In preparation for a debriefing group I’ll be a part of Sunday morning, I’m reading through lots of what’s being circulated in regards to talking with kids about tragedy. These bulletins seems to be a hybrid of protective and productive efforts. Reassuring a child’s safety and explaining the tragedy as concisely as possible fall in the “protective” category. Talking about feelings with children then falls under “productive.” Unfortunately, there isn’t enough room in any pamphlet (or encyclopedia…do they still make those?) to go into the necessary detail about how to have an emotions-based conversation.
Talking about feelings with children of any age can be tricky for a number of reasons, the primary being it’s hard to find the “right” words when exploring our emotions. And let’s face it, you have to become fluent in the new language of feelings at each stage of development.
Here are my suggestions for nurturing a practice of emotional check-ins for kids from age 4-11.
- The greatest tool when teaching emotional expression is a medium sized box of crayons. At the youngest possible age, begin a practice of asking your child “What color are you today?” Have them pick out a color. You don’t need to ask “why are you that color?” and you don’t need to have a degree in art therapy. Just note what a “red” day looks like for your child in comparison to a “green” or “pink” day.
- Go one step further and ask your child to draw a picture for you (using any colors she would like.) Note 1) what he draws and 2) how she draws. If you’d like, ask him to tell you what’s happening in the picture and notice the pressure of the lines. Did your child press down with a lot of force while drawing or lightly scribble on the page? The differences in style are often indicative of how a child is feeling.
- You could also find a book with really good illustrations and instead of a normal bedtime story, ask “what’s happening in this picture?” This takes your child off the spot (since the focus is seemingly on the picture) and frees him or her to be more open. The story your child shares may clue you in to fears, prominent figures, and important relational patterns. Insight like this is supplementary to what you observe and not meant to diagnose but to provide more dimension to the context.
By starting a creative lesson, like the one above ,at an early age, the more concrete question, “how are you feeling?” becomes less startling and pressure-bearing when the child is older.
Another transition you may want to consider is as a child reaches school age, ask him to draw something that happened during his day. Once a child is older ask more specific questions: What happened today that was surprising? stressful? funny? challenging? exhausting? confusing? thrilling? Add these questions to the normal rundown (how was your day? how did that test go? what time is soccer practice finished tomorrow?) and your child will begin to see these different aspects of her day.
For all of the above you can also use play-doh, though the pressure used on a sculpture is a little harder to gauge! Still, you’ll be able to think up variations on these ideas as you start: side walk chalk, paint, snow, water…the list goes on!
Other ideas include:
- A feelings dance: Introduce this by asking what a happy, sad, scared, excited, angry, embarassed dances look like. During check-in each day, ask what the dance for today is.
- Make a drum set together (oatmeal containers work really well!) and ask your child to play today’s song. Note how hard or soft she hits the “drums”, how fast or slow, and how long the song is.
Obviously, these two ideas act as a healthy release of emotional energy as well!
Nurturing these practices means making them a part of the daily conversation so make sure to find a time that works well for the rest of the day’s routine and if you’re able, check in at both the beginning and end of the day. Beginning these creative conversations can not only help your family dialogue but it can also foster a self-awareness check in your child that will remain a part of their daily life into adulthood.