How are you coping with the endless squabbles, frequent fisticuffs and constant bickering in your household during the lockdown – or is that just our family?!
Dealing with emotions can be hard at the best of times, especially in a blended family of six –add the stress of this pandemic when we’re all under the same roof with little opportunity for respite – and it’s a melting pot of high emotions and ongoing drama.
Pandemic or not, one of the most important themes we focus on when it comes to ‘educating’ our children is emotional management and regulation. Why?
Because EVERY single thing we experience in life creates a response in us – often a physical response and always an emotional response.
Sadly, so very many of us are conditioned, from early childhood, to ignore or deny these responses (feelings) and so we grow into adulthood spectacularly unaware of our own emotions and unable to express, discuss and sometimes even feel them.
We move through the world not understanding our own reactions, responses and behaviour, unable to understand others’ behaviours either, and end up repeating dysfunctional patterns, and creating or staying in dysfunctional relationships over and over again…
It doesn’t have to be like this. To us, understanding, feeling, processing and being able to manage our emotions is as fundamental as the three Rs!
So how do you help children learn about their emotions – how to feel them, how to make sense of them, and how to manage and regulate them?
1. Create Emotional Space
The beauty of emotions is that there is no right or wrong way to feel. One of the things that sets humans apart from other living things is our ability to feel with a wide range of emotions and yet our emotional literacy is at an all-time low.
Many of us find it hard to identify and name the emotion we’re feeling which makes understanding and exploration of it challenging (and change almost impossible), and so we default to patterns that aren’t always useful.
For example, anger is a key ‘displacing’ emotion – because anger often hides a wealth of deeper feelings: Hurt, grief, betrayal, rejection, abandonment…
- It’s the 6 year old who kicks his sister in the stomach in anger, because underneath the anger, he’s feeling hurt and betrayed that she chose to play on her own instead of with him.
- It’s the father who screams at his wife the next morning over a seemingly tiny incident, because he’s feeling hurt and rejected that she was too tired for sex last night.
How do we address and change these default reactions and patterns? Creating and holding space for feelings and emotions is the first and fundamental step.
How do you do this? By making emotions ‘ok’ in your family…
- “It’s ok to feel how you feel.”
- “No-one can tell you how to feel about this.”
- “You are ‘allowed’ to feel exactly how you want to feel.”
- “It is ok to feel.”
Once you’ve created the space to feel emotions, cultivating a space for curiosity, exploration and discussion encourages children (and adults) to learn how to verbalise and talk about their feelings…
- “How does this feel for you?”
- “What words would you use to describe how you feel?”
- “Does it feel like …?” (The goal is to help them find the words that feel right to them, not put words in their mouth that don’t feel right to them).
- “I wonder where that feeling came from…what do you think?”
- “What caused/triggered that feeling?”
The more emotional literacy we help children cultivate when they’re young, the better their ability to navigate any situation life will throw at them and create deeper, more authentic and more fulfilling relationships in all areas of their life.
2. Use Sportscasting
Many adults find it tough to talk about emotions – it’s a skill we can get better at though it’s not one many of us have been encouraged to cultivate and so we find ourselves in repeating patterns…
- Consider that argument you have on repeat with someone close to you; the one you can never seem to resolve and which pushes your buttons like nothing else.
- Think about the person at work who you cannot bear to be around but have to work closely with, even though they may never have actually done anything ‘wrong’.
- Consider the overbearing mother who just won’t let you live your own life without comment or judgment even though you’re a capable, functioning adult!
Many of these feel like unresolvable, unchangeable situations. They are not because while you have no control over other people, you have full and sole control over yourself, and that’s all you need. This is the message we give to our children, over and over.
So how you do initiate a difficult, potentially conflict-causing conversation about what might really be going on underneath the surface? By using a technique I call ‘sportcasting’.
This is a technique I’ve honed based on Janet Lansbury’s method for addressing difficult toddler behaviour.
