After winter break, a new kid joined my daughter’s class. Her small school community, which had consisted of five four-year-old girls, was welcoming its first boy. We found out a few days in advance and tried to prepare her. She wasn’t on board at all.
“My school is just girls. No boys allowed.”
As a parent, hearing your child say something like this, can push you right into lecture mode. But children, especially young children, don’t respond well to lectures, over-rationalization, or over-explanation. Additionally, the way we interpret these blanket statements as adults is usually quite different than what our children actually mean. While we hear exclusivity and start to worry about cliques, bullying, and mean kids, our children are rarely thinking so globally. They are in the moment, trying to express a feeling of discomfort or a difficult emotion.
Look for the underlying emotion.
Instead of launching into a deep explanation of why it’s not nice to exclude people, we’ve got to learn how to pause and question what’s really going on. Knowing my daughter and knowing that she craves familiarity, security, and predictability, as most four year olds do, I suspected she was nervous that adding a new classmate might change her school experience. I wondered if she was feeling anxious about the change. And anxiety about meeting new people and starting new routines is something I can relate to, even though I struggle to relate to the “no boys allowed” mentality. So that’s what we focused on, the underlying emotion to which I could deeply relate, not the words she used to express it.
Discuss, don’t lecture.
After reflecting for a few moments on what my daughter might be feeling, I was able to respond and engage her in a conversation instead of a lecture. We talked about feeling nervous and how uncomfortable that can be. I told her it makes sense to feel nervous about meeting new people, and that I sometimes feel nervous when I’m going to meet someone new, too.
Then we talked about how it would feel to start a new school and not know anyone. We decided that her new classmate must feel nervous, too, and that let me steer the conversation to helping people feel welcome. We considered, together, what she could do to help him feel more welcome and comfortable. Ultimately, our conversation accomplished exactly what I would have hoped to accomplish by admonishing her for saying “no boys allowed,” but she was able to hear the message because we started by talking about her feelings and her discomfort.
Stay tuned in.
After our initial conversation, I was more aware of and more sensitive to my daughter’s feelings about her new classmates. I was mentally prepared for them to resurface, and resurface they did.
After her first day back, she seemed like she was handling it well. She talked about her new classmate, and her teacher told us how she invited him to play with her. Then 3 A.M. rolled around, and she woke up crying inconsolably and insisting she never wanted to go to school again. She never wanted to see that boy again, she just wanted to stay home with me.
I did what you do when your child is feeling big feelings in the middle of the night. I held her and I listened. And I, once again, got really curious about what was going on. Because just like those blanket statements that seemed so exclusive, I knew these big bursts of emotions are often about something deeper than our children are able to convey.
I noticed that she wasn’t just saying she didn’t want to go to school, she was also saying she wanted to stay home with me. So I asked her, “Did you miss me today?” And that was the key. That was where the connection and healing lay, and being able to verbalize it made all the difference. Her tears eased, and soon she fell back asleep.
Always look deeper.
The big takeaway here is the value of always looking deeper. Even adults have trouble labeling their emotions, and it’s even more challenging to identify the thoughts beneath the emotions. When our children say things that we see as hurtful or exclusive, we serve them best by taking the time to step back and wonder what they are really trying to express. If we can respectfully guide them through the process of naming their emotions, we are helping them develop emotional intelligence. Looking at the thoughts behind their emotions helps them develop self-awareness. It helps them feel understood and connected to us, and helps them see they are not alone. This supports their developing self-esteem.
It can be tricky to help your child process their thoughts and emotions if you aren’t in the habit of doing this yourself. One of the best ways to develop awareness of your own thoughts and emotions is to write, unfiltered, every day. This can feel overwhelming or daunting if writing has never been your thing, but I’ve got you covered. I’ve put together a collection of writing prompts to support parents in developing a reflective writing practice because it’s easier to get started if you’ve got some direction and you’re not just staring at a blank page. Click the button below to claim your writing prompts and dive in.Claim Yours
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