If you watch the face of a young child totally immersed in something that has captured his full attention, you can almost feel his sense of wonderment. That’s the beauty of being a small child — effortlessly they turn their complete attention to that moment, soaking up each detail with all of their senses.
But not even our little ones are immune to emotions and expectations that can quickly erode the most magical of moments. I confess to marveling at the ability of young children to accurately identify how they are feeling — “I’m frustrated, I’m angry, I’m all mixed up, I’m having a bad day”.
One day, I sat my befuddled 4 year old granddaughter on my lap and looked in her eyes full of big puddling tears as she mumbled, “I’m just frustrated.” I told her that I thought that was awesome that she knew she was frustrated. (That’s step one for all us when we want to diffuse our own disruptive emotions). Then I assured her that the feeling of frustration usually doesn’t last too long. (I let that sink in for a minute). I told her that she had a few things she could choose to do to stop feeling frustrated. Being a precocious 4 year old, she asked “Like what?”
“You could ask me for help. You could take a break from that puzzle. You could go outside and look at the pretty fall trees. Or you could read a book.”
She opted to ask me for help and soon we were giggling and making some progress on that puzzle. To my surprise, she said, “Gigi, I don’t feel frustrated anymore. It went away just like you said.”
Now I can’t let a good teaching moment go by, so I told her how proud I was that she realized she wasn’t frustrated anymore and how awesome it was that she was happy and enjoying her puzzle again.
About an hour later, my granddaughter and her younger brother were playing mountain climbers over a pile of boxes and pillows they had amassed. My little grandson got stuck and was visibly upset when he couldn’t free himself. With the sweetest little voice, my granddaughter said “Oh buddy, don’t be frustrated. Ask me to help you.” The student had become the teacher!
Perhaps one of the best lessons I can offer to my grandchildren is helping them to understand that strong negative emotions can dissipate pretty quickly if we pay attention — and that we can quickly turn our day around if we don’t let them linger and sabotage our fun.
Of course it’s much easier to do this when your strong emotions are coming from small life issues like puzzles, missed naps and spilled Cheerios.
Nonetheless, these small experiences are building blocks in emotional regulation and it will serve them well as they mature. I find it very rewarding to condense what I have been learning about mindfulness into digestible little nuggets for others, especially chidden. Heaven knows that life gives us many opportunities each and every day to practice what we are learning. Mastering these insights and tools early in life will definitely help our young ones to navigate life’s bigger challenges with more skill and grace later in life.