“Tell Me With Words”– Too Tall an Order for a Toddler?

Can Tadpoles Leap?

Some very well educated, young parents are currently embracing the technique of instructing their toddlers (children under the age of 6) to express with words what they are feeling in the midst of an emotional outburst. At face value, this may seem like a helpful attempt by the parent to teach the child how to identify and manage upset emotions. Let’s look closer to see just how helpful this parental requirement to “…tell me with words,” may actually be.

Picture a pond with tadpoles swimming near the surface of the water. Would you ever expect any of those tadpoles to suddenly leap out of the water?  Obviously, that would be impossible; after all, those little guys have tails for swimming, not little legs for leaping. Yet, we know with absolute certainty that one day those tadpoles will, in fact, develop into little frogs with legs and they will most definitely leap! So, it’s really about development and the time needed for any creature to fully mature and develop naturally. So, what’s this got to do with saying to a screaming 4 year old, “Tell me what you’re feeling with words”?

Allow me to back-peddle for a moment and talk about my own experience with respect to using words to describe what I’m feeling when I’m upset. Recently, I went to visit one of my best friends at her office. I didn’t know the way and asked for directions, which turned out to be sketchy and didn’t warn me of the dangers at a confusing roundabout. Closely following her instructions, I was almost blind sighted by another car. In a split second, I avoided an accident but my heart was racing wildly and my legs were shaking as the situation worsened with mass confusion over the valet parking etiquette at her place of work. By the time she greeted me in her lobby, we were both ready for battle. She was feeling blamed and attacked by me; I was feeling angry, neglected and hurt by what I considered recklessly careless driving instructions.

For the first time in our friendship, we were trapped in a classic blame/defend dead-heat. All I wanted from her was empathy—for her to understand how the near-accident freaked me out and why it did—but she couldn’t or chose not to give me empathy; she was entrenched in defending her traffic instructions as entirely appropriate. I was experiencing an amygdala hijack that was controlling my brain and my body. Clearly identifying my feelings and putting them into words was the last thing I could possibly have done in the momentI was too preoccupied being out-of-control.

Simply put, the amygdala is the part of the brain whose job is to keep us safe from perceived mental or physical threats.  When it kicks into action, it triggers the release of hormones and the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Once the amygdala is running the show, our thinking brain gets less oxygen and we react without thinking.  The experience of the hijack requires time and skill before we are able to recover from it and return to our reflective, thinking brain to analyze the sequence of events leading up to the hijack. That day, it took me several hours of focused attention and reflection to sort out why I got so triggered with feelings of anger, frustration and hurt.

So, I ask you: if someone like myself who has been studying the brain and emotions for over forty years can sometimes find it impossible in the heat of an emotional upset to “tell with words” what I am feeling—how is a toddler of 3 or 4 years old going to be able to do it?

You know the answer.

Rather than instruct the toddler to “tell me with words,” what he/she is feeling, the parent can instead, observe what emotion the child is experiencing and then state that observation to the child in a soothing, caring voice as follows:

“I see that you are looking really________.” The parent can fill in the blank with whatever emotion is observed (angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad, afraid, etc.) If the parent has had some training and practice in speaking and listening with empathy, they can continue with follow up such as:

“I know how ______ it can feel when ______________ happens.”

“I bet you wish the baby wouldn’t grab your things and break them; I would be _____ too if that happened to me.”

“However, no matter how angry you are at the baby for breaking your things, hitting is never allowed.”

When a child, (or anyone, for that matter) encounters this kind of empathic response, the result is that they begin to calm down because they feel heard and understood and because they are being given the right to feel their feeling (whatever it is) rather than being forced to not feel it.

