Kid’s Brains on Emotions and Some Mindful Exercises That Help

When strong emotions overtake young children, we often think they’ve lost their minds. Well, they have. Brain science indicates that when the Amygdala—the so called animal brain or downstairs brain—is activated by strong emotions, the rest of the brain, the parts that do things normal humans should do, is less accessible; or in children, not accessible at all. This happens to adults too, usually in bars after midnight. But this is especially true in kids because their upstairs or thinking brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is less developed. This means they cannot stop and think about what they are doing. They are pure doing. They hit, scream, and jump into fountains at the park, literally, without thinking about it–just like adults outside of bars after midnight.

MINDFULNESS OF EMOTIONS

Research has shown that basic awareness, simple mindfulness of emotions, can break this chain and calm the Amygdala. In other words, even simply labeling or naming our emotional state, mindfully noting, Oh, wow, there’s a bunch of anger or frustration or anxiety in me, calms the animal in us so we can use our brains again like sane humans. We’ve stepped just slightly above or over the emotion, at least enough to think.

The good news is that this can be practiced. It sounds silly at first. I mean, we all notice our emotions, right? Why do I need to practice noticing when I’m angry or anxious or happy? Don’t I just feel it in the moment? I don’t want to think about being angry. I’d like to not feel angry.

But it is not silly. In fact, negative emotions can be like tidal waves that blow us away, affecting our work, family, and friends long before they sink into our own awareness. Again, by noticing early on, wow, there’s a lot of anger in me right now, the emotion can often be dissipated, perhaps at least enough to not knock out our manager.

I’ve seen this dramatically in my own life. I’ve been especially attuned to my level of frustration and impatience with my children lately, which is a common emotional state that creeps into my life. And being in tune has helped a lot. When I feel these emotions pop up and hit my gut, which they often can do with three young kids, I don’t run from them. I notice them. I feel them in me. As Thich Nhat Hahn encourages, I welcome them and hold them. Hey, there’s impatience. Yeah, he always pops up when I’m trying to get the kids out the door. How ya doing impatience? You still can’t handle the way my son ties his shoes so slowly, huh? After noticing the emotion, I then go back to my business; but usually, this little bit awareness has helped the feeling dissipate slightly if not completely.

And it helps me control my reaction, which is where I get in trouble.

There are explicit mindfulness meditations for emotional awareness. Part of a daily sitting routing should be a few minutes of just noticing our body/mind emotional state. Even taking a few minutes, just before the work day, to note the overall state of your body/mind will build awareness. Wow, I feel a lot of tension today. Wow, here’s all this impatience. If you practice noticing your emotional states when your body and mind are quiet, you’ll get better at noticing feelings that pop up in stressful or difficult situations; and therefore, you’ll be better able to handle them or curb them before they blow you away. You’ll also notice your own happiness more, which is a good feeling, to be aware of feeling happy.

Take a moment to notice right now how you are really feeling. Anxious. Worried. Stressed. Happy. Name the feeling. Where does this feeling sit in your body? Breath into that space for a few seconds.

BUT WHAT ABOUT KIDS?

With kids, this is more difficult. In the moment, you can’t “reason” with kids who’ve blown their lid. Their reason part is not functioning. All you can really do is stay calm yourself and make sure everyone is safe. As I wrote about earlier, your solidity will transfer to them (eventually). If we blow up or start lecturing, we’re adding fuel. If we remain calm, compassionate, and present, we add water.

But we can do two things for kids. First, when we see our children and students over-taken by a strong emotion, we can help them notice it. Perhaps they really won’t be able to think about their feelings until after the episode or tantrum, but if there is a burst of anger or fear, we can use a calm time later to help them explore what it was like. How did it feel to get so angry at your brother? How did you know you were afraid on the roller coaster? Again, just by noticing how these emotions operate inside them, kids build a layer of awareness that will pay off in the long run.

A second way is to help kids prepare in advance for handling strong emotions. Sit with your kids during a quiet moment and talk about some common emotions. Pause with each emotion and have your child notice where the emotion sits in the body, if it can be felt. If it’s a really safe place, you can have them remember a time they were sad, angry, happy, scared, and notice where those emotions reside in their body. Treat it like a game, but know that this practice will help them in the future. Even kids with severe anger issues can eventually be trained, through practice, to notice the feelings arise early on and follow a plan for avoiding a full blown explosive. I’ve seen it work with some very difficult kids.

We’re not going to cure anyone, including ourselves, of getting angry or sad. But when you are in tune with yourself, you can have a plan in place to avoid common pitfalls.

Other things to remember when dealing with kids and emotions.

  • Talk to kids about how emotions pass. We are all a little bipolar, with strong ups and downs throughout the day. We tend to want to run from strong negative emotions. But by noticing how they feel, and watching them slowly fade into a new feeling, kids come to the great insight of all mystics: this too shall pass. Thich Nhat Hanh contributes the high suicide rate in young people to their misunderstanding that they are stuck with their sadness forever.
  • When a child is upset, allow them to feel their emotion. Be with them. Don’t try to talk them out of the feeling, even if you don’t agree with it. Help them sit with it as it shifts, changes, rises, and fades.
  • Encourage your kids to notice how small feelings come and go, especially craving. This is a fun thing to do while shopping, when kids start begging for treats. Have them notice where that desire is coming from. When does it feel strongest? How does it feel once they get what they want? Or don’t get what they want?  How long before it fades away?
  • Mindfulness is not always about fixing. Just by noticing we give ourselves space between our emotions and our reactions.

Bottom line: Take a few minutes a day to notice your emotions. This builds awareness. Come up with a simple plan for when problem emotions overtake you or your kids: I’m feeling that feeling I always get before I say something rash; my new plan, when this feeling starts to arise, I excuse myself from the conversation and step outside for a few minutes. Spend time helping kids do the same thing.

Read more about kids at strong emotions here and here.

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