Use Your Words

"I feel MAD. And SAD. And a little.... FRUSTRATED that this is so hard," Z said yesterday while trying to put her puzzle together.

We're working on her owning her feelings, and finding appropriate ways to express them. This begins with recognizing and naming her feelings, since so often she is upset and doesn't really know why.

The unintended result of this latest effort? We now have a running commentary of her day's emotions.

"I feel PAIN. And a little MAD at you, and I just want to GRRRRRR" she says, gritting her teeth when I brush her hair every morning. And then "I'm MUCH happier now" as soon as the brush is set back down.

"I DON'T LIKE THAT. I'm starting to feel VERY MAD and like I WANT TO HIT YOU because you aren't listening to me," she tells her sister who, in the time honored tradition of younger siblings everywhere, has discovered juuuust how to push her sister's many buttons.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me about this recent State of the Emotion, is how unsettling it is for me to hear her declare her emotional state. Now, I didn't grow up in an emotionally repressed household; if anything, I tend to be a little TOO loose and comfortable with displays of emotion. I think my discomfort stems from being an adult long enough to be shocked when someone comes right out and says bluntly how they're feeling and why.

Adults don't do this. At least, the ones I know.

Often I find myself cringing and wondering Should I tell her to keep that feeling to herself? At some point, I know we will need to tell her to do just that, to help smooth her school social life, if nothing else.  Her friends and teachers are not going to be interested in knowing the constant fluctuations in her mood throughout the day.

Put on a smile! Turn that frown upside down! 
At first I was a little concerned about encouraging her to announce the shifting tides of her emotions. By declaring the dark feelings, are they are deepened rather than released?  Surely she can just say them in her head rather than needing to announce them to the world?

Now I'm convinced it's a good thing; the feelings would be there no matter what and even if she was capable of keeping them in (hahaHAHAHA!) I think it's safe to say that's a pretty destructive habit. At least this way, there are fewer unexplained volcanic eruptions.  Since she's able to keep it together at school most of the time, for now, we experiment with this at home.

For her.

And for ourselves.

You see, we quickly discovered we would need to model this behavior for her, in real situations.  We wanted her to know that we all struggle with difficult emotions and how to deal with them.

So when I burnt my toast and my fingers the other day, I started to feel my own - very real - frustration and, realizing that Z was drawing at the table steps away, swallowed my preferred muttered expletives and loudly said "I can't believe the toast got burned! And my fingers hurt! I'm feeling so mad right now, I want to lash out. But I'm going to walk away and think about something else for a minute to calm down."

This feels about as silly as it sounds, to give detailed external words to my internal feelings, in real time.

But it's getting more natural as the weeks go by. Of course I clean up the language I use, and sometimes I'll over embellish when I'm really not having THAT hard a time controlling my anger just to show her how it's done. But more often than not, when I'm really, actually struggling with frustration around my girls, I will now stop and try to put clear external words to my anger.

It is surprisingly difficult, this Use Your Words business. It strengthens my empathy for my girls - especially Z - for I ask it of them all the time.

Luckily, Z has started labeling my emotions for me. "Mommy? Are you feeling angry? Do you want to own it and take a few deep breaths?" Z said sweetly from the back seat of the car last week after a driver flipped me off for no apparent reason.

I didn't at first, so caught up in the peak of annoyance was I.

And then I made myself let go and I said I was and I did.

I'm still caught by surprise how much of parenting is learning lessons right alongside my children. I had this idea that I would be - or should be - sending wisdom down from on high to my grub-like children below.

Instead, here I am, no pedestal to be seen, standing right beside them, hoping to keep one step ahead.

Or at least to stay by their side.


Emily said...

That's cute, though I'm sure it gets annoying to listen to all day. I need to start working on getting my older one to start doing that. He needs some help labeling and dealing with his emotions.

Ann Wyse said...

Your insight about standing right along side your children? Yes. I feel like that too.

I hope that you've been able to catch Z on video expressing herself. Because she sounds really fantastic at it. Who knows? She might really appreciate it someday. Or not: and then you could just slip the video into the trash (or your own private collection). ;-)

Cortney said...

I don't know... some days I feel like my kids are miles ahead of me and are re-teaching me the basics.

I think identifying and expressing emotion is hard for most adults. Good on you for helping your girls get a leg up.

Gina said...

I think this is great. I did grow up in a rather repressed household and it would have done me a world of good to be allowed to express myself and to have heard mom say, even once, that she was sad/angry/frustrated.

We tell our kids to use their words and try to create a safe and encouraging space for them to do so, but I think that the idea of modeling it ourselves is great. I shall try it myself.

Sarah said...

Yes! I am always wondering about where the line is between encouraging expression and also giving a kid real-world discernment to know when is-and is not- an appropriate time to fully express oneself! I am fine with Eli telling me that he wants to kick me when I put his toy in time out, so long as he doesn't actually follow through on that impulse, but is this something he's going to get in trouble for at preschool? How do I start helping him reign it in, when I've just finally (mostly!) gotten him to that point of using words instead of acting out?

Bird said...

So interesting how parenting, a seemingly external activity has us doing so much internal reflection. We are also working on keeping our emotions in check and trying to get Fussbot to verbalize his. Its been a, uh, process.

Pamela Hunt Cloyd said...

I wish I could use my words better.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I am going to be pondering this post for awhile.

Hillary said...

You always are so insightful. Perhaps this is a better option then my go-to, which includes lots of loud expletives. My kids are learning to express themselves, just not in good company.

Michelle said...

I will have to use this around our parts. Peanut is struggling with her emotions right (causing me to struggle with mine). Her go-to when she is mad is crying and yelling "NO" or "NOT FAIR."

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