Toddlers will gradually learn the names of their emotions by receiving clear and informative, neutral assistance/feedback from their caregivers who name their feelings and report them objectively to the child with a kind and tender voice/tone. While they are in the midst of an amygdala hijack, it’s impossible for them to suddenly pause, reflect, and say, “I’m angry because the baby grabbed my my new crayon and broke it!” To expect the toddler to be able to do that is akin to expecting the tadpole to leap.  Recognizing and naming our emotions is an emotional intelligence skill that takes time and practice over the first twenty or more years of life until the brain is fully mature enough to master it.   However, toddlers can learn to slowly develop the necessary vocabulary that identifies and defines their feelings and over time, along with patience from their parents, and repetition, they will ultimately be able to “tell with words,” what they are feeling.

Will they be able to do this while the amygdala hijack is occurring?

Ask yourself; could you?

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What’s Wrong with Saying “Calm Down,” to a Child Who is Upset, Frightened, or Angry?

For the most part, parents generally have good intentions for dealing effectively and appropriately with their child’s upset feelings; yet, the words they say, the tone of voice they use to say these words and the expression on their face often produces the opposite results they seek.  Their children become even more upset rather than calmer.  Let’s look at why “the meltdown” frequently occurs with children younger than 8 years old when parents tell or command them to “Calm down!”

When children cry or act out in any way because they are afraid, confused, hurt, angry or feel an unpleasant emotion that they are too young to analyze and understand–they want and need their parents’ attention and they want it NOW!  The more they need their parent to assist them–the louder and harder they will cry; they want the problem to get fixed and they need mommy or daddy to fix it.  In desperate need of help–they cry and/or physically cling to the parent. This is normal and healthy; babies and young children crave connection with their caregivers in a time of strong emotion and genuine need; it is an intrinsic survival behavior.

So, what happens when the parent says, “Calm down” either in a gentle or not-so-gentle voice? The child’s brain, which is already experiencing an amygdala hijack, becomes more desperate to get the adult’s attention because her/his need for assistance and desperate plea for comfort and aid is being ignored and/or rejected!  The reactive/impulsive part of the brain (amygdala) triggers the chemicals that cause the child to scream louder or cling harder to get help; this is simply how the human brain functions.  The parent mistakenly assumes the child is having a “tantrum” or a “meltdown” and responds by further withholding that which the child needs the most in that crucial moment: empathy, connection and understanding.  As the scenario develops, the more upset and demanding the child becomes, the more withholding and distant the parent responds by continually commanding or imploring the child to “Calm down.” The child screams louder and more frantically.  This continues as parent and child disconnect further. The child, who has less power, ultimately wears down physically and emotionally.  Red-faced and exhausted from the trauma of crying, the defeated child finally appears calm–almost as if in a stupor. At this point, the parent approaches the child, possibly with affection, and assumes the child has learned that comforting comes only after the child has obeyed by “calming down.”

But, in truth, what has this child really learned?

Let’s explore this.  Something happens to hurt or frighten the child; the amygdala in the child’s brain takes over and the child cries for help.  Rather than help, the parent instructs the child to calm down first before help will be administered.  The child physically can not obey this command because the brain already released the toxic chemical cortisol, that is driving the hysterical crying. The child wants to please the parent and calm down but is not capable of doing so.  The scene then plays itself out as described above but this is not an isolated incident that happens once in this child’s life.  The requirement from the parent to “Calm down,” when the child is physically and emotionally unable to do so, is one that happens repeatedly–maybe daily, weekly or monthly until the child gets it.

And what exactly does the child get?

In the example above, when the child finally appeared calm, what actually happened was that the child surrendered to the hopelessness that Mommy/Daddy would empathize, understand and respond to the genuine need for help. Intuitively, energetically, the child also gets that Mommy/Daddy doesn’t want me to show my feelings, doesn’t want me to feel my feelings, doesn’t want me to have feelings.  And perhaps the most psychologically damaging message the child gets is that Mommy/Daddy will only listen to me, pay attention to me, or help me if I am subdued, passive–or in their words–“calm.”  And to take it one step further, the child learns that Mommy/Daddy only gives me love when I act the way they want me to act. If I don’t, they will withhold their love from me and since I’m afraid to live without their love, I’m going to do whatever it takes to win it–even if it means pretending I don’t have feelings–even if it means learning how to not feel!

