Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dealing With Disappointment

You may recall that I decided to read and blog about one parenting book a month in 2010. The book I read in February was Dealing With Disappointment by Elizabeth Crary.

As parents, it is important to teach our children about emotions and to help them learn strategies for dealing with their own emotions. Children need a good "feelings vocabulary," and the book includes a fantastic list of words to describe emotions. There are standards like happy, sad, angry, excited, and disappointed-- but there are also words like elated, pleased, relaxed, generous, irate, worried, jealous, flabbergasted, and so many more. I don't think I did a lot of emotion-labeling with Elijah until he was around three or four years old, but since then it's become so second-nature to me that I've been describing emotions for Isaac since he was a small baby. This makes so much sense to me now. Most parents see the value in giving their children words for everything else in their environment-- animals, household objects, colors, shapes, even textures like smooth, bumpy, and rough-- so it makes sense to teach children to recognize and describe emotions too.

But don't stop there! Children also need to understand the nature of emotions-- how they can change, and that different people may feel different emotions about the same thing. And children need to be taught self-calming tools that they can use when they are upset. (So do some adults!) The book recommends that children have one self-calming strategy for each year of age up until twelve. These range from physical, auditory/verbal, visual, creative, self-comforting, and humor. Some strategies can be used in the moment, while others are preventive measures.

Of course, waiting to introduce a self-calming tool until the moment when a child is upset probably won't help much. How easily do you learn new skills when you are in the midst of feelings like anger or disappointment? It is more helpful to introduce a new self-calming tool when the child is already calm, link it to calm feelings, and practice using it with the child. Then when he's upset, you can remind him of his self-calming tools, and over time he will learn to use them without prompting. I decided to try this with my 15 month old; I started showing him how to take deep breaths in and out and described how calm it made me feel. Toddlers love to imitate, so he began trying to take deep breaths himself. After a few days of practicing this during calm moments, I decided to see if it would help him when he was upset. So one day when he was feeling angry that he couldn't have something he wanted, I said, "Isaac, you're feeling angry because you can't touch that. Let's take some deep calming breaths, ready? Breathe in... and out... in... and out." And you know what? He tried to, and he calmed down. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed!

Obviously the parent's role in all this changes as their children mature. When children are small, parents are their comforters, but over time we progress to teaching children how to deal with their own feelings, then reminding them to use the self-calming tools they have, and finally, as they become teens, back off and let them handle their emotions while offering support if needed.

The book also offers helpful advice to parents on staying calm themselves when kids are upset. (If you're a parent, you know how difficult this can be sometimes!) At the end of the book, there are sections devoted to activities for understanding feelings and tools for coping with feelings. It's a pretty short read-- only 132 pages-- but an excellent resource for parents or teachers who are looking for ways to teach children about emotions and how to handle them.

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