As children grow older they learn many new skills - most by example. That is, they are watching us closely and absorbing even the things we don't intend them to. Young kids especially are particularly perceptive. More than likely they have a basic or innate understanding of what they're seeing, even beyond ours. That intelligence - that emotional intelligence - helps them navigate the world around themselves and feel more secure. I like to refer to specialized talents as "intelligences". For example, dancers have amazing physical and spatial intelligence. Mathematicians often have exceptional visualization and sequential processing. Kids - nearly all of them - have deep reserves of untapped emotional intelligence.
Have you heard that you can teach a toddler any language and they will be able to sound like a native speaker in that tongue? But by age six, the synapses that can replicate any human sound (and thus mimic native speakers precisely) fade away - unless they're being used. Think of this as a muscle that has atrophied from inactivity. Much in the same way, emotional intelligence will wane if it's ignored or discouraged.
What's the primary cause of emotional pain? Broken relationships. And what causes broken relationships? Poor communication (among many other things, though I'd argue they all lead back to ineffective communication). I know you care deeply about your kids and you want them to grow up in a safe world with the tools to navigate the roller coaster of life. We may have figured out how to grow human babies in a lab, but we still haven't figured out how to relate and emote to one another. One of the missing components, in my opinion, is emotional education.
My favorite neighbor, Mister Rogers, spoke frequently about teaching children to understand and control their emotions. By control, he never meant stifle - instead, he meant that children in control of their feelings don't let their emotions get the best of them. And eventually, they grow into adults who also practice restraint even in the face of great adversity. When feelings stop overwhelming us, we can choose our words more carefully, act in pursuit of understanding rather than revenge, and practice compassion for one another. While these concepts are all just that - concepts - they're a bit too lofty for the words of wee ones. Their innate understanding of emotional realities far outpace their ability to reason and speak about those feelings.
But we have to start somewhere, right? Trust me, I know how annoying it is when your kids has a meltdown because they can't stay at the park all day. I've been that parent, dragging my child kicking and screaming to the car while the neighbors watched with raised eyebrows. That frustration melts away when I stop seeing my child as a disobedient tyrant and realize they're drowning in feelings they don't have words to describe. I can choose to be compassionate instead of crabby.
So instead of hissing at my son to "STOP CRYING!", I'm choosing a different approach. It's okay for him to cry - everyone cries. Crying is a healthy way to express feelings and isn't to be shamed or bashed. I'd much rather he cries than internalizes that frustration and anger! I'm making a conscious effort to use one of these phrases in its place:
I understand how hard this must be.
Those are some big feelings, huh?
It's okay to be frustrated.
I'm right here, buddy.
I know, it doesn't feel very fair.
I'm listening - tell me how you feel.
You sound very unhappy. Do you want to talk about it?
From my experience, approaching my toddler with a soft voice on his level garners a better response. Leading with one of those options helps soothe him. I'm not sure if it's just because he feels heard, or if it's because he realizes that he can make willful choices even when his feelings seem too big to handle. That sense of accomplishment when he can move on and get past those big feelings? It makes his eyes sparkle. One day, I hope he appreciates the intentional work I put in to help him develop his emotional muscles. Maybe he can even do the same with his own kids someday.