Utilizing Connection in Understanding Children’s Emotions
By Brittany Alley, MA, LPCC
My experience working with children has taught me the everlasting importance of connection. It is so important in fact, that in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, connection (or the need to belong) comes secondary only to our needs for survival. Although there are other types of connection (connection to self/other/nature), today I’ll be highlighting connection to others. More specifically, how to maintain connection with our child through their wide array of emotions, including those that may cause disruptive behaviors. Offering connection in these moments (rather than disengage) is something that I find to be incredibly crucial to emotional development and overall well-being.
My personal understanding of connection is that it is more than a shared experience. It is a felt sense that includes emotional empathy. It is an authentic, heartfelt, non-judgmental interaction, where we are valued and attuned with another person.
The great Brené Brown defines connection as follows: “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Why is Connection Important?
It might be easier to notice that when kids are asking for a hug or wanting to snuggle on the couch, what they really need is more connection. However, the same is true when children are displaying more disruptive behaviors such as tantrums, bullying, shutting down, talking back, or are afraid to sleep in their own room, etc. These behaviors can be tough for parents/caregivers and it’s natural to want to disengage or withhold connection. When we withhold connection in these moments, we are sending kids mixed messages. What could we try differently?
Connect through Repair
Even if the only thing parents and caregivers can handle during frustrating behaviors is sending their child to their room without discussion, remember that the repair is also an important way to connect. When you feel more patient and regulated, help your child process what’s going on. What children need to understand is that: 1. Their feelings are valid 2. It’s okay to have big emotions 3.They’re not alone and you still love them unconditionally 4.They can handle their big feelings.
What does it look like to connect in more difficult emotions? What are some strategies to practice? How can we then teach this to kids so that they can support themselves and others?
Below are some things to look out for when fostering connection.
Foundations of Connection
1.Model Empathy More so than teaching your child how to connect to others, model it by demonstrating empathy. By showing an understanding towards other’s feelings, your child learns that their feelings are valued and important. This can increase self-confidence and your child may feel more connected to you and more willing to share their inner world experience. Express your own feelings around their experience, share your somatic experience of that event, and give insight as to what you need to do to take care of yourself in these big moments (i.e. go for a walk, take a shower, take a deep breath, etc.) 2. Validate Feelings It is important to validate kid’s emotions, even if you feel that they are silly or overdramatic. Kids’ reactions and emotions are very real to them. When we can confirm that what they are feeling is understandable and is okay, it will often lessen the intensity and severity of the emotion.
Think of an experience that happened in your child’s life such as getting into an argument with a close friend on the playground. Name how you would feel if that had happened to you. What is your body’s reaction? What story are you telling yourself in your head? What emotion do you attach to this?
When I hear kids talk about experiences such as these, I want to model how I would feel if it were happening to me. In this example, I would feel incredibly sad and rejected, and probably embarrassed. I can feel my stomach tightening up, my chest feeling heavy, and my eyes might be holding back tears. I might believe that nobody likes me and that I’m not good enough. Even though this story in my head may very well be untrue, it’s important when helping another to honor that their experience of the event is painful and that that’s okay. It’s so important for us to show one another that we are not alone in these big feelings, AND that we can truly handle them.
Ways to Practice Fostering Connection
1. Participate in Acts of Kindness So often in peer relationships, parents find themselves telling children what NOT to do to their friends. Phrases such as “Don’t pull her hair!” or “You shouldn’t have called her stupid” teach children social cues for friendships but lacks recognition for kind acts that we do every day. Encourage your child to perform random acts of kindness and try not to let it go unnoticed. “I saw you help your friend pick up her books earlier, that was really nice.” Modeling these acts of kindness go a long way for children, also!
2. Build Emotional Awareness Before we can be there to connect to our child in the full spectrum of emotions, we need to first understand these emotions. What do they feel like, what story does it create, what’s the somatic sensation attached to that emotion? Once we understand this, we can better recognize what may be happening in that person or child’s inner world.
3. Be True to Who You Are Practicing authenticity in relationship to another person allows that person to become more at ease and gives them permission to also freely act as themselves. When we can openly be ourselves, we are most able to express difficult emotions, and in that, we can give and receive connection from another. What a gift it is to be near someone who’s willing to sit with another during difficult emotions, without trying to change or alter them in any way. The only thing to do is to offer support.
In conclusion, whether kids are asking for a hug, feeling left out of a friend group, angry towards someone that stole their toy, or scared to sleep in separate bedrooms from their parents, what they are searching for in all these emotions is connection. Sometimes when kids (and even adults) are feeling sad, scared, angry, confused or defiant, they act out in ways that are disruptive to those around them. However, this is also the time when connection is most needed. Frustrating behaviors sometimes want to make us turn away, and that reaction is understandable. But when we offer connection in these moments, we can see how it is crucial in order to overcome that challenge. Understanding the importance of this for ourselves, allows us to help children build that understanding for themselves and others.