How To Raise Emotionally Literate Children?

Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Services

Yesterday was Gumboot Friday, a day where we are all encouraged to “Gumboot Up” and walk through mud to support people with depression and mental illness. The particular emphasis of this awareness was to raise money for children’s counselling.

It shocked me when I was doing the research for this blog, to find that New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world and that it can take up to six months for kids to get help from a counsellor.

What can we do?

This really made me think…. Although I think that children having access to counselling services is important and essential, this is only one part of the picture. I think that it equally important for us to look at how we are supporting children to develop the tools that they need to develop emotional literacy and resilience.

This is not a new bit of thinking and there are many studies that prove that when you build your resilience you have a reduced risk for depression, anxiety and PSD. You will also improve your longevity, happiness and satisfaction in life. So, if we know this, then why do we not place a greater emphasis on teaching children emotional self-help skills?

How do we empower our children to prioritise their own emotional hygiene and teach them that it is okay to ask for help when they need it?

I think here of a TED talk that I watched recently where Guy Winch speaks about the disparity between the priority that we place on caring for ourselves physically vs how we care for ourselves emotionally. He relates a story of how he observed a five-year-old brushing his teeth and slipping and scraping his leg. The boy then without asking for assistance reached into the medicine cabinet and grabbed a plaster and covered the wound. We teach children self-help skills all the time on how to take care of themselves physically, yet do we place the same emphasis on teaching them self-help skills to care for themselves physiologically?

I believe that we need to start teaching our children emotional literacy from a very young age and that this starts right from when they are infants.

The Dyad

In his video on the importance of relationships in children’s brain development Nathan Wallis speaks about the significance of the dyad relationship (this simply means “two”) between the infant and the most significant adult in their lives.

The first relationship that children have with their primary carer – whether it is Mum, Dad, Grandma, Aunty is crucially important to helping a baby to develop a healthy, complex brain. This first relationship is where the infant learns about self-regulation, trust and the world around him or her. The quality of the learning and the brain connections the infant forms is dependant on how en tuned the adult is to the infant.

Our children are constantly downloading from us. They are taking in our words, our actions and our energy. We are the windows from which our children view the world and therefore the quality of role-modelling is extremely powerful.

Our children are learning from us through our every word and action, about love, relationships, empathy, generosity, gratitude, patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty and respect. Most profoundly they’re learning about themselves, their abilities, their worth and their place in our hearts and in the world.

Janet Lansbury – Elevating Child Care

How do we teach this?

  • Empathy and Respect – This starts with even the youngest infant and our perspective of them. Do we view them as a whole, complete, holistic human being worthy of our respect? When we look at infants, do we view them as “helpless” or do we view them as dependant, but already capable? This is important, as it sets the tone for our relationship with our children and supports them to develop their identity of who they are. If we respect someone, then we put ourselves in their shoes and ask – “How is this experience for them?” or “how would I feel if I was being treated like this, or in this situation?” This is one of the first ways that we communicate to our infants that what they feel matters, that we trust them and that we value what they are communicating to us. Remember we learn empathy by experiencing empathy.
  • Self-Awareness – One thing that I am really grateful to my training as an early childhood teacher for, is that it caused me to reflect on my upbringing. This caused me to challenge my “operating system” of how I was parented, in my interactions with children. Just as we are powerful role-models in the lives of children, we once upon a time had powerful role-models in our lives too. Some of how we were parented was great and some of it was not so great. Until we become self-aware to this, we just repeat what we know.

Do the best with what you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

Maya Angelou
  • Pay Attention to Your Attitude to Mistakes and Failure – How do you respond to children making mistakes and their failures? Are these treated as learning opportunities or do we respond with anger and disappointment? Our children learn how to deal with disappointments and obstacles in life through our example. There is a correlation between how children view mistakes and failures to how resilient they are, as well how likely they are to take risks. Your attitude to mistakes and failure are also really important if you want your children to come to you for help when they are feeling overwhelmed by a situation and can’t cope on their own. What is equally important to note in this instance is that it is not just how we deal with our children’s mistakes and failures that are important, but also how we deal with our own mistakes and failure. Remember our children are always watching and downloading from us.
  • Give Full Attention and Communicate About the Small Things – Often our children will tell us things that seem insignificant and unimportant to us. These things might be small to us; however it means the world to them. Don’t dismiss your child’s concerns or fears because they seem silly to you. Instead acknowledge how they are feeling in this moment and time. Try responding with, ” That must be really scary for you.” Our children need small moments of our full attention, these are important times to top-up their emotional tanks. If we invest in our children in this way, we communicate to them that what they say is important to us, that they are important. In doing this our children will be less likely to try to get our attention through negative ways such as bad behaviour. If we make time to listen to the little things, they are more likely to share the big stuff with us when the time comes.

