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How a Glass of Water Helped My Child Understand His Emotions

emotional awareness

I called my 5-year-old son to the kitchen table, where he saw a clear glass of water, a box of baking soda, and a spoon.

I could see the reluctance on his face, as if to say, “Is this some kind of sick game that ends in me choking down medicine?”

“Don’t worry, you don’t have to drink anything,” I said, preemptively. “I just want to show you a little something about how our bodies work.”

Ah, he was intrigued. That’s the thing about little kids — unlike toddler and preschool tantrum-throwers, 5- and 6-year-old kids have a better attention span and capacity to learn about what’s going on inside their heads. And little kids have these brand new stresses in their lives — what with school and friendships and mean kids on the playground, far away from mom’s gaze.

It’s an emotional world for a 5-year-old. (Heck, it’s an emotional world for a HUMAN, and yet we do shockingly little to teach tiny humans how to understand and manage their inner workings, amirite?)

So we’ve been working on Feelings. Not just identifying what my son is feeling, but understanding why he’s feeling that way. Where does his anger come from? Why do we feel sad? How can we choose to act when we feel those very normal, very big feelings?

In other words, we’re working on all of the things that I’m working on myself.

For example, we’re learning that our moods and emotions are temporary, and that we don’t make the best choices when we’re consumed by those temporary moods. It’s better to wait, to calm down, and take action when things are clear. Otherwise we might say things we don’t mean, or think things that are untrue — which can hurt other people and hurt ourselves.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one telling him these things. Even the movie Frozen has a brilliant line in the song “Fixer Upper”: “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed.” YES WE DO. But that’s not always the easiest concept for kids to understand. Our emotions are consuming, our mind-chatter feels real, and it’s so very hard to calm ourselves down from 60 to 0 when we’re seeing red.

So I decided to use an exercise I found in the book The Mindful Child by Susan Kaiser Greenland. It’s an incredible book that has all of these age-appropriate activities to teach kids mindfulness — how to steady themselves with their breathing, and consequently make better choices in a compassionate and kind way. That’s where I found the baking soda and water idea, which so perfectly illustrates the concept I’d been trying to articulate:

“Do you see how clear this water is?” I asked my son. “That’s what our bodies are like when we’re calm. We can think in a clear way.”

Then I poured in some baking soda and mixed it up with a spoon.

“This is what happens when we feel big feelings, like anger. What does the water look like now?”

“It looks cloudy,” he responded.

“Can you see through the water?”

“No,” he said.

“Anger and sadness and fear are all very normal and okay to feel. But they can make our minds cloudy, like this water, and it’s harder to think clearly. Watch what happens when you wait a little bit …”

After a minute or so, the baking soda settled on the bottom of the glass and the water turned crystal clear again.

“Wow, it’s gone!” he said. “The water is clear again.”

“Yes! See, sometimes all you have to do is wait. Sometimes it takes longer to get your mind clear. If you need help calming down, I can help you. But the secret is to wait. Eventually things will be clear again, and you can make better choices on what to say and do.”

The cool thing about this exercise is that it gives him a visual way to understand what’s happening in his body, and reassurance that his mood will pass. I can remind him of the water, of its cloudiness, and he can picture it in his head. And maybe — hopefully — it’ll help him wait for his “water” to clear.

When it comes to using mindfulness to help kids with emotional regulation, Greenland makes two important points:

  1. Attention is very important. Anything we can do to help kids have the capacity to concentrate and build attention will help them self-regulate.
  2. “Steadying practices,” as she calls them, help in calming children. So if a child is overly upset or overly excited, Greenland suggests teaching them to stop, pause, and shift awareness away from what they’re thinking to what they’re physically feeling — like their breath.

Encouraging brief moments of awareness — feeling the movement of breath, feeling the bottoms of their feet against the floor — has the effect of grounding, or “steadying,” by moving attention away from thinking and analyzing, to feeling and sensation. Then, once they’re calm and they’ve waited, they can think.

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I’m no expert, but here are some other things I’ve been trying to help my son deal with his Big Feelings:

  • Teaching him to trust his body and pay attention to his five senses.
  • Breathing exercises. I taught him to do deep “belly breaths” by having him place his hand on his stomach and breathe into his hand.
  • Saying things like, “It’s okay to feel that way, but it’s not okay to ACT that way.”
  • Giving him a safe space to talk about his feelings, and the opportunity to say what he thinks might help.
  • Trying my best to stop judging his feelings as good or bad, or labeling them with Shoulds and Shouldn’ts.

What the real experts say, including Greenland, is the best way to teach mindfulness and emotional awareness is to practice it ourselves. All of these exercises and scripts pale in comparison to seeing it modeled at home in an honest, natural way.

Like everything, it starts with us.

But maybe we’ll all be better equipped to handle the basics of being human.

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