I am discovering that young children are sponges for learning about their emotions. But what has really intrigued me is their innate fascination and curiosity about what they are learning for themselves about their own emotions. How fortunate am I to be able to witness the positive impacts that a whole new approach to emotions can have on young people?
There is so much research readily available today regarding the role our emotions play in informing us about what is important, how they help inform our decision making and how unprocessed emotions can linger within us for decades. Those unprocessed emotions become the roadblocks in our natural human maturation.
As we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, we drag along the unprocessed emotions. What we are learning from neuroscience is that these old unresolved emotions become the cork board in our brains where we pin similar emotional experiences unfolding in our current life — adding to our collection of misunderstood, misused invaluable information.
In my generation, we were taught that many of our emotions were not acceptable. It was common practice for emotions to get labeled in ways that actually shaped a child’s perception of who they were: too sensitive, too bossy, too much, uncontrollable, unreasonable, a sissy, a bully. Those labels got internalized by children and they learned to navigate life so as to avoid them. We learned to be people pleasers, conflict avoiders, tough guys, submissive or aggressive. We learned to read a room, become hyper vigilant and protect ourselves by armoring up.
Oh my goodness we got emotions all wrong!
Emotions are simply our own personal navigational system, rich with invaluable information about how we can be our best and most genuine selves. Denying those emotions is what causes roadblocks to navigating life with good relational skills.
By flipping the old school approach to emotions on its head, we have the opportunity to teach young children their own brain/body connection. There is just one key component to this — we, the adults, have to unlearn what we were taught and relearn this new approach ourselves.
I get inspired by the magic transformation of turning our old emotional roadblocks to strong, guiding foundational life skills as I watch this great experiment get traction in real time with my young grandchildren.
Kids are sponges for learning. They have “beginner’s mind”, a term often associated with personal growth and meditation. Their natural curiosity is the gateway for teaching emotional intelligence.
Emotions are invited to have a seat at the table in our family. Emotions inform us about what the motivation is for the behavior that bubbles out. Sometimes it is crocodile tears streaming down soft cheeks, sometimes it is a toy being flung across the room; or it can be a heated exchange between siblings who were just two minutes ago playing happily with each other; it might be an utter refusal to get dressed and out the door for something fun. All those reactions are just responses to an emotion that was felt in the body and registered in a developing brain.
We can visibly see the release of tension when we help a child name their emotions. Labeling emotions is a powerful tool in adult personal growth and to teach this to kids while they are malleable, is a big game changer. Notice we have shifted from labeling an emotion as a character flaw such as bad, unacceptable, or overly sensitive to simply labeling THE emotion. Full stop. Label the emotion, not the child.
The mutual focus shifts from the reaction/behavior to core motivation for both adult and child. This is a great starting point for better understanding and problem solving. A child who can name their emotions is often keenly aware of what’s driving that emotion.
Helping children to understand that emotions are a helpful internal indicator for their needs, that emotions ebb and flow, and that they actually have some agency around their choices informed by those emotions are some of the best life skills we can ever impart to our kids.
The truth is that as adults we have the harder task of having to learn this emotional agility and awareness after a boatload of years of doing it all wrong. Our own behavioral patterns in response to our emotions are deeply engrained. Part of the personal growth practice is to “catch ourselves” BEFORE we hit repeat on an old pattern and choose differently how to respond vs. react.
The more conscious we become of our own patterns and relationship with our emotional landscape, the more opportunities we have to practice what we preach!
We want our kids to see that emotions are just a normal, natural part of being a human being. The more comfortable we all are with naming emotions, being able to recognize how they show up in us (regardless of our age….either 2 or 42), the more empathy we actually feel for each other. Small children can totally relate to mom or dad when they honestly announce they are frustrated, angry, disappointed. These tiny humans intuitively know what those emotions feel like for themselves. There is a much higher probability that the conversation will shift to “how can I help?”
A family that is skilled at emotional intelligence and navigation is cultivating a healthy relationship with emotions, empathy and connection. Children who have confidence in their own personality and nature will flourish. Children who possess a strong working knowledge of their own emotions will better understand other’s emotions. Disagreements and conflicts will be rooted in what the emotions are telling them is important to them. This will enable kids to identify their needs and articulate them clearly. These invaluable life skills become the guard rails that kids need to make good choices about friendships, interactions with others, habits and their own goals in life.
As I reflect on things I am learning through my own personal growth work over these past 7+ years, I am so grateful and so motivated to empower younger generations with the knowledge and insights I wish I had been aware of at their tender ages. How my generation was taught to deal with emotions created huge roadblocks to reaching our full potential, for knowing who we really are and what matters most to us, and left us ill-equipped to effectively navigate life and relationships in a healthy, evolving way.
Now we know better — Now we know that emotions are building blocks for the solid foundation of a rich, high quality life of authenticity, belonging and connection. Some of my most rewarding conversations these days are with a 5 and 7 year old. Never in a million years did I anticipate having such delightful, exploratory conversations about emotions of all things with young children.
This is how we learn and grow together…..
Adults discovering the flaws in how we were raised and what we observed, doing their inner work and then in turn, reaching back and lending a helping hand to those who come behind us. Witnessing the transformation that comes from better relationship skills is the greatest reward.
These are three of my favorite books and favorite resources — Dr. Dan Siegel who teaches us so much about what the developing brains of our young children really need from us in order to feel safe and flourish; Dr. John Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, who are renowned for their couples therapy and relationship teachings as well as childhood development and teaching emotional intelligence and fluidity; and yung puelbo who has recently published his third book about his own personal growth journey (he’s a favorite because he is in his mid-30’s and a remarkable example of a young person taking a deep dive into his own self discovery, limiting beliefs and roadblocks and then openly sharing all that he’s learning with others in a relatable, realistic way.
The Being Well Podcast series has an extensive list of episodes to support personal growth and positive mental health. You can find Being Well on YouTube and on Apple & Spotify. I encourage you to check out their library of topics and choose those that appeal to you and whatever you might be exploring for your own personal growth, self-discovery and parenting needs.
Check out the September 19th episode entitled Discovering Your Wants and Needs: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/being-well-with-dr-rick-and-forrest-hanson/id1120885936?i=1000579912109