emily’s sister. I didn’t think life would let this happen.”

Emily inherited both Chloe the dog and the house next door when her sister died of cancer this summer. She had promised to care for Chloe. It had been clear to me, and apparently also to M, that her fresh grief was as much from the loss of her sister as of the dog.

“I have a picture in my mind of Emily’s sister. She looks like Emily, but younger. In my picture she is beautiful.”

In the flood of emotion surrounding her, M empathizes, in her own way, with the story of the sisters next door, one still here and one gone but in her sister’s heart and the picture in my daughter’s mind.

Sadia is the mother of identical twins M and J, aged 5. She comes, in part, from Bangladesh, where death is discussed with children as a matter of course. She has shared her past neuroses at Double the Fun, although she has since taken her personal blog private.

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