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Intense Emotions: A Framework for Working with Young Children

Intense Emotions: A Framework for Working with Young Children

Header_screen_shot_2018-04-02_at_9.56.19_pm
April 2, 2018 | Ron Spreeuwenberg
Challenging behaviour and intense emotions are often linked - how best to manage?

Episode #90: Tracy Cutchlow says that you can pretty easily guess whether the child is looking for a connection, that sense of belonging or relationship, or an experience with how their bodies work, how the world works, or the need for power to have some control over their own lives. Cutchlow uses a coaching framework "Language of Listening" where the first step is to “Say What You See”. Acknowledging what the child is feeling, saying, doing, thinking to help you and them cope with intense feelings.

For example, maybe the child is screaming because you just told them that it was time to go. Acknowledging their feelings before taking action is critical to helping them manage disappointment and surprise.

Resources in this episode:

- Word-for-word examples using Language of Listening® in specific scenarios


HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode #90 – Tracy Cutchlow Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – April 02, 2018 - - -
Tracy CUTCHLOW:

You can pretty easily guess whether the child is looking for connection, that sense of belonging or relationship, or an experience with how their bodies work, how the world works, or the need for power to have some control over their own lives.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG:

Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.


Cutchlow:

Thank you so much. Good to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So, Tracy, we're going to talk to you today about intense emotions in children. Let's start off by learning a little bit about what that actually means. Can you tell us how you would define or describe intense emotions in children?


Cutchlow:

Sure. I think everybody recognizes that when they see it: it's your child suddenly crying, hitting all of a sudden, having a tantrum, maybe racing around with a lot of physical energy. Anything that’s super-high level in intensity and often makes you a bit triggered inside your self.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Okay. So a little bit of it as well as sort of how you would feel as someone observing the emotions, thinking it's a little abnormal or high intensity of what you would think would be normal behavior?


Cutchlow:

Well, I wouldn't call it abnormal, because it happens so often, right? Children don't necessarily have that same ability to self-regulate in a social context. So those emotions are really at the surface, and they're so good at letting us know how they feel. So it's definitely normal. But it has an intense feeling to it.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Right, good point. So intense emotions are a normal thing to experience, I guess is what you're saying. Cool, okay. And what are some strategies for helping children manage their intense emotions?


Cutchlow:

There are a good handful. I think the first one is for adults to think about, though, is actually a bit of self-reflection. The first thing is to look at how you really feel about emotions. Do you have a neutral feeling that all of them are okay to have? Or maybe you grew up in a household where only some emotions were allowed? And feeling angry or frustrated is something that you see as negative and something that has to be stopped, and really only calm and happy emotions are allowed in your household.

So it can be important to first understand that emotions themselves are things that you can't control, you can't change. From a narrow scientific perspective, some describe emotions as simply the brain tagging that situation as a very important, something to pay attention to. And so having that perception, that emotions just are, you can't change the emotions, just the behavior. That perception really helps how you react to an emotion. When you feel like you can allow all of them it gives you just a non-judgmental view, like: “Okay, this is happening. We can live with that. We can sit with it; we can empathize with, and then later address the underlying problem. Does that make sense?

SPREEUWENBERG:

That makes a lot of sense. So I've done my self-reflection, I was in a place where I feel like I'm going to be non-judgmental about intense emotions – what's the next step for me?


Cutchlow:

That is a sense of being on the child's side, knowing that that these intense emotions are not like a child trying to annoy us, or get one over on us or something like that. But it's really more of a signal that the child's feeling overwhelmed right now and they need some help coming back into self-regulation. They are essentially saying, “I can't regulate myself right now and I need your help.”

