Feelings 101: A Simple Exercise to Build Emotional Wellness in Kids
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
As parents, we might accept the idea that curiosity could lead a child to look at porn once. —Shame on the porn industry. But what if a child returns to porn over and over again? Is our first instinct to blame, punish, scold or ground? —Shame on that child!
Unfortunately, these kinds of authoritarian responses fail to help kids build emotional wellness. And that’s a big problem! Because one of the first steps to overcoming any kind of compulsive behavior is to learn how to respond positively to negative feelings.
In this post I’ll first identify the negative feelings your child may experience. Then show why these feelings are often linked to poor behavior choices. Plus I have a included a hands-on activity designed to teach children how to recognize their own emotional needs.
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A BLAST of negative emotions
Every day each of us has to manage a myriad of both positive and negative emotions. Most of the time our response is so instinctive that we don’t even realize what is going on. But our brain knows. In fact, the feeling part of the brain is paying extra special attention to how we choose to react.
In previous posts we’ve used the acronym BLAST to describe 5 feelings that evoke high emotional needs. These are:
Take a moment and consider what your reaction to each of these feelings might be. Would you choose a half hour of exercise to blow off steam? Or chat with a good friend to soothe your soul? The reality is, we don’t always make the best decisions when the pressure is on. (Did anyone say ice cream?!)
Dealing with emotional pile up
Have you noticed that negative emotions like to gang up? And they can knock you over when they strike in groups of two or three. Think about how you respond when you are stressed and angry. Or tired, lonely and bored. When negative feelings pile up it’s easy for anyone to get caught off guard.
In these vulnerable moments the feeling brain kicks into overdrive. It seeks instant satisfaction —often to excess. A bowl of ice cream becomes an entire tub. That half hour of exercise is replaced by a late night movie binge. (I think I just got too personal.)
In your reflection you’ve probably noticed that solutions instigated in the feeling part of the brain aren’t concerned with consequences. It’s a live-for-the-moment kind of response. The thing is, the more one bad habit is repeated, the harder it is for other parts of the brain to help you come up with a better choice. This is why it is so important to understand your emotional needs before the negative feelings pile up.
Emotional wellness in the developing brain
For kids it’s even more challenging! Did you know that the human brain is not completely developed until about age 24! Dr. Daniel Siegel explains in his book Brainstorm, that this young brain can do some amazing things! For example, during childhood it excels at filing away information. Then in adolescence it starts to specialize. It can even make connections faster than the adult brain.
But one of the things children and teens struggle with is being able to identify their own emotional needs. That because during this period of growth the feeling part of the brain is at it’s strongest!
Care Tags to Help Kids Deal with Emotions
Identifying emotions can be challenging at any age. Much of parenthood is spent trying to figure out what’s causing your child’s latest mood swing. Check out the following clip from Disney Pixar’s Inside Out. See how closely you identify with Riley's parents as they try to decode her sulky mood at the dinner table:
If misinterpreted, a child’s behavioral outburst can cause a chain reaction of negative consequences all over the place. In contrast, a moment taken to decode and defuse the situation can restore harmony just as quickly.. That’s why I love the idea of making emotional care tags. This fun parent/child activity was inspired by Jodi Smith MSW, LCSW, RPT-S. The purpose is to help your child learn to build emotional resilience —a skill that has lifelong value.
There are three simple steps to filling in an emotional care tag. The first line acknowledges a behavior or habit. The second line identifies the emotion that triggers that behavior. And finally, the third line is used to describe how the child’s needs can be resolved with emotional wellness in mind.
I am feeling…(emotion)
I need…(healthy response/self-care)
Trying the activity at home
My son and I created a set of care tags this week. It was a fun and informative bonding experience. We talked back and forth until he could find the words to express himself. I was surprised by how much I learned in a few short minutes. What or read below to see what we did.
- I showed my son the tags. He was instantly curious (because they are so cute!) and asked me what they were. I explained that sometimes we behave a certain way because we don’t feel very good about something. This care tag can help us figure out what we need. It’s kind of like a puzzle. Let’s give it a try!
- Then we talked about some common feelings —happy, sad, angry, etc. I started simple. I asked him what kind of feeling he has when he cries. As expected, his answer was “sad.”
- Next, I asked him what he needed when he felt sad. “To be left alone,” he said. This surprised me. “Are you sure? I thought you might need a hug.” He considered my suggestion but stood firm in his answer. “Ok then, let’s talk about some more of your feelings. I’ll see if I can understand where you’re coming from.”
- Then I prompted him with another question. "What about hitting?” I asked “Do you ever do that?” (I knew the answer.) “Ok, what do you think you are feeling when you want to hit someone?” He told me he felt mad and what he needed was space. “So, you want time to cool off when you get mad? That makes sense.”
- My son continued to think about his feelings. He added. “Yea. But I also want to change my answer for crying. I think I need comfort when I cry.”
How cool is that? After a little detective work my son is now able to articulate what helps him the most when he is feeling a BLAST of negative emotions. We explored a few more scenarios and came to the following conclusion:
Often the behaviors we use to express our negative feelings don’t give us what we need.
Power over compulsive habits
This simple activity could have lasting benefits as long as I continue to follow up with my child’s emotional wellness. Fortunately, we now have a visual reminder that emotional needs deserve careful attention. We also know we can’t leave our feeling brain in charge. (Because this part of the brain is quick to accept behavioral distractions that can be unhealthy or dangerous.)
Children CAN learn early to decode and meet their own emotional needs. As they do this it serves as another layer in the immunization against the use of pornography and other compulsive habits.
As children grow and mature, one of the best gifts we can give them is the ability to respond positively to negative feelings. We hope you will enjoy this fun activity with your child. You can get a template for emotional care tags in our guide Building Emotional Resilience in Kids.