Helping Children Manage Strong Emotions

Human children are a very unprofitable investment. They require a lot of time and labor. They break stuff. They’re expensive. And they yell and throw fits. Most other animal babies—ponies, rats, chickens—are fully capable of adult living by the age of one or two. They even move out, or at least they start catching their own food. We’re stuck with our lazy human kids until they’re eighteen (though I’ve heard rumors they can stick around longer), with no return on our investment. A cow is fully self-sufficient by age one, at which point, if it were mine, I could milk it and make some money at a milk-stand on the corner. My five-year old daughter, on the other hand, still sometimes needs help in the bathroom, and her lemonade stand never turns a profit.

Of course, there is a long boring explanation involving evolution and brain development and a lot of other “science,” which explains why our kids require eighteen years and a half a million bucks in order to grow into productive adult, but I don’t have time to research all that, because I have kids.

(And even all our hard work turns out to be a crap-shoot: my oldest son’s stated aim in life is to devote his adulthood to playing video games and drinking Mountain Dew, since those two joys were denied to him in childhood. So much for those piano lessons and extra math tutoring).

Truth is, we love our kids so crazy much, we are willing to give them practically anything they want for eighteen years. So let us make sure we are giving them one of the most important things we can: Our calm, stable presence within the storms of their life.

I’ve had the great pleasure of participating in Mindful School’s Mindfulness Curriculum Training for Teachers, and the one huge takeaway I’ve gotten after four weeks of the class is this: we are the grounding force for our children and students. Beyond anything we say or do or teach or give, our literal presence in the room, the house, the halls is often the key ingredient in how well the children we work with manage their feelings.

Mindfulness education for children starts with the adults. Adults are the missing link in a child’s ability to self regulate, to control strong emotions. Human kids cannot contain all that goes on in their little heads and big hearts, and they look to us, their care-givers for that stability.

Chris McKenna of Mindful School’s says that a child’s “ability to downshift and regulate strong emotional states is incomplete by design, from an evolution point of view. The completion of that circuit happens through adults, the voice of the caregiver, the steady presence, the attunement, the ability to really be there for the child.” In other words, we are the substitute for our kid’s still developing pre-frontal cortex.

I began a practice Mindful School’s calls “Solidity” in my classroom, which carried over at home. It starts in the morning with a few minutes of sitting and focusing on feeling strong, detached but compassionate, non-reactive, like a large tree in the forest or a mountain above the cloud line. The idea is to carry this sense of strength and peace into the lives of our children, so that when I stand in front of my kids at school, no matter where they’ve been or what they’re feeling, they’ll sense in me a calm and stabilizing force, a compassionate presence.

We all know this truth in our hearts. The more out of control or anxious we feel, the more it can come out in the children around us. Taking some time each day to ground ourselves, to find our own center, will translate to our children. Mindful School’s makes a big point of telling teachers and parents that even if they never decide to use the curriculum, their own mindfulness practice will have an impact on the home and classroom.

So add that to your long list of jobs. Not only do we have to wipe butts, buy sneakers, fill out endless permission slips, and encourage kids not to play in the street, we have the most important job of being the self-regulation barometers for our kids. By regulating and grounding ourselves and our emotions, we teach our kids self-regulation.

The good news is that this means we can be better parents and teachers by taking care of ourselves. Again, Chris McKenna says “if we want self-regulation in the children we care for, these are not optional skills in us.” The first rule of teaching mindfulness and self-regulation to young children is to have an on-going practice yourself.

By giving ourselves a chance to stay grounded, calm, and peaceful, we are helping our kids stay grounded, calm, and peaceful.

So I’m giving all the adults in the world who take care of or teach young kids permission to take a break, get a babysitter, and do some crucial grounding activities like yoga, a quiet walk, fishing, exercise, napping, working on that antique car sitting in the garage, cooking an extravagant meal, hanging with the Bronies, whatever helps you calm down and regulate your own strong feelings.

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