Today we kick off our Q&A Series with April, who has been an active member in our Seed village for about two years. April lives in Amarillo, Texas with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Quinn.
April admits that she has a hard time letting her daughter feel hard emotions for an extended period of time. She wonders when to let her have a hard feeling, how long to let her have that hard feeling, and how long to allow her daughter to engage with a coping mechanism before implementing a coping strategy.
First, we want to pay attention to what it looks like when we are turning to coping strategies versus coping mechanisms. When we turn to a strategy, the kiddo will feel the hard emotion for longer; a mechanism will numb the feeling instead. This is dangerous. As adults, we might turn to a glass of wine as a way to numb something, but we really want to turn to a glass of wine when we are already calm, not to feel calm. Similarly, whatever mechanisms our kiddos are using - screens, food, or a distraction - it’s okay to have those things when they are calm, not to feel calm. When considering a strategy, for example offering a hug, sometimes we have the time to snuggle our kiddo until they are calm, and sometimes we just don’t. This is something that really resonated with April - when there isn’t time to help her daughter feel calm, she turns to fixing the problem as a time-saver, which she admits she knows is wrong, but is not sure how to balance this. I explained that in a “trying-to-get-out-the-door-for-work” type scenario where we don’t have an extra 20 minutes to engage our kiddo in a coping strategy, it’s okay to limit the duration of the hug. For example, while you are giving your kiddo a hug in this situation, you can say, “Ugh, I love hugging you to feel calm, but it’s almost time to leave, so we can snuggle for another minute, but then we need to get our shoes on and go. We can talk about it more in the car.” April had a very valid follow-up question: What if her daughter objects to that and starts to get even more upset? I suggested validating her feelings and saying, “Ugh, I know you’re really upset. Can you put your shoes on or should I?” She’s probably not going to put her own shoes on, at which point mama may be carrying a kicking screaming kiddo out the door. Then, ultimately in the car, in these instances, we actually want to say as little as possible. We often over-talk here to make ourselves feel better (also resonated with April). Just last week, I was picking up a three-year-old who was staying with us, and when it was time to leave, she threw a huge tantrum. We had to hold her down in order to strap her into her car seat, and she scream-cried for 10 minutes. The only thing I said to her the entire time was, “Ugh, it’s so hard to say goodbye to someone we love. I’m here to help you feel calm when you’re ready.” In general, as parents and caregivers, we need to talk less.
April wanted a little bit of clarification between empathizing with her daughter and fixing things. She wondered if when she says something like, “It’s okay to be sad. I know what it feels like to be sad, too,” is that fixing it? No. She is saying the right thing - this is empathizing. Fixing it would be saying something like, “You don’t need to be sad! You’re going to have so much fun at school!”
April’s next question was, “What if the hard feeling is directly related to something I did that I shouldn’t have done? For example, because I raised my voice or made a parenting mistake? I want to fix it because it is my fault for doing something I shouldn’t have done.” It is okay to fix things in this scenario and this is what it looks like: You can say, “Ugh, I’m really sorry. I got really frustrated and I yelled. Would you like a hug and then we can talk about it when we are calm?” You’re still there to help the kiddo feel calm. If she is having a hard feeling right now, whether mama caused it or not, she is still in the amygdala, the feelings brain, and we want to help get her to the prefrontal cortex, the rational thinking brain before we talk about it. When everyone is calm and you can talk about it, you might say, “Man, I was feeling really frustrated. Next time I’m going to try to walk away and take a deep breath instead.” As a side note, but worth noting, if you find yourself escalating and choose to walk away, expect that it could escalate your kiddos’ emotions, and that’s okay. You are positively modeling for them. As April said, you’ve “gotta get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
April said she struggles with what to do when her daughter says she is scared. For example, if she is afraid of a stuffed animal in the dark because it looks like something scary, should she remove it? A recent study by Yale indicates that the best way to react to our tiny human’s fear is not to remove the thing that is making them feel afraid or make sure they stop feeling afraid. Instead, ask them what they can do when they’re feeling afraid. For example, if your kiddo says, “I’m too afraid to go to the bathroom by myself,” instead of just going with them, you could say, “Ugh, when you go in there, if you’re feeling scared, what could you do to make your body feel calm?” If we go with them, we just become their coping mechanism. Ultimately they are going to feel fear when you’re not there. We want them to be able to know how to feel fear when we are not around. When it comes to the stuffed animal, I told April she can treat it the same way, and if once her daughter has found her calm and they’ve talked about it she still wants to get up and move the stuffed animal, then that’s okay.
April’s last question has to do with being undermined by other adults who try to fix her daughter’s hard emotions without validating them. For example, if your kiddo is feeling nervous, and you’re empathizing with her and someone else jumps in and says, “You don’t need to be nervous, you’re going to have so much fun!.” In the exact moment, you can validate and acknowledge the other adult’s point, but also still advocate for your child: “You might have fun while you’re there, but it’s okay to be nervous right now.” You can then begin emotion coaching, and in turn, you may even be modeling for this other adult too. If the other adult in this situation is someone who is consistently in your child’s life, you can have a private conversation with them afterward. Give a little grace to the other adults who don’t have this toolbox like you do yet, and remember, where they are coming from is a place of love.
Thank you, April, for being in our village, and raising Quinn with such intention.