Zero To Three [research group on infant-to-toddler support] did this interesting study of parents on what they call “the Expectation Gap”, that a large percentage of parents think that children are able to control their emotions and avoid having a tantrum before age 3, which isn't true developmentally. So a part of being on the child's side with whatever they're feeling with a kind of compassion or understanding that… it's not that we don't need to take it personally. But from a brain development perspective they can't actually regulate that emotion right now and they need our help. And so that kind of give us a willingness to dive in and sit with the emotion with them.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, that's interesting. Now that you say it I suppose it kind of makes sense. And it's a little bit back to my question before about, “What is a normal behavior?” And again it's how you define “normal behavior”, and expectations is a big part of what that gap or alignment ends up being. So I can see how the self-reflection and perception and judgment piece is a critical aspect of dealing with intense emotions.

And then, what about on the more tactical side? So let's say I'm in a situation where I've got a screaming child or whatever. What are some tactical or practical things that I can do to help manage that situation?


Cutchlow:

Well, the first step in any situation – with the coaching framework that I use, which is called Language of Listening – the first step is, always “Say What You See”, I call it. And that's really acknowledging something that you see the child feeling, saying, doing, thinking. So maybe the child is screaming because you just told them that it was time to go, and they had been playing with their friend and having a good time. That “Say What You See”, that first acknowledgment piece, would sound like, “You really want to keep playing right now.” Or maybe the child is sitting there playing with some blocks and it's time to transition to something else, and they keep going with that. Acknowledgment of that would be, “You really want to keep building,” or, “You like to finish things.” Something that connects to where that child is in that moment.

And when you start from that place of rather than the feeling of, “You're not listening to me; you heard what I said; on the count of three you need to do this,” coming at it from the connection first just changes the whole dynamic. It puts you in a state of being able to listen, really listen to what is going on with the child and then coming up with a solution that actually works.

SPREEUWENBERG:

So I guess the thinking there is to show the child and demonstrate to the child that you understand them and you're sympathizing with them before you continue the conversation? Is that kind of the idea?


Cutchlow:

It is, that is the idea. And the reasons for it, there's kind of a physiological reason. Like, when people feel heard it sends a signal to the various nerves to calm down the rest of the body. It gives the adults a moment to just pause and kind of stay in the present moment. Because “Say What You See” is really about something that you see happening in the physical world, not a judgment or a fear that's in your head. Like, if a child were running down some stairs or something, “Say What You See” would sound like, “You're really going fast down those stairs,” rather than, “Slow down, you're going to fall.” Because you're not actually seeing falling happening, right?


The other thing that happens in the brain is that, from an evolutionary perspective, children are wired to resist the corruption from someone that they don't feel connected to in that moment. So just coming in with “Say What You See” as the very first thing you always do provides that bit of connection there.


And the other thing is that we often come in with our own assumptions about what's happening. And when you start from that perspective of, “I'm going to get some more information here,” sometimes the situation is different from what you thought it was. Or, you’re able to come up with a solution that really works because you know more about what's happening.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Right, so it's kind of to eliminate any assumptions you might be making by really engaging in a genuine conversation with the child. And once you’ve reached that point, any recommendations on next steps from there?


Cutchlow:

Yeah. Often times there's a problem that needs solving, right? Or a redirection that needs to happen. So giving that boundary, and then we call it “Offering a can-do,” which is an alternative to the behavior, and that would be a couple of things that the child could do instead. But it has to meet the underlying need that their original behavior was needing.


So the way that we narrow those needs down is that children have three healthy needs for growth: experience, connection and power. And it helps to have that simple model for looking at their behavior. “Why are they doing this crazy thing?” Whatever they're doing is already meeting one of those three needs. And so when you can identify that – which isn't hard – you can you can pretty easily guess whether the child is looking for connection, that sense of belonging or relationship, or an experience with how their bodies work, how the world works, or the need for power to have some control over their own lives.


Then, with the “can-do”, once you’ve identified that need, you can make sure that the “can-do” will help them meet that need. So it doesn’t work if a child is really amped up and trying to hit somebody to tell them that they can go sit in the corner and draw, because that's not going to meet the need for power that they have in that moment. There might be some other thing that they can hit in the classroom, like some pillows, or if they need to move their body there might there might be a spot where they can go over there and jump up and down or run in a circle. There's a way that we can help the child meet their needs. That really does work for us. That's our role in setting boundaries, is finding things that are okay with us that also meet that need.