Sportscasting is a valuable way to get underneath any unconscious, game-playing devices or indirect, passive aggressive ways of communicating because it brings out the pattern into the open, puts a name to it, and allows both parties to address what’s actually happening in the dynamic between them from a place of conscious awareness.
Being able to verbalise what might actually be going on under the surface, on behalf of someone who can’t yet express it themselves, is a powerful way to step out of that pattern, especially for children.
Why It Works
It’s hard, in the heat of a moment, to maintain a clear head, especially if you’ve been triggered. It’s also hard to hear and understand what’s actually being said when the words sometimes don’t appear to make sense or don’t match your sense of what’s actually going on.
Stepping into sportscasting mode allows you to instantly and immediately step out of the drama, get yourself into a more adult space, and observe what’s happening as a more passive onlooker, than get sucked into a back-and-forth, emotionally-charged exchange which does nobody any good.
It allows you to look beneath the surface of what’s being said, to understand what’s actually going on, and empowers you to see things from a different (their) perspective and why they’re behaving and responding as they are, because you begin to understand where it’s coming from.
How Do You Do It?
To begin sportscasting, there’s a process you can use…
- Step 1: Observe and verbally reflect back your experience of their behaviour.
- Step 2: Identify what triggered the behaviour in the first place.
- Step 3: Identify and encourage verbal expression of the emotion/feeling being displayed.
- Step 4: Provide space for discussion to take place.
I’ve written a more detailed breakdown of how to do each step here. And if all else fails…
Use A Simplified Version of Sportscasting
The key here is to sportscast the behaviour you’re experiencing and then ask a direct question to be answered, which creates space for constructive and open dialogue instead of mudslinging or further game playing…
- “It sounds like you’re really angry at me for changing this filing system; what could I have done differently to make it work better for you too?”
- “It sounds like you’re frustrated by the lack of progress; is there something that’d help you to feel more ok with the process?”
- “It feels like you’re really upset by something I’ve done; can you tell me what that is?”
- “It feels like you really want to control what I do; can we talk about why that is and how that feels for each of us?”
3. Agree On Positive Forms of Communication
There are many ways of communicating that we learn as we grow up that keep us rooted in patterns that don’t serve us well in adulthood. These include:
- Passive aggressiveness
- Game playing
- Name calling
We use these because they’ve either been modelled to us by our primary caregivers or because we’ve learned to use them to get our needs met when we haven’t been empowered to do it differently.
How we relate to and communicate with people is fundamental to our experience of life; none of us lives in a vacuum and yet we continue to use communication that is harmful to our relationships and our own and others’ emotional wellbeing because we’ve never been taught anything other.
In our family, we consciously and openly talk a lot about the things we value as a family when it comes to how we communicate because how we do this has an emotional impact on everyone.
To us, clear and honest communication, kindness and respect, etc. are important and so we encourage our children to use forms of communication that are:
- Take ownership of their emotions
You might like to consider and explicitly agree as a family how you’d like to communicate too. This agreement can then form the basis of all your communications with each other and has everyone’s buy-in.
It doesn’t mean it will always happen (we still get name-calling, game playing and indirectness rearing their ugly heads frequently!), but an explicit and conscious agreement helps to create a new, more positive default for everyone to work towards.
There’s a wealth of opportunity to talk and learn about emotions currently – from how everyone’s feeling about the lockdown, isolation, homeschooling and home working journeys to navigating the day to day friction of sharing the same space in such close proximity.
Talking about our emotions and how everyone’s feeling – openly, honestly, directly and with positive intent – is, I believe, one of the most positive approaches we can take to helping our children (and ourselves) survive through the uncertainties of where we find ourselves currently.
It’s possible you could even see this time as an opportunity to address some of the longstanding patterns that may be highlighted when you’re so ‘close’ to your loved ones for the foreseeable future…as a truly valuable opportunity to thrive during the pandemic, and beyond.