August 31, 2022
By Dr Kathy Weston
Last week I was at a secondary school talking to parents whose children are about to embark on the next stage of their educational journeys. I asked the large audience, “Who here likes change?” Only one person put their hand up. Unsurprising.
It is a fact of life that change can feel disconcerting and therefore not particularly welcome. When we experience change, we have to necessarily fumble about in the dark; goalposts move, expectations shift and it can take time to re-adjust. We can’t control every outcome and can feel somewhat lost, anxious even. It is during times of transition that we appreciate the scaffolding that everyday routines, interactions and familiar systems provide us with.
At the beginning of this academic year, it may be helpful to remember that we are all in the same boat. Whether you are a member of staff in an educational institution, a parent or a student, it’s normal to feel a little bit ‘eek!’ at the start of term. If you’re the parent of a child leaving home for the first time for university or college, emotions (freshly ruffled after the rollercoaster of receiving exam results) might be all over the place. The immediate concern that your child gets accommodation in their setting of choice may morph into new worries around coping with a slightly emptier nest.
Acknowledging and talking about impending change can help untangle knotty emotions. We don’t need to have all the answers, but asking the right questions can help others to feel supported: “I am excited and nervous about them leaving home, is that what it feels like for you?”, you might ask a partner or siblings that remain at home. Accept that it might feel different for each of you.
Validate how you all feel at any particular time and just listen. Siblings may experience a range of emotions once another child departs (whether or not they are close), so their feelings may need to be gently acknowledged too. Try not to prescribe a ‘keeping in touch framework’ between siblings. Over time, they will likely come to their own agreement about how to connect during term-time. Note, ‘staying in touch’ may not involve long conversations over FaceTime. It might instead be playing online games together or texting one another.
The graduation of one’s offspring from the family home (temporarily at least) alters family dynamics, but not necessarily for the worse. Bonds with other children can actually improve. Truth be told, a little bit of distance may bolster relationships with absentees too.
Once the practicality of change and the admin is complete, parents might want to come up with their own little coping plan for the first weeks when their child isn’t physically living with them. Some may welcome a bit of distraction, others might actively seek support. It can be useful to make plans. Who can I go for a nice long walk with? Who has been through this already that would be prepared to listen to how I am feeling?
Journaling through the first few weeks of term can also be a useful tool for paying attention to one’s thoughts, noting good news and little bits of progress that their child reports back. Particularly anxious parents might enjoy repeating affirmations to themselves orally or in written form: “My child is safe and well and where they want to be”. “My child is settled and happy”. “My child is exactly where they should be, studying something that they are really interested in.”
In the age of digital communication, the temptation to track and quiz our children daily can be strong. However, it’s important to give young people time to settle into their new lives. By doing so, we show them we have faith in them and in their ability to cope. Perhaps allow them time to figure out how and when they wish to report back to us, whilst gently reminding them that updates are reassuring, helpful and greatly appreciated.
Emotional literacy is something to be valued and worked on in family life. Just as we would teach our children to read or become digitally skilled, we should pay attention to the extent to which they experience, share and express emotions too.
If you are regular readers of Wednesday Wisdom, you will know that I regularly refer to data relating to children and young people’s mental health. Examining data can be alarming and one immediately begins to think about the need for emphasis on early intervention.
Half of all diagnosable psychiatric conditions are established by the age of 14, 75% before the age of 24. Approximately 7% of British children have attempted suicide before the age of 17. Government funded research from 2017 found that one in four 14 year old girls and one in nine boys of the same age suffer from clinical depression. This means that about 166,000 girls and 67,000 boys of that age across the UK are depressed.
We know that, prior to the pandemic, one in nine children and young people were affected by a mental health condition. By October 2020, this figure was up to one in six, and young people were reporting feelings of loneliness, disrupted sleep and health anxiety.
I have interviewed hundreds of mental health researchers, clinicians and experts over the years and the consensus seems to be that emotional literacy can play a great role in successful early intervention strategies. Before we get into the ‘ins and outs’ of the methodology of emotional literacy, it might be an idea to do what Yale Professor Marc Brackett describes as giving oneself “permission to feel”. As he says, we regularly “suck up emotions, squash them down and act them out”. We commonly avoid difficult conversations, explode at others and “go through a whole bag of cookies’ without considering why.