SPREEUWENBERG:

That sounds like a super-useful framework. So if I was to summarize the three key parts of what I heard, it starts off with that Language of Listening and saying what you're seeing, trying to then determine what the need is that the child is seeking, whether that be experience, connection or power, and then offering a “can-do”, as you call it, to try and replace that behavior with something that will meet that need but is different to challenging behavior that they're doing at that moment? Is that sort of a helpful summary?


Cutchlow:

Yeah. Okay, interesting, interesting.


Cutchlow:

Yeah. So, “Say What You See” may be something that you're doing more than one time as you're listening, as you're getting to understand the need. And then yes, offering a “can-do”, which for kids who are maybe 18 months, two years old, you would offer a couple of alternatives. And after [age] 3, often kids come up with wonderfully creative ideas themselves. And you can say, “You want this,” whatever it is, and the boundary – “This is how it is” – must be something you can do. And that’s a way of inviting them to solve the problem, which is wonderful and skill-building, too.

SPREEUWENBERG:

It's cool because really at the core of it this is about problem solving. And I find it very interesting in particular because, as part of the Preschool Podcast, we're always reiterating the importance of early-childhood education and how difficult it is in getting the word out there about that. And this is just I think another really good example of how dynamic and flexible that early-childhood educators and parents need to be when working with young children. There is no single strategy or method that's going to work.

You have to be working with each individual child that's different to understand their situation and feelings at any point in time before you can make any recommendation about changing behavior. So it's very interesting that it really aligns to that concept that early-childhood educators have to be very dynamic in their approach. So it's interesting to see that.


Cutchlow:

Absolutely. And I love the third part – if there’s time for one more step in the framework – it’s called “Name the Strength.” And that's looking for any strength that you can notice in the moment – that is, the challenging moment – that if you can find any strength in there and name it for the child, it's so powerful. You talked about what really drives behavior, those are our self-beliefs. And the language that we use to describe children to themselves is really the first of the way that they begin forming their beliefs about themselves. So if you can come into that challenging situation – maybe it's after the after the problem has been solved – and you say, “You guys really figured that out,” that's a powerful message to the child in that moment.

SPREEUWENBERG:

That makes sense. So, just also reiterating to them their strength that you're observing to I guess motivate them and let them know that… I think it kind of goes back maybe to your point before as well about, it's hard to define what “normal” is. And it's not like they're doing something wrong. They're just behaving like children behave, right?


Cutchlow:

Yeah, and they're so different, right? I mean, one might be sitting over in the corner feeling like they can't join yet and coming in with just observing, being open to what they are and looking for the strength in that situation, that child knows what he or she needs in that moment. They know what they need to be able to join that situation, and that's to sit back and watch first. And that's okay; we can make that okay, you know? It's not wrong; it's not bad. It's who they are.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Yeah, and that goes back to your point about the self-reflection piece up front, and your perception as an adult, and I think it comes full circle with that.

So, Tracy, you are also the author of a book called Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. If I'm listening to the Podcast, whether I am a parent or an early-childhood educator [and] I want to learn more about your work and your frameworks and strategies for dealing with young children from zero to 3, where can I go to find out more about you, your work or your book?


Cutchlow:

My website is www.ZeroToFive.net. There’s information there about the book. I have a newsletter that people can sign up for, and an upcoming course on Language of Listening, and then also one on growth mindset. So yeah, lots of resources there.

SPREEUWENBERG:

Very cool. Personally I thought this was an excellent, practical framework with very specific steps about how you can work with children that are displaying intense emotions, something that hopefully our listeners can take away and apply, whether that be at home or in the classroom. And I really like your point as well about now before we even enter that conversation with a child there is a step of self-reflection and making sure we're not passing judgment or have any assumptions about what's happening in that specific situation. So, very useful tips, a very helpful framework. Tracy, thank you so much for sharing that with us, and thank you for coming on the Preschool Podcast.


Cutchlow:

My pleasure, thank you so much.



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