"Wouldn't it be great if the only emotion we ever experienced was happy?" I asked a classroom full of fifth- graders last week, “or would it?”
We certainly start to prime ourselves at a young age into thinking that happy is the best way to be, which makes sense, who wants to strive to feel sad? But the reality is we can’t be happy 100% of the time and we can’t make our children experience happiness 100% of the time either. If you think about it, aren’t we setting ourselves up for failure with this 'happy all the time' mind set?
We become conditioned to believe that certain feelings like disappointment and sadness are “negative” we treat them like they're taboo; we avoid talking about them or being with them at all costs. I've had so many children over the years share with me that their "mad feelings are bad." When I first started working with the six-year-old who wrote "No Mad. No Sad. No Worried." on my whiteboard I let him know that it was okay to feel mad, it was okay to feel sad, it was okay to feel worried. I let him know that together, we would learn how to take care of those feelings. Together we started the process of learning how to be with all of our feelings in a curious and kind way.
If you asked around, I think you’d find that most people agree that the human experience includes a wide-range of emotions based on a variety of experiences. There will always be hard lessons in life. There will always be challenges. There will always be disappointment, goodbyes and loss. It’s human nature. So why do we put so much energy into avoiding and pushing away these "unpleasant" emotions when we can all agree that they come with the territory of being human?
What if we learned instead to be receptive to all of our emotions; we viewed them all as an opportunity to learn and grow. What if we shifted the way we related to our emotions, instead of avoiding them, we learned to sit with them. What if talked about them, viewed them as something that requires our attention, something we can learn to nurture. This is the conversation we ventured into last week during our mindfulness lesson at Parkside Elementary School.
When we're living on autopilot (the opposite of mindfulness) we often react to strong emotions. They might play out by snapping at a loved one and we later feel bad about what we did or said. Or we might ruminate about the experience, jumping on a thought train and letting it carry us away. Our thoughts then amp us up and cause that initial feeling to stay with us—sometimes for hours or even days.
"So what if we tried a different approach, what if we learned to get curious about all of our feelings, practiced pausing and checking-in to what’s happening on the inside. Really feeling what a feeling feels like and putting words to our experience, acknowledging and naming our feelings?" I asked the class. “What do you think might happen if we bring mindfulness to our feelings and agreed to take care of all of our feelings with curiosity versus judgment?” As we began to explore what this new practice might look and feel like, we agreed that putting it into practice on our own time would give us more information. “When I see you next week, I'd love to hear about what awareness arises when you practice paying attention to your feelings."
I walked into the classroom this week, and after practicing our one-minute of mindful breathing I asked if anyone had any mindful moments to share. Hands raised and the sharing began. "I noticed that when my brother kept coming into my room and bugging me I got mad. I felt tension in my chest and my heart started pounding." So what did you do, I asked? "I first shouted at him, then I recognized I was feeling mad and I stopped and went into my mindful body, I started practicing rectangle breathing. I noticed I started to calm down. I asked my brother more calming to give me some space and I shut the door." Another student shared that she noticed feeling "joyful" throughout the week. What does joyful feel like, I asked? "It feels warm, like around my chest and heart, it feels like a shining bright light. I didn't realize how often I felt joyful until I started paying attention to it."
Learning to pause and pay attention to the felt sense of a feeling can feel quite foreign if you're not use to the practice. But when we learn to check-in with how we're feeling we learn that emotions are transient. Emotions come and they go, they have motion, they last in the body for just a short bit of time and then shift and change. We learn that strong and difficult emotions can't actually hurt us. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist (the study of anatomy dealing with the nervous system) shares some interesting research behind the physiological mechanism of emotion. An emotion like anger, lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it’s triggered until it runs its course. One and a half minutes, that’s all! When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it’s because we’ve tried to push it away, we haven’t given it the attention it needs and it continues to reside within us. Or, we’ve chosen to rekindle it with our thoughts.
Learning to notice an emotion arising in the body, and pausing to take the time to pay attention and care for it, allows us to have more choices in how we respond to that emotion. Well-Bean has created a four-step process; planting the S.E.E.D. for emotional wellness, teaching children and families how to mindfully approach and investigate our feelings while learning to take care of them.
STOP: This action asks children to stop from moving on autopilot or a reactive state and invites them to direct their immediate attention to their body and breath. This is an action that takes us out of the agitated mind and invites us to go to the body with the next step:
Exhale s-l-o-w-l-y: When we teach kids to pay attention to their breath, then educate them on how to breathe fully and deeply we are actually familiarizing them with the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system. This branch of the autonomic nervous system induces calm and relaxation; it sends signals through the body that all is well and safe. From this place of calm and ease we are better able to access and strengthen connections to the area of the brain that helps manage our emotions and solve problems more skillfully. Make breathing a regular practice; teach your child during a calm state how to do diaphragmatic breathing. FOR MORE
Explore with curiosity: We’re creating some space here. Instead of a reacting from a stressful place, we practice the skill of paying attention to our internal experiences with curiosity and kindness versus judgment and reactivity. You can support your child through this process with these types of questions:
Decide how to proceed: With awareness about our internal experience, and a calmer nervous system, we can more skillfully decide what we need to move forward, to take care of our feelings. “I need to continue with belly-breathing to help calm my body.” “I need some quite time.” “I need help from an adult.” “I need to go for a walk.” “I want to listen to music.” “I want to talk.” “I want to play with a friend.”
Bringing mindfulness to our internal experiences is a practice, like most things in life we become more skilled and well-versed in something that we repeat, often. Practice is a key agent to change. Parents can water these seeds of wellness by practicing S.E.E.D. alongside their child whenever they're experiencing a feeling.
Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in private practice. She is the owner of Well-Bean, LLC which is committed to providing services & programs that foster the emotional & mental well-being of youth. Well-Bean offers child & adolescent psychotherapy, yoga & mindfulness classes, wellness workshops and education & training for parents and educators.
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