Is this really what we want our children to learn–that we will only give them love if they suppress their authentic emotions?

There is another way to interact; it’s based on empathy–the intrinsic capacity of our brains to connect with others; empathy engenders understanding and compassion.

Empathy Warriors teaches how to listen, speak and act with empathy.  Learn more; private message me or buy my book and start your own Empathy Warriors Support Group with your peers to learn and practice these new behaviors.  I am available to support you in your efforts; it’s my gift to you.

Training

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can start an Empathy Warriors After School Club or an Empathy Warriors Support Group–in person or online!  All that is required to begin, is to  contact Tedi directly through email and she will guide you step by step in getting your club or group operational.

via Training.

YouTube Videos of Kids/Babies That Go Viral…

In the past year of so, I am seeing more and more videos of kids/babies who appear to be in need of immediate empathy but who received little or none because their parents were fully absorbed in shooting a video of them to post on YouTube.  We’ve all seen these kinds of videos that have gone viral.  Some viewers find them funny or entertaining in some way; some viewers consider the kids’ emotional outbursts cute, heartwarming, endearing or in some way captivating; but some viewers feel unsettled by watching these videos.  I am in the last category.  Whenever I see a baby or a child who is demonstrating intense emotion, I feel compelled to respond with empathy; my brain automatically connects to hers or his in an attempt to figure out what she or he needs in the moment and then to do all that I can to assist her or him to manage that emotion productively.  After all, our brains are hardwired for empathy, empowering us to naturally provide it when necessary.

Yet, in the videos I have seen that have gone viral, I have witnessed a baby or child in emotional distress and the parent ignoring, neglecting, tolerating or patronizing the distress in order to focus on getting the incident recorded for its ultimate uploading to YouTube.  The increase in this sort of parental filmmaking is concerning.  Of course it’s natural for us to want to capture on camera our children or grandchildren doing something memorable but is it not our responsibility as loving and empathetic caregivers to ensure that their emotional needs are being met appropriately before we aspire to shooting videos that might go viral?

Every Young Girl Deserves a Chance to Be Empowered!

The first time I envisioned myself as a published author I was twelve years old; the year was 1962.  My seventh grade Social Studies teacher planted the seed in my heart; she praised my writing and said I should be a writer one day. Being acknowledged like that was a strange and sweet sensation since at home I was invisible and my talents and accomplishments were entirely ignored.  My teacher’s name was Mrs. Forrester and she made me feel valued. More than fifty years has passed yet in my mind I can still see her perfectly formed signature on my report card; we remember those who value and appreciate us; they are etched into our eternal essence.

It turned out that I did write professionally for many years when I was conducting marketing research in Chicago and Shanghai but the only things I published were analysis reports for my clients.  The idea of publishing my own books always lived in a silent space of my mind and heart,  hidden on dusty shelves that I seldom visited because I was too busy meeting deadlines for bosses so I could support my two children.

Decades passed and jobs took me from Asia to Africa when in 2008, I was living alone in a very remote area, twenty-two kilometers outside the capital city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the dirt road in front of my place would virtually wash out nearly every day during the heavy rains.  It was then, most of the time without electric and phone service, that I started writing my book.

On the days that I had electricity and the other days when I did not, but still had a few hours of battery power left on my laptop, I wrote as much and as quickly as I could–always racing against the moment my battery would completely die.

My first book, Empathy Warriors, autobiographical in nature, poured out of my heart like the deluge that flooded the road in front of my little house, turning it into a muddy, rushing river.  My first, rough draft was completed around the time I accepted a new job in Korea in 2009.  My plan was to publish and field test my book there so before I accepted the job offer, I shared with my new employers my intentions for my book in their school.  They claimed to be on board with my plan, but two years later, it was clear it was not going to happen.  I listened to my heart and determined the best thing for me was to leave that job behind, return to America, and be my own boss–so in 2011, that’s exactly what I did!

