Kids' Feelings - A Manifesto


The reality is, if we let packs of kids parent themselves without rolling up our sleeves, parent to parent, advocating for every kid who has gotten off track and helping them reset,  then all we have left at the end of the day are perpetrators and victims.  -Traci Ruble

Kids' Feelings - A Manifesto
by Traci Ruble, MFT and Mom

This is not the article I was planning to write but I feel called to give voice to the feelings of kids.  My oldest son started kindergarten a few weeks ago.  He is a complicated, amazing, wonderful person.  The nuanced language he uses to describe his emotional world astonishes me, makes me proud and other times terrifies me.  Over the years I have gotten to know his vulnerabilities and sensitivities and when he "loses control of his body" to hit rather than use words.   I had to learn how to hear him the hard way....trial and error.  I suppose I am still in a state of trial and error with both my kids and always will be.  What a humbling relationship.  

In this transition to Kindergarten I have been reflecting on kids and feelings as I have witnessed so many big feelings on the playground, at drop off, from parents, teachers and neighbors.  So here is my personal manifesto on kids and their feelings sharing a little of what I have learned thus far.  I feel like a strong advocate for emotionality and skillful emotionality at that.  I hope this article invites you to think more deeply about what you are seeing when you see kids struggling with feelings and strive to act in a way that serves our collective.

1. Don't worry about what anyone thinks about how you parent.  
You more than any other human were designed to be your child's parent.  Listen to your intuition.  It is probably more right than any advice. If you need help finding your way to your intuition, a good therapist is good for that.  

2. Let your kid be upset.
When facing a new challenge kids get upset.  And for us parents a whole bunch of different feelings stir us up and we tend to trivialize, squelch, shame or rescue kids and their feelings.  If kids are upset they are either tired, hungry or genuinely upset.  So if you have ruled out tired and hungry, best to know that their feelings are genuine and need a great deal of attention and care.  What to do then?  Let the feelings flow.  Be available to your kid's feelings for as long as they need a listening ear.  Sure, we are all limited and if you don't have the patience or time it's ok.   But if your ethic is that there is intelligence in those darn feelings then let them flow rather than stop them up.  At times we are going to need to give our kids the opportunity to contend with their upset feelings on their own which they will do well if we have helped them along.  If you have listened to their feelings enough and maybe even taught them how to give themselves what we call in my house a "self snuggle" than they have a way to make it through.  Convey to your child that you believe in their capacities and they will start to believe in themselves to make it through their upsets.  It will be hard so best to find a caring friend who can give you a snuggle.  Holding our kids through these big emotional developmental milestones is so emotionally taxing on us.  Again, a good therapist...not a bad idea.

3. Kids Need Help Talking to Other Kids
Kids are trying to navigate complicated relationships in their home life and taking that to the streets and suddenly having to navigate the push pull of a larger group in a classroom setting...well think about it, what are your first days on the job like for you?  And at their age, the brain isn't fully formed to deal with possessiveness, jealousy, feeling bored, feeling smothered by other kids or teachers or missing mom and dad while at school.  I have seen and heard parents hold schools overly responsible for teaching their kids how to navigate kid to kid relationships.  When in doubt parents need to get in on the action.  If you have done some social coaching and your kid is still struggling with another kid or set of kids, call the parents and get those kids over for a play date.  Strategize with those parents.  THERE ARE NO BAD KIDS.  Now some parents will be receptive to this offer and some will not.  Give it a shot but I do think it is ultimately a parents' job, not a school's job to be the central hub of what is going on for that child interpersonally.  Know who your kid is playing with and find out from other parents what your own kids' strengths and weaknesses are as well and help them grow through their play!

4. Aggression Is Not Equal to Bullying
I am gearing up to do an interview with one of the principles in my town about boys and aggression.  I remember 4 years ago in a playgroup a father told me there was no difference between boys and girls...he seemed to be admonishing the rascally boys at playgroup that day and making a comment on my boundaries.  Meanwhile, his docile girl sat peacefully at his feet.  More recently I have heard what was normal and developmentally appropriate boyhood aggression referred to as bullying.  We pay a price for this kind of talk.  The real "bullies" go un noticed because we are hyper vigilantly obsessing about name calling rather than understanding the details of aggression that needs direction.  Was that play?  Was that acting out some other displaced hurt?  Did the other kid join in or not?   What does that child need from me in the moment to help?  I have always been the kind of parent if I am of able mind and body to intervene on any child who has "lost control of their body" and hurt another kid.  I don't scream and yell - at least try not to.  My goals are safety,  setting kind and firm limits, understanding and teaching.  Now I get a little red in the face because I had to learn how to do this from other skillful moms and it took tons of practice so if you haven't gotten this down you will with some effort.  Take comfort in knowing most of us do it wrong a lot but good enough, thankfully, is good enough.  I remember the first time a kid bloodied my kid's lip at the park I was not sure how to handle it and then when my son hit a neighbor boy I was confounded that this level aggression could come out MY baby.  But it behooves us all to learn how to provide some social coaching and stop the labeling of all aggression as bad. It helps no one except stigmatizes a kid for life as the town bully and let's us, as that kids' community, completely off the hook.

4. It Does Take A Village So We ALL Must Step In
While you may be reticent to call in additional resources or afraid to make waves, I say make waves when it comes to kids' feelings.  Today on the playground there was a first grade boy, seemingly with some developmental delays being ganged up on by eleven boys.  It was like a pack of wolves trying to kill off its weak link.  I stood back as the boy seemed to be laughing but than I saw the laughing was a defense to try to convey to the wolf pack that he was strong.  I approached when another boy pulled on the boy's underwear and called him names.  I asked the boy "Are you having fun?  Is this part of the game?" to which he whimpered a resounding "No" relieved I had shown up.  It was a little frightening for me because my usual kind but firm bravado that had worked last week on the playground was snarled and scoffed at by this wolf pack.  I had zero gravitas in their mind.   I called a teacher over and explained things.  She was frazzled and busy and seemed to only see the laughter but maybe because of my therapist eyes, I could see the wolf pack abuse.  So I reported it to the office.  I would have had no issue with the boys' aggression if the picked on boy had some social skills to advocate for himself but he didn't try to get away, he didn't get a teacher, he just seemed lost in it all.  I didn't disavow the wolf pack though.  I was disturbed but I got that these boys had sucumb to their primitive animal brains and they needed a firm limit to help them gain control of their bodies and minds.  Which is exactly why we need to step in and reset the pack - all of us adults.  If we all lend a hand early it is the best bullying prevention. Late is too late.  The reality is, if we let packs of kids parent themselves without rolling up our sleeves, parent to parent, advocating for every kid who has gotten off track and helping them reset,  then all we have left at the end of the day are perpetrators and victims.  

I have learned, the last few weeks, that I am a better parent than I thought.  I am often concerned about doing right by my kids but today I feel competent and proud.  I believe in kids and I believe in the intelligence of feelings.  We all could be reminded that feelings make us real, they are the through line to our very hearts and deserve our undivided attention.  Kids are great reminders of this.   

Traci Ruble works in the San Francisco financial district specializing with couples as well as trauma.  She founded Psyched in San Francisco and is a proud mom and leader of online mother's groups.  You can visit her site at www.traciruble.com

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