In his book, he issues a stark warning to parents about legacy and the importance of modelling the approaches we wish to see: “Our attitudes [to emotions] get passed along to our children, who learn by taking their cues from us. Some learn to suppress even the most urgent messages from deep inside their beings, as we may have learned to do”. The cost of not acknowledging how our emotions affect our bodies, our actions and our relationships with others is higher than any of us may want to comfortably consider.
We are talking about upskilling children and ourselves here. Like the acquisition of all new things, it begins with an identification of the required core skills, a commitment to practising those skills and creating a culture within which such skills are highly valued. So, how are you feeling right now? Does it feel nice to be asked? If you are lucky enough to be asked this question by a genuinely curious questioner, you will know others taking an interest in our feelings can help us feel deeply valued.
Children and teens may struggle to understand how to answer questions about feelings. It can be hard for them to ‘open up’. Younger children may not possess the vocabulary that could furnish an adequate response. It can be helpful to point them to images and emojis. Talking about characters in stories, picture books, cartoons and films, and how characters might be feeling can be an effective way to kickstart conversations. You might ask, Have you ever felt like that? The aim is to raise what Brackett describes as “emotion scientists”; children who can recognise and label emotions in themselves, understand their feelings and be able to determine their source. We need to model as well as teach our children to ‘regulate emotions rather than letting them regulate us’ and, as families, share strategies for dealing with the rainbow of emotions that characterises daily, human experience.
Everything I have said above is nice in theory, but what about in practice? We all know that it is good to talk about our feelings, yet witnessing our children’s genuine emotional responses may provoke unease and activate a rather unhelpful desire to solve everything for them.
I was in an airport last night and was standing in the queue behind a family of four. As we waited, the son (aged around 12/13), read an email on his phone from school. He then started to slowly cry. It would appear he had been moved from the A to the B sports’ team for the coming term, or “demoted” as he put it. Before the tears had reached the end of his chin and dripped off the end, he had been asked “why are you crying?” by his irritated mum, ordered to email the school by dad and reminded by his sister that this had never, ever happened to her. The boy stared into the distance and simply said, “I am crying because I am upset.”
He wasn’t in a position to absorb anyone’s comments. He simply wanted the permission to feel. Instead of his family questioning his tears, could he instead have been gently supported with silence and a soft hand on the shoulder? Perhaps a comment like, “I can see you are upset and I am here for you” might have helped him to feel heard? We may acknowledge the importance of emotional literacy and of allowing children to ‘open up’ but the litmus test for effective parenting lies in moments like this.
As we begin the new academic year, we know that there will be moments that test our personal and family resilience along with moments of joy and excitement. Just as we ensure that our children have all that they might practically need in their school bags this term, we should also ensure that they are ready for some life lessons too. This psychological toolbox might contain permission to feel, words to put to those feelings and a reminder of who is there for them at school and at home.
Our children already have vast experience of social and academic challenges, emotional ups and downs, disappointments and thrilling adventures. We should remind them how far they have come, what they are capable of and that it is simply about ‘dusting off’ coping skills, rather than cultivating them from scratch.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Parents in Tooled Up schools already have access to a wealth of resources designed to promote emotional literacy in children at a young age. To find them, simply go to the Tooled Up homepage, click on ‘browse resources’ and select the resource topic, ‘Emotional Literacy’.
Parents of younger children might consider using our Mood Thermometer to help them identify how they are feeling in the moment and work out what strategies help them to deal with strong emotions. Anger is a normal and important feeling to be able to describe. We’ve come up with a fun way to expand children’s vocabulary around this emotion and develop strategies to manage it. If you think that your child might need some additional help to manage strong feelings of anger, we encourage you to watch our webinar with clinical psychologist Dr Anna Colton, who helps us to understand anger better and provides tips on how to support children and teens effectively.
Younger children who struggle to regulate negative emotions or who persistently voice negative self-talk might benefit from externalising these ‘gremlins’ by drawing the little monster that is saying mean things and thinking about ways that they can challenge it. We have the perfect template for them to use. Equally, if your child takes setbacks and challenges to heart, we have a simple activity that can help them to reframe these experiences and encourage them to seek the positives. It’s also important for young people to be able to identify the things, experiences and people that make them feel happy. Our Happiness Checklist might help.
Another important emotion that we should encourage children to relish, rather than fear, is uncertainty. Known as ‘aporia’ by philosophers, feeling a bit confused at times is an essential experience on the way to insight and understanding and is vital for effective learning. Find out more in our top tips from the experts at The Philosophy Foundation.
For further reading on emotional literacy, make sure that you check out our book list, which is packed with relevant reading material for young people of all ages.