My great passion in my work with young children is connecting with the needs behind their behaviors and helping to teach, rather than punish, their misguided social exchanges. But what to do when I am uncentered? Writers wax eloquent with tools to help parents and early childhood professionals support and structure the child’s attempt to become emotional integrated, but what about us?
I have read a fair amount about the need to nourish myself outside my work with young children. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, read for fun, enjoy a hobby. While important, these strategies aren’t helpful when I am in the midst of a heated moment. I started reflecting on my own self-regulation strategies as I read advice about teaching children self regulation skills. Count to ten. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. And then it dawned on me: I don’t do any of those things! If you do, great – and by all means, teach them to your children. But as for me, counting never helps. The way I manage my strong emotions will be the legacy I give to the crew…so what is it that they see me doing? What helps me when I am in the middle of a strong emotional experience?
I like to picture a box of tools, stored safely away for use in emergencies. For the days when I have not gotten my sleep, or the days when I am processing difficult news about people I love, or the days when I await word from an ill friend, or just an average Wednesday when I happened to wake up on the wrong side of the bed. (We parents and early childhood educators are allowed to be grouchy!)
If such a box existed, these would be my tools – the repertoire I rely on when I am about to spin out of control.
BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMOTIONAL EMERGENCY
1. Voice your Experience. Most importantly, honoring my own emotional experience allows me to remain integrated. I have read advice from others that suggests laughing in the middle of a strong emotional experience as a way of disengaging. Personally, I have found artificially injecting humor frustrating. It’s also confusing for children. Emily was so upset. Why is she laughing? As if the emotion of being upset is something to laugh at or ignore! While I think humor can do wonders to diffuse an intense situation, I have also found that working to dissolve the emotional heat of a moment disrespects the gravity of the experience and leaves it unresolved, ready to return at a moment’s notice.
While we rightly draw boundaries to prevent children from unduly shouldering the responsibility for our emotional well-being, we do our children no favors by hiding our emotions from them. To act with integrity – to honor our own emotions – is to say, “I’m angry/sad/frustrated/lonely/hurt.” As we help children connect and heal their emotional wounds through empathy, so we can heal our own emotional wounds by empathizing with ourselves – giving ourselves the benefit of a moment of connection.
2. Sing. Music connects with a part of my brain that helps me reconnect with my problem solving faculties. In song, the reactive part of my brain taps the problem solving part and says, Don’t forget about me. I’m here. I can help! I make up the words as I go, selecting a melody in line with my feelings, often singing things like, “I feel myself spinning out of control. I’m feeling overwhelmed by my responsibilities. I can call a friend to vent.” Sometimes singing through my process helps my brain to hear it in a new way.
3. Walk Away. There are times that I tell the crew, “I am feeling very strongly right now, and in order to find my problem solving brain again, I’m going to walk outside for a few moments to breathe the fresh air.”
4. Visualize an Out of Body Experience. Sometimes, an act of imagination can bring solutions into focus. Pretending that I am an outsider reflecting on the challenge at hand serves to help illuminate new options.
5. Make an Unusual Decision. Don’t clean up. Order pizza for lunch. Lay down on the floor. Giving myself permission to leave normal processes unfinished can honor a need for space.
6. Listen to Music. No kid’s songs, unless (of course) they help! Make a playlist of your favorite songs and turn this playlist on only in the event of emergency.
7. Phone a Friend. Think red Batman style emergency phone. Select a friend that can be your venting buddy. I have a fellow provider on my contacts list that I can call at any time of the day. I start off by saying, “I am having a rough day. Talk with me for 10 minutes while I recenter.” I set a timer to make sure that I return to be fully present with the crew after a short distraction.
8. Wash Your Hands. I recommend contact with water as a soothing, centering practice for children, and I find that the practice can be equally refreshing for me. In the middle of a heated moment, I will say to the crew, “I am feeling strongly. I’m going to go wash my hands while I think about what I need.”
9. Have a Drink! Non-alcoholic, of course. Dehydration can cause irritability, and when I begin to get cranky, a glass of water can go towards finding my center again.
Most of all, our feelings indicate needs that are either met or unmet, and if the needs go unaddressed, no amount of band-aids will help. I highly recommend Nonviolent Communication and the resources from the Center for Nonviolent Communication to help you define the needs behind your behaviors.
What would be in your emergency box? Are there tools you have found helpful in your work with young children? Leave suggestions in the comments below.
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