Put On A Happy Face…..

As parents we love to see our kids’ joy and happiness.  Parenting can be such a pleasure when the whole family has a sense of good will toward each other. It is no wonder that the harder feelings: the anger, frustration and sadness that children feel, tend to cause parents to worry and wish we could make it better.  Many of us remember the days when we were children and we were told to “put on a happy face”, or “stop crying and be a big boy” when we were upset. Now that we are parents we can get a sense of why there is such a need to have happy children—it makes us feel better as parents. Many adults are uncomfortable with strong feelings, and very uncomfortable around feelings that tend to be seen as negative.  Young children, however, are often consumed by these strong and negative feelings.  The staff at the Harley Family Center would like to offer our perspective on how to handle these emotional situations. This approach allows the child to express what he is feeling, and the parent to respect that the feeling is being felt. Addressing and respecting all feelings can help a family feel stronger.

The teachers in our early childhood programs see all feelings as valuable, because they provide a clue to the child and adult about what is happening in a situation. By respecting the feeling, and talking about it rather looking to fix it, we can encourage a child to address feelings, situations, actions and attitudes. Here are some tips and ideas from our staff on how to best handle the difficult feelings that all children have.

  • Before you set a limit or make a decision, be sure that you are keeping in mind the developmental appropriateness of what you are asking.  If the limit you are setting makes sense for the child, and you believe it is the right thing to do, then do not let sadness or anger get in the way of sticking to your limit.  Young children need limits, and they need a parent to uphold those limits and be the authority. Emotional responses to hearing “no” are common in young children—and the “no” usually comes in the form of intense emotion and loud responses. The child needs you to stick with what you have decided, even though he is acting like he knows better.  You know he doesn’t know better—stick with your limit and carry out your decision even while there is a negative reaction.
  • Allowing your child to be sad or mad at a situation, and not fixing the situation, gives your child the space he needs to find a way to help himself feel better. Allow the sadness to sit with your child, and let him know that you see he is sad. “I see you are very sad not to get a treat at the store.” Read your child’s cues to see what he needs from you to feel better. Some children need their back rubbed, some children need space alone, some children need a distraction. “I will sit with you here on the couch while you are sad. When you are ready, we can read a book together.” Allowing him to work through his emotions supports him by helping him to see that feelings can change; we don’t feel happy all the time, and we don’t feel angry all the time. The success he feels when he changes his own emotional state will prepare him for success in dealing with even more difficult disappointments as he ages.
  • Get in tune with your own emotions before you make a decision. A decision or limit you set when you are angry or upset may not be a good decision for you or your child. Get a sense of how you are feeling when you are facing a situation, and allow yourself the time you need to calm down. “I need time to think about this” is a good phrase—and an honest one.  Another phrase that parents of older children have used is”If I answer now, the answer will be no, if you give me time it might be maybe.” Or “I want to say yes—what can you give me so I can say yes?”
  • We are often tempted to give in because our child’s reaction is so intense, or because we are so tired of dealing with yet another situation in which the child becomes angry or sad or intensely upset. Remember there are long term goals in discipline, and what we are looking to do is reinforce for our toddlers and preschoolers that every time they misbehave we will react with authority, firmness and a calm approach to problem solving.  As a parent we need to get used to dealing with our child’s uncomfortable emotions and model an approach that is helpful. As your child ages into elementary school and older, you want your child to already have a sense that you are the authority. A child who has been used to you bending the rules due to emotional outbursts early in life may continue this trend into older grades, when the consequences for bending rules can make a much larger influence on her life.
  • When a problem arises between siblings or peers and things get emotional, take a step back and away from the emotional turmoil. Encourage problem solving after those involved in the issue have taken a calm-down break. Allow your child and the others he is conflicting with to try to deal with the issue themselves; be the mediator, but not the judge. For preschool children and older, use simple language to help them talk through a problem solving process (the three step process below is utilized in our early childhood programs through a curriculum entitled Second Step): 1) How do I feel  2) What is the problem  3) What can I do to solve it?
  • Talk about every feeling—not just the good ones. Books are a great way to build a varied vocabulary around emotions.  Here are some great titles to start with:

My Many Colored Days by Dr. Suess
Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis
How Are Your Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Eiffers

Hold On A Second!

Watching our preschoolers rush with energy and exuberance is exhilarating! We often dream of capturing that energy because our adult selves can’t imagine what we would do with it.  It is important to remember, however, that the youthful energy we all admire is still part of us — we have just learned as adults how to channel it more effectively.  We may not run at top speed across a playground anymore, but we harness our energy to complete tasks at work, take care of households and children and find a moment or two for our favorite hobby.  Throughout our life spans, our ability to regulate our energy changes.

The staff at Stepping Stones has the opportunity to watch that energy channel itself productively throughout the school year. The young preschooler continuously is developing her ability to focus and control her energy; as she enters kindergarten she has many of the skills around self-regulation that will help her get the most out of her school experience.  We talked recently about the value of developing these self-regulation skills, and we wanted to share with you their benefit as well as discuss strategies for helping your child gain more and more control over all that energy.

The typical kindergartner will need to exhibit focus skills in order to best meet academic goals. Although we rarely expect a three year old to have these skills, it is reasonable to assume that a 5 year old will – and that a four year old will be working on them. It is typical to expect that a kindergartner will be able to sit and listen to teachers for 10-20 minutes at a time. She will need to focus on directions and information even while sitting in a larger group of kids on the rug during circle time. It will be a great skill to be able to wait to take a turn, rather than insist on immediate action because the other students in the classroom will also be waiting for their turn. Being able to meet unexpected situations and transitions with a reasonable emotional response – honest and regulated ‑ will help the kindergartner move smoothly through a day that involves many activities and lots of jostling to get from one place to another. These are all self-regulation skills: skills that ask the child to show control and focus.