Telling a child that something that matters to them isn’t important doesn’t convince them that it doesn’t matter. It just convinces them that it doesn’t matter to you, it often makes them feel that they don’t matter, either. Remember, caring about the little things that matters to little people creates big connections.

L.R. Knost
Tanya Valentin Professional Early Childhood Education Services
  • Accept and Encourage Children’s Emotions – One thing that I notice with a lot of adults (myself included) is that we are often frightened by our children’s emotions. One of the reasons that we are so confronted by our children’s big emotions is because triggers something within us. We might feel anxiety, unease, fear, guilt, shame, anger or fear in response to our child’s big emotions and we try to look for the quickest way to solve the problem. We want to help our children, but we also want to stop feeling the emotion that has been triggered in us. Some of the things that we might do, would to be to try to stop our children from experiencing the emotion by saying things like “Stop it”, “Don’t cry” or “Turn that frown upside down”. Or we might try to deflect or detract children from their feelings, by saying things like “let’s go play with the blocks” or “let’s find all the pink things in the room.” If we practice empathy and put ourselves in our children’s shoes in this situation, then we probably wouldn’t feel too great if our friends or partners spoke to us in this way if we were feeling sad or angry. If we relate this to a physical reaction like limping because we broke our leg, we wouldn’t find it helpful if someone gave us advice to “walk it off” or for someone to to try to distract us from the pain. When we are responding to children in these ways about their feelings, what are we communicating to them about the value of their emotions, their perspectives and how we value them?
  • Acknowledge, Acknowledge, Acknowledge – Another learning for me, has been that I don’t have to be the “fixer” of my children’s feelings. A powerful example in my life has been helping one of my children through a tough time in her life. In the past when she expressed her sadness, anxiety or fears to me this set off the “fixer” in me. I wanted to stop her pain (and my own) and I reacted with “helpful” suggestions and strategies that she could use to “fix” the situation. I was being a “Mum” and what she wanted was a friend. She just needed someone to cuddle her, comfort her, listen to her, to acknowledge her feelings and to tell that it was okay to feel this way. She wanted someone to tell her that it would be okay. It is the same with young children – we don’t need to “fix” them out of their problems. For example, if a toddler is upset because their mother just left for work, it is okay to say, “I can see that this is really upsetting for you. I know that you wanted mum to stay. I will sit with you until you feel that you are able to go and play.” Acknowledging children’s feelings, especially for our very young children, might feel a little bit strange to us at first. However, once again when we practice empathy we realise that this is how we all like to be treated. We like to feel that someone values our feelings, understands us and what we are going through and will be there to support us if we need them.
  • Mirror, mirror – Young children cannot differentiate between their feelings and themselves. It is our job to teach our children about emotions and that a full range of emotions are part of the human experience. When we are teaching our youngest children about their emotions one of the ways that we can do this is by mirroring their emotion back to them via our facial expression. For example, if they are feeling sad, we mirror a sad expression back to them when we are talking to them. Or we might add words to our mirroring – sad expression + “I can see that you are feeling sad”. This way the child learns that this feeling that I am experiencing is called “Sad” and it looks and feels like this.
  • Books – We can talk to children about emotions while reading books to them or looking at pictures and discussing how the characters in the books are feeling. We could support children to think about a time when they might have felt like the character in the book.
  • Help Children to Develop Problem-Solving Skills – Generally once children feel that they have been understood and that we have accepted their emotions they are more likely to be open to problem-solve and think in a reflective way. It is important for us to accept all emotions and to not label some as “bad” and some as “good”. However, it is up to us to teach children how to regulate their emotions so that can manage the behaviour that may be a consequence of their emotions. As the adult in the situation it is up to us to set the boundaries. We might say something like this, “I know that Sam made you feel really angry when he took your toy, but it is not okay to hit. Let’s think of what we might do next time.”

These are just some ways that we can help to teach children emotional literacy and support them to build resilience. Have you used any of these strategies with the children who you teach or perhaps your own children?

Let us never loose sight of the amazing human beings that our children are and view our children through the eyes of gratitude and love. Let us feel privileged that out of all the other billions of people in the world, we have been chosen to play this important role in the life of a child.

Until next time….

References:

Elevating Child Care – Janet Lansbury, 2014

How to Practice Emotional First Aid – Guy Winch ( TED 2015)

The Crucial Dyad Relationship for Infants – Nathan Wallis (Storypark 2017)

5 Steps to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child – Dr Laura Markam (2019)

Teaching Young Children About Their Emotions – Dr Kaylene Henderson (Storypark 2017)