For most young children they are spoken to all the time. We might not be aware of it but even with tiny babies we are nattering away labelling feelings, emotions, things for them. “It’s so cold today, we must wrap you up nice and warm”, “you sound really hungry, let’s feed you then you’ll feel better”, “Oh dear that’s a very sad face, maybe you need a cuddle to cheer you up”.
Constant chattering and telling babies how they feel or how they should feel. This is how babies and children learn about feelings and how to regulate themselves. They need us to do that for them but then over time they can regulate themselves. Once they understand what hunger is, they can ask for food and then later get themselves something to eat. When they have experienced joy, can give it a name, they then know how it feels when they are happy again. Also, when they feel sad or angry they can articulate that and learn ways to alleviate that themselves.
This is all in an ideal world of course. We know for many children they may not have experienced that chattering, that attunment in early childhood, and as a result haven’t learnt the language of emotions and the techniques to self-regulate.
One of our roles as those working and/or living with vulnerable children and young people is to help them learn about emotions. Over the last few weeks our blogs have been about emotional literacy – how to be with sadness and how to really listen. What do you do then? How can we begin to enable children to have the language of emotions and to become emotionally literate.
Part of this process is being able to wonder and guess along with the child. We need to be able to give them the words to express their feelings. Like most of the way we might work with vulnerable children and young people it feels counter-intuitive to begin with as we feel that we are putting words into their mouths. But as we develop in this you begin to see the child realising that you are actually listening to them and that you understand how they feel.
An example of this. When you know a child is going to struggle with an activity you can say to them, “I’ve noticed that whenever we do something about families you get all fizzy and find it difficult to keep still, I wonder what that might be about”. You’re not actually asking them to tell you why they can’t concentrate or to explain what they are feeling as they probably won’t be able to tell you. You are just making them aware of the fact that something is difficult for them and encouraging them to consider what that might be
Sometimes you might actually tell them what you think it is. “Sometimes when we talk about families you find it hard because you may feel that no-one notices you when you’re sad. That must be so hard”.
Talking in this way can help children to learn how they are feeling and to articulate things. It may be small things like sensory stimulation. “Have you noticed how the rain falls on the ground or on your hand?”, “it’s hot today, we must be careful in the sun”, “when you are sad I wonder if it feels like butterflies in your tummy – can you feel them?”.
These are all things that would’ve been said to a much younger child in most homes. When you have children come into your school environment who may not have had that experience they will need to be viewed as a much younger child emotionally than they are chronologically.
Both these approaches talk about accepting the child where they are at. Allowing them to be sad and to listen (as we talked about previously). Also, we need to develop ways to speak to them that allows them to process their own emotions and to be able to find alternative ways to express themselves.
The PACE model outlined in Creating Loving Attachments allows space to do that. To accept where the child might be in their inner world. It doesn’t pass any judgement or try to fix things, it just is with the child and notices what might be happening. “It must feel so bad to feel like no-one listens to you”, “you feel like everyone hates you, wow that’s a powerful feeling, tell me more about how that feels”.
We are so frightened of opening up emotions with children and of leaving them in those huge feelings. I totally understand that and our urge to make things better and to fix things. However, what that does, if we do that too soon, it dismisses the child’s feelings. They feel misunderstood and alone again. Sitting with powerful emotions is hard. When people have done that with me though, at real dark times in my life, it has been life giving and the feelings of true connection are amazing.
So, this week when you’re with children – be with their feelings, listen but also avoid the urge to fix and to ask why they feel that way. Instead reflect back to them, notice how they feel and tell them. Wonder and guess with them. The worst that can happen is that you’re wrong. The best that can happen though is that you connect in a way you never have before and that child feels truly seen, understood and can start to express their feelings better.