The staff at Hopkins preschools are working with our young students to help them gain mastery over their bodies and emotions. One of the most important ways that this happens is through friendships and relationships. Taking the time to discuss with students how a certain action felt for another, and problem solving ways to address the situation are key elements in building self-regulation skills. For example: two friends are looking to play with the same teddy bear and during their “discussion” around who gets to play with it one friend grabs it roughly away and throws it in anger. The adults will sit with these two children and talk about how that action caused hurt and frustration rather than a solution to the problem. The children are encouraged to voice their feelings around the teddy bear problem, and then work on a solution. Being able to talk about feelings without behaving in a way that is uncontrolled is self-regulation. It will help the future kindergartner have relationships and friendships when he is on the playground during recess and there isn’t an easily accessible adult to help him work through disagreements.

Another way that the preschools are helping students develop the social and emotional regulation of students is through awareness of the group.  Students are asked to wait until everyone is seated at a table to begin snack, to raise hands to speak rather than talk over each other, to be aware of the next person’s personal space and not crowd or kick to get comfortable. This sense of personal responsibility helps the preschooler to see that others deserve the consideration he would hope to get himself.

In addition, the emotional focus of a child will be especially helpful when working through kindergarten tasks. Learning new things is often challenging, and when a child is able to work through frustration she is more likely to find success in a task. The teachers use various strategies to help a child who is growing frustrated. For example, they may encourage deep belly breathing, hugging themselves in a tight squeeze or pressing hands together in a lap.  Having an acceptable physical outlet for the frustration we all feel sometimes will help the child to move through daily frustrations and focus on solving the problem at hand.

Parents play a significant role in helping a child learn to self-regulate.  For all of these early years your child has been using your energy to help her regulate her own energy. She feels your tenseness or frustrations as well as senses your calm in different situations. She then uses your mood to help her decide how to adjust her own mood.  If you tend to have an intense reaction to a frustration, she will also tend to escalate her reactions in that situation. Children learn best through imitation through the age of seven years old, so offer your child the sort of coping strategies you would like to see them imitate. When you are frustrated or unhappy, talk about your feelings and narrate the steps you are going to take to calm down.  For instance, if you are feeling especially grumpy about a situation, say out loud “I am really unhappy right now, and to calm down I am going to go into the other room and take 5 deep breaths.”  Then go ahead and do just that in order to calm yourself down. Talk to your teacher about the coping strategies that are being used in the classroom so that you can use these same methods with yourself and with your child. The consistency between the different locations will help your child to practice this calming-down skill.

Parent can also help with self regulation by maintaining a schedule throughout the day and the week.  Part of scheduling for the family is to know when to say no to events or programs if it disrupts the healthy schedule you have created.  If your preschooler is getting 11-12 hours of sleep per day, three good meals and two snacks at predictable times and family time when you are all enjoying each other, then you have a schedule for your family.  If more and more activities are crowding into the calendar and getting in the way of the basics, it is time to say no to some of those opportunities. A good night’s sleep should likely trump any other activity because self regulation can not happen in a sleep deprived person—whether that person is 4 years old or 40.

When you say no to your child—whether it is no to an outing, a cookie or another book at bed-time, stick to your no. Your child will surely show displeasure at being told no—none of us like to hear it—but one of the difficult lessons we need to help our children learn is to be able to handle a no, and get through the disappointment. It is a valuable social skill to learn to say to ourselves “That is not what I want, I guess I will need to do something else.” Preschoolers need to be working very hard at learning this skill. Without a tolerance for frustration and a problem solving approach to unpleasant issues, the grade school years may be a tumultuous crisis after crisis.  Better to work with your three year old who is upset about not getting a second cookie than a teenager who is upset about anything!  Parents teach this lesson by remaining calm when their child is upset, and accepting the sadness and frustration. “I see you are sad that you don’t get to have another cookie. It is hard not to get what you want. We can go read a book together when you are ready.”  Let your no remain a no, but be available to your child when she is finished being sad about it.

Ellen Galinsky has written a book about seven life skills parents need to work on with their children entitled Mind in the Making. Self control and focus is the number one skill she discusses.  Here are some ideas she offers to help your child gain this important skill:

  • Encourage free play and projects while at home. Projects that encourage children to work together to achieve a goal are great for preschoolers. Dramatic play does this particularly well. When children decide to play store they take the empty boxes from the recycling bin and set up a stand with a cash register.  They collect coins and sort and organize them fairly among the players. They find costumes so that each person is a specific kind of person when they go into the store.  They discuss with each other what each person will do and when each turn is over so the next person can be that.  The project builds and builds and so do the focus skills and social self control skills.
  • Play games that require children to pay attention. Games that do this well are some of the old favorites: Simon Says, I Spy, puzzles
  • Read books to your child in a way that encourages listening and focusing. Be engaging when you read: change the voices for characters, let your voice get loud and then soft, have your child fill in the blanks of stories that have repeating lines.
  • Remember that background television can be very disruptive to a child’s focus and concentration. Research has shown that having a television just playing in the background disrupts a young child’s play.
  • When you hear the complaint “I’m Bored”, sit with your child and ask them to come up with a plan for something to do. With young children the plan is small and simple. “What can you decide to do for 15 minutes? Look through books? Color a picture? Build with blocks?”  Don’t offer TV or screen time as an option.  Have your child carry out the plan, and then when he is done, ask him how it went. “What did you enjoy about doing that? What did you make? What are you going to do now?”
  • Make sure your child is well rested and has breaks.  A preschooler needs her sleep as much as we adults to. Ensure that she is getting 11-12 hours.   Make sure the schedule of her day includes quiet time and down time.  She needs that too in order to regain her energy for the next activity.