I was recently in my office working on paperwork at our Early Childhood Center when I overheard a preschool teacher outside of the classroom talking with students. What captured my attention was the question she was asking. "How are you feeling today?” As I made my way to the hallway to get a better view, a small girl maybe 4 years old must have pointed to the sad face on the poster outside the classroom door. The teacher replied, “you’re feeling sad, where do you feel sad in your body?" The little girl put her hand to her heart. The teacher waited a few seconds then replied, “you feel sad and you feel it in your heart. Sometimes I feel sad too, sometimes I miss my mom too. It's okay to feel sad” The teacher got down to the little girl’s level, she prompted her to take the picture of herself and place it beneath the visual of a sad face located on the feelings poster on the classroom door. Then in a nurturing way, walked with her into classroom.
You see, these students get to start their day off at school exploring how they are feeling - happy, sad, silly, hungry, mad or sleepy. Observing this interaction brought to mind a couple of things that I would like to draw attention to. First, the teacher's actions communicated to the child “I see you, I hear you and acknowledge what you’re experiencing.” It’s so important to be seen and heard; it’s a beautiful way to connect with a child and to validate what they're experiencing. This compassionate act in and of itself helps children in developing emotional awareness and asking them simple questions like "can you name what you're feeling and where do you feel it in your body?" helps a child build skills for emotional regulation.
This teacher's morning greeting and practice also provided students with the gift of learning to pay attention to the moment. Every day, she gives her students permission to stop, explore and notice for just a moment what they are feeling. As adults, we often move through our days on autopilot, completely disconnected and unaware of our thoughts and feelings and how they may be impacting us.
Lastly, the teacher taught the little girl that whatever she was feeling was okay, she gave her permission to be sad and then they were able to move forward with the day. How often to we dismiss how our children (or ourselves) are actually feeling? The teacher could have replied, “you’re fine, you’ll see your mom soon.” Sometimes we try to fix what our children are feeling so that they don’t have to experience discomfort, “oh, don’t be sad, let’s go inside and play.” Often, we miss out on these teaching opportunities all together by completely ignoring feelings by not acknowledging them at all.
By teaching our children to be mindful of how they are feeling we are building a strong foundation for learning how to be with what we are feeling, whatever that feeling is—happy, disappointed, angry, silly or embarrassed. It’s okay to have these feelings. When we learn to take a moment and pay attention to what it is we are actually feeling, we can learn that feelings won’t hurt us. Feelings are not something that we have to avoid, push away or even cling to. When we learn to make friends with our feelings, whatever they may be, we learn that they don’t last forever. Feelings like everything in life are impermanent, they come and they go. And when this lesson is learned, it opens the door to learning how to cope with our feelings more skillfully when they do arise.
So the next time your child appears sad, disappointed or even happy. Notice how they are feeling, help them label the feeling, ask them what it feels like in their body. Give them permission to feel whatever it is they are feeling. Then explore what they might do to cope with this feeling; teaching your child that the feeling won’t last forever and that there are many positive ways to cope with a feeling. When you take the time to teach your child the skill of being aware of their feelings, give them permission to feel whatever they’re feeling then help them cope with that feeling, you are teaching them a lifelong skill of dealing with the ups and downs of what we call, life.
Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in private practice. She is the owner of Well-Bean, LLC committed to providing programs and services that foster mental well-being and development in youth.
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