Sloooowly – ever so slowly – my new kindergartener is easing into our new routine. I admit that I dramatically underestimated just how difficult the transition would be for him, especially starting at a new, in-home baby sitter’s in the mornings before he hops on the bus for afternoon kindergarten. (Darn you, half-day kindergarten! WHY?! Why do you still exist?) There have been lots of tears, a few smiles, and many, many conversations about his feelings.
As a result, “emotions” have been on my mind. What lessons do our children need to learn about their feelings? And how do we help them cope when the going gets tough, in a way that both acknowledges their pain and also moves them forward?
It’s a life-long process and one I’m sure won’t end even when my boys are grown. But there are a few key lessons we’ve been talking a lot about over the past couple of weeks – lessons I think are important for any kid. (And can I just tell you all before we jump in how much fun Zip had posing for these “feeling photos”?)
1. There is a word for this.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat next to a friend at Back-To-School night and we swapped stories about the tough time our kindergarteners were having with the transition to a new school. Both boys had been unusually emotional, out of sorts and upset about unexpected things, and as my friend added, “They just don’t have the words for what they are feeling.” She is absolutely right. And that is why it is our job, as parents, to give them the words!
Most of us get into the habit pretty early on of naming our kids’ emotions for them. There are little opportunities all day long to help our kids learn the language of emotion, simply by labeling what they might be feeling or what we ourselves feel.
2. Our feelings are telling us something.
As therapists are fond of saying: Our emotions are messages to us, from us, about us. Sometimes the reason for what we are feeling is obvious, but sometimes it isn’t – and that is when helping our kids pull this chaotic swirl of feelings into focus and somehow make sense of it is all the more important.
My first conversation with Bee about how nervous he was about kindergarten happened one evening when I was trying to get him bathed and he was just melting down all over the place. He cried because he didn’t want to shower. He cried because his daddy and brother weren’t home yet. He cried because…he didn’t even know why he was crying!
That particular day was one of his last at preschool and his clinginess suddenly seemed like a giant red flag waving itself in my face. When I pointed out that he had a big change coming up and was maybe having some “Big Feelings” about that, the floodgates really opened. All of those feelings had been swirling about inside him, but he hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with them. Once we identified the reason he was feeling so unsettled, we were able to start talking about it.
3. You can have two feelings at once.
The transition to kindergarten has been the perfect opportunity to talk about how we can – and often do – have two feelings at once, even two seemingly incompatible feelings. We have talked often about how Bee is excited, but also nervous and sad too. He has fun at the sitter’s, but also misses Mommy while he is there. (Mommy loves the freedom that comes with two kids in school, and feels horribly guilty sending Bee to the sitter…I keep that one to myself.)
4. Feel the feelings.
I never want to be the parent who tells her kids that their feelings are wrong or unacceptable or something to be avoided – even when those feelings are difficult and make me uncomfortable too. I strongly believe that learning to sit with difficult feelings, instead of run from them, is a critical skill for healthy adulthood. So there have been lots of tears the past two weeks, lots of hugs, and a lot of, “Yes, this is hard.” Acknowledging feelings and being supported helps us move forward.
5. You can handle this.
There is a time to let it all out and a time to put on your game face. While we let Bee fall apart at bedtime or for a few minutes before breakfast, we also discourage him from dwelling on those feelings when he starts his day at the sitter’s. We talk about things he can do to cope, like bring his favorite stuffed animal, sit next to a familiar friend, or distract himself by focusing on the morning activity. And each morning we tell him how proud we are of how he is handling a tough situation.
6. These feelings will pass.
“I wish it was Friday already.” It was the eve of the second week of school, and Bee and I were curled up in his bed, snuggling a little before I tucked him in bed. “I wish it was Friday, because then I would be more used to Miss B’s house and the other kids and I would feel a little better.”
This was the result of a conversation my husband had with Bee about how hard it is go someplace new, how it takes time to get comfortable, and how – in a few weeks – he won’t be so nervous.
I have had to remind myself of this lesson, too. I’m keeping my eyes on the end of September, 99% certain that we’ll look back four weeks from now and Bee will be in a very different place – figuratively, not literally! These feelings will pass, for all of us.
I’m sure that as my boys continue to grow there will be more situations like these – new situations with new emotions that they aren’t quite sure what to do with. Our job as parents is to help them recognize their feelings, give them the words to describe them, and figure out what to do with them.
I’m a huge fan of kid lit, so here are a few books that can help children better understand their emotions. Just click on the image and it will take you right to the book on Amazon. (Disclosure: The following are affiliate links.)