My desire to publish Empathy Warriors and empower young girls with it was pulling at my heart strings and telling me to stick with my plan to get it out in the world and available to the millions of young girls who need to hear its message.  In January 2013, I started revising and editing with the goal of self-publishing on Amazon.  For the next eight months, I was glued to my computer, determined to achieve my goal and on September 20, 2013, Empathy Warriors first became available for purchase on Amazon!

My challenge and intention now is to learn how to make Empathy Warriors go viral so it gets the attention it deserves to fulfill the unmet needs of multitudes of deserving girls around the world whose hearts and minds are open to receiving what is their birth right–a chance to live an empowered life.

Some People Intentionally Set Out to Hurt Others…

Some folks appear to intentionally take pleasure in causing hardship and sadness for others!  For those of us who strive to be kind, considerate, and act responsibly, we are baffled by the behavior of those who act in an opposite way.  We may wonder what is causing their actions; we may ask ourselves if we are to blame in some way; we may lose sleep because our mind just won’t stop whirling round and round over the unpleasantness as it’s occurring.  The bottom line however, is that there may a limited number of actions we can take to stop the harassment from happening to us and so–it continues unabated in spite of all our efforts to make it cease.

When we have exhausted every means at our disposal to make the persecution end and it continues to persist, we arrive at an emotional state in which we must decide what energetic, social, emotional, and spiritual resources we have to regain our peace of mind and achieve a state of detachment so that we can feel inner peace and joy in the midst of unnecessary, contrived tribulations.

Achieving this kind of peaceful detachment may well be one of the most challenging things in life we can do.  Being a target of another’s cruelty can easily make us feel like a victim if we don’t know how to struggle against accepting victimhood as our identity.  Slipping into victim mode is the absolute worst thing we can do for ourselves because it makes us feel hopeless, powerless, and defeated.  Knowing that we do have power within us and that we can use our power to self-protect, provides us with the peace we seek. Achieving and sustaining that peace takes diligent action and then more action when we are assaulted by ill-intentioned people.

The first two action steps we must take complement and strengthen each other: one is building a community of caring friends who nurture, support, and help each other; the other is believing in one’s own ability and power to self-protect.  Either one of these actions fosters the other one and both are needed regardless of which comes first.

In my first interactive workbook, Empathy Warriors, I teach my readers step by step, how to access their power to care for themselves in ways that promote and sustain their highest and best interests.

Empathy Warriors, an empathy journal workbook, is a priceless tool for every person who wants to take control of his or her peace, potential, and destiny.

14 Year Old Accused of Murdering His Teacher Described as “…a Quiet, Normal Kid”

How many times in recent years have we heard accused killers in school violence described as a “…quiet, normal kid?” http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/24/justice/massachusetts-chism-profile/index.html

This week’s senseless murder of a 24 year old math teacher in Massachusetts, has us all asking the same old questions, “Why didn’t anyone see warning signs in this student? How could someone who appeared so nice and normal commit such a violent crime?”

A friend and teammate described the 14 year old accused killer saying, “He was a really nice kid–had a great smile…kinda shy; kinda quiet…”  http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/25/justice/massachusetts-danvers-school-killing/

So, we are left wondering how so much anguish, rage, depression, confusion, or mental torment could exist inside a teenager’s mind to drive him to murder, while those who knew him saw no signs or warnings of what was going on in his mind.

How much effort and energy do we invest in going beyond the superficial greetings and platitudes of those with whom we interact?  How much attention do we actually pay to their body language and facial expressions? How often do we really look into the eyes of someone else to gauge how they might be feeling?  How much attention does our education system pay to teaching our students social and emotional intelligence?  How well are our schools helping students learn how to identify and manage their emotions appropriately?

What does “normal” really look like?  One of the leading brain experts, Dr. Dan Siegel, talks with Goldie Hawn, campaigner for mindfulness, about the power of mindfulness for children and youth.  Click on the link below to listen to their TEDMED talk.  Also, to learn more about the teenage mind, check out Dr. Dan Siegel’s new book, Brainstorm.

http://drdansiegel.com

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OdBXGHwNCk

Hardwired for Happiness