“But mommy, I don’t want to go to school today!”
I heard this from our 3-year old son over and over when he started preschool in the fall. (Can you relate?)
At first, I was confused about how to respond.
I wondered if I should say, “Buck up, kiddo, we all have to do things we don’t like.”
Or maybe, “Honey, you’ll be fine. You’ll get to run on the playground and meet new friends and play with fun things!”
Or, I could try saying nothing and simply hope that he’ll forget about it.
A bigger part of me knew, however, that I needed to support him to have his feelings and help him deal with them in a constructive way.
So, on his second day of school when he brought it up in the car, here’s how I responded.
ENTER INTO CONVERSATION
Brooks: Mommy, but I don’t want to go.
Me: I hear you, buddy. You don’t want to go. It’s hard for mommy to do things she doesn’t want to do, too. Are you worried about something? Sad about not being able to play with your toys? Wanting to stay home with mommy?
Brooks: I’m worried.
Me: We all worry, honey. There’s nothing wrong with feeling worried. Is there anything more you want to tell me about your worries?
Brooks: There will be monsters on the playground.
Me: Ohhhh, I see. What else?
Brooks: They make loud noises and are big.
Me: Holy cow. Can I ask you something, bud? Does your body feel worried when you think about those monsters? Like your shoulders, your hands, legs, etc.
Brooks: My butt and my legs. (giggle)
Me: Does the worry feel big like that truck and trailer we just passed or is it small like the motorcycle parked over there?
Me: Is it hard like the rocks you picked up on our hike yesterday or soft like your Snoopy (stuffed animal)?
Brooks: Kinda hard. (more giggles)
Me: Does it feel like a moving car or parked car?
Me: Well that’s good that it’s moving, that means it won’t be there forever! (because no feeling lasts forever)
Brooks: Hey mommy, can I tell you something? I don’t feel worried anymore!
Me in my head: Does he just want me to shut-up?
Me out loud: That’s so cool, buddy! Just remember, there’s nothing wrong with feeling worried. Ever.
A few things to note about the interaction.
- Lest you think I’m some perfectly calm Zen mama, please know that there have been many instances when I responded less skillfully!
- In case you’re thinking, “Who has time for this?” please note that the conversation lasted 2-3 minutes. (And, you’re right, sometimes we don’t have time, but that’s a topic for another article.)
- This is not a prescription for how to deal with a child’s upset all.the.time. (For example, sometimes they need to be held and heard without any parental interjection.)
However, I want to share with you why an approach like this can be really helpful for children (and adults).
- Children need safe, accessible ways to understand feelings. I chose to talk about vehicles because Brooks is obsessed with them, but you can also use animals, colors, sounds, etc. to help young children make sense of what’s happening inside.
- Using the body as an anchor to talk about feelings gives them a direct physical experience to notice. For example, I notice that my fists clench when I’m angry, my legs feel heavy when I’m afraid, or my chest tightens when I’m nervous.
- Feelings want to be treated as friends, not enemies. SO IMPORTANT.
- Bringing kind awareness (mindfulness) to feelings helps us “have our feelings without our feelings having us.” – Amy Saltzman
- Feelings need to be felt, not forced away or buried, in order to eventually subside.
- Children need to borrow from an adult’s stable nervous system when they have big feelings. That’s why YOUR PRACTICE OF MINDFULNESS, or whichever method you use to manage feelings, is oh-so important! I want to underscore the word practice. The more we train our mind and heart to meet the stresses of life with balance and ease, the easier it is to feel strong and calm when the waves of a child’s upset come rolling in.
The research nerd in me would like to conclude by telling you that substantial evidence shows children who develop skills to notice and deal with feelings are happier and more resilient as adults – in all areas of their life.
If you’re a mother and you’d like to learn more about how you can support your child’s emotional development with mindfulness (as well as your own!), I have a perfect class for you. Details and registration info here!