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Pro tip: don’t freak out

GuideForTalkingFeelingswithKids

 

Feelings and other freaky things

July, 2015

By NATHALIE HARDY | Yamhill Valley News-Register

Raising the Hardy Boys

 

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Eight years ago, I spent two days in a stuffy room full of other pregnant mamas and their birthing partners, learning the ins and outs of, well, getting the baby in my belly out into the world. 

That weekend, I learned a lot from the lovely Margy Porter of Sprouting Hope Midwifery. But there is one lesson in particular that sticks with me to this day. I think she was talking about some of the weird, unexpected things that are actually totally normal for babies to do, but I’ve found it applies to pretty much everything.

“Don’t freak out,” she said.

Because I’m a note-taker by nature, I wrote it down. And underlined it. I looked up in time to catch someone else taking note of it, too. 

“Don’t freak out,” she repeated. 

And, frankly, that simple phrase has carried me through some fairly freaky times in the last eight years. Babies, toddlers, kids — and I can hardly wait for teenagers — continue to do some weird, unexpected things that are actually totally typical.

It has come to my attention recently that not everyone leans into awkward, messy, possibly painful things like, say, feelings, be they our own or those of others.

Then, there’s me. I’m about all the feels, as the kids say.

Not only am I a fan of feelings in general, I especially love talking about them. Yours, mine, the stranger on the plane, I’m in. 

Not surprisingly, my 7- and 5-year-old are pretty good at carrying a conversation about feelings. So much so my friends tease me that they want to enroll their children in my feelings academy. 

There’s just one thing. They have to go first. 

My research shows people think about feelings way more than we talk about them. We also want our kids to talk about them even though, ahem, we do not want to talk about them ourselves. We want our kids to tell us about their day beyond the basics, yet we resist doing the same. 

I have some ideas that can help change this. But be forewarned, these activities require adult participation, not to mention patience and leadership.

This isn’t just for parents, either. This is for people who want to foster good conversations and trust with children to pave the way for long-term engagement.

Remember our motto: Don’t freak out and have fun with this process. I’ll warn you that if you haven’t done a lot of this until now, your family may blink at you in confused, awkward silence.

Push through. It’ll be worth it, I promise. 

If you’re wondering where to start, I have good news. It’s like getting in a pool. You start in the shallow end, and you spend a lot of time wading in the shallow end so your kids learn they can trust you if they venture into the deep end. 

You start with something really simple, like playing “take a bite” at mealtimes.

Kids love choices. Kids love sharing small details with you. And, get this, they love knowing little things about you, too.

Go around the table at meal times taking turns being the leader.

The leader says, “Take a bite if you like spiders.” Odds are, few will bite.

That’s perfect. That shows they have a choice, and it is honored. 

“Take a bite if you like ice cream,” “Take a bite if you like Hello Kitty,” “Take a bite if you like Minecraft,” and so on. There will be side conversations like, “Mom! Why don’t you like Minecraft?”

Take the detours and have unexpected conversations about mundane things. Trust me, your attention, interest and sincere desire to know and notice what they care about will help kids trust you to come to you when the thing they don’t like is being bullied at school, or even when they feel like being mean to a kid and need help sorting through how to handle that.

But how do you bridge that gap?

The next game you can introduce is also simple, we call it “Highlight/Lowlight.” 

From oldest to youngest, work your way around the table to share a high point and low point from your day. It’s important to make it just one that comes to mind or stands out at the moment, because trying to think of The Best Part or The Worst Part of a day can paralyze the conversation as children (and adults!) try to come up with The Right Answer.

Really, it’s just a conversation starter. But if you haven’t played this before you might be surprised at the little, interesting things that come up.

To tell you the truth, I learn even more about my husband’s day-to-day life during these rounds of highlight/lowlight than I do about the boys’.

The key to this game is to be open and honest yourself.

Note: this would not be a good time to mention passive aggressive digs. For example, my true lowlight was an exchange with my spouse, but the point of this exercise is to build and strengthen relationships, not to create awkward silences.

So if I were playing right this minute my turn would go like this:

“My highlights so far today are getting an extra morning snuggle with Jake, and finding that Sam made his breakfast and did his dishes. My lowlight so far is feeling nervous about a doctor’s appointment.”

Sometimes there is follow up and questions, but usually we just keep going around the table.

If you’ve ever been to a 12-step meeting, one of the coolest, weirdest parts is the open sharing time with no cross-talk. That means no one one-ups you, no one minimizes you, no one tries to talk you out of how you feel, no one advises you.

Others just listen. They just hear you. It’s a beautiful gift.

A third suggestion is to cultivate a dedicated “talking time.” That is, literally, what we call it. It’s part of our bedtime routine.

I snuggle the boys separately, with the lights out, and we have “talking time.”

Sometimes they pick a theme, like an upcoming trip or holiday and sometimes it’s just random bits of the day. Sometimes it’s big stuff like, “How old will I be when I die?” Luckily that one was when Matt was there and he answered perfectly: “At the very end of your life.” 

By the way, don’t worry about having the right answer. “Hmm, that’s an interesting thing to think about,” is perfectly fine. “What do you think?” is another favorite rejoinder of mine.

If they push it, I might say, “You know what? I’ll have to think about that. Let me get back to you.” 

Something about the dark and safety of a snuggle is disarming. Something about knowing they have this time with you to count on paves the way to good conversations.

The other night was a tough one because Sam wanted to debrief on something he observed that falls into the category of “adult things.” I let him tell me what he thought, how he felt about it and validated his feelings.

I told him, “It is OK to love someone and be sad about something they do or say. It is OK to be mad or confused. Someday we will talk more about the details, I promise. Your dad and I love you and your brother more than anyone in the world, no matter what.”

Then I stopped talking. The important part here is to make room for whatever they have to say. Or just to let them ponder it in silence.

After a few minutes, he said, “Mama. Promise to tell me the truth? I promise not to be hurt or mad.”

I froze. Do not freak out. Do not freak out. Do. Not. Freak. Out. 

“Yes. I promise.” 

“Is Santa real?”

That was even harder than the one I was bracing for. I told him the truth, but no spoilers here. I answered his very specific questions honestly and ended with: “You can believe for as long as you want.”

“OK, thank you,” he said, relieved. 

Usually, we talk about details from the day, plans for building in Minecraft and other seemingly insignificant things. But the point of spending time in the shallow end is so we can handle the deep end. 

As far as how long to do this, it’s good to set a fairly consistent window of time so they know how much time they have. I usually start wrapping up with a back scratch or some tapping so they can relax into sleeping through the whole night.

This is a subject I’m passionate about. I’d love to hear about your experiences if you are already doing things like this, or let me know how it goes if you incorporate some of these ideas after reading this column.

Just remember. Whatever you do, don’t freak out.

 

If you enjoyed this column, it would be an honor for me to see it shared with your people!

 

Nathalie Hardy recently published her first book, “Raising the Hardy Boys: They Said There Would Be Bon-Bons” available at local bookstores and online. Hardy writes in the margins of her life with two little boys and a husband who understands deadlines come before dusting. To contact her, visit www.nathaliesnotes.com. Hardy writes in the margins of her life with two little boys and a husband who understands deadlines come before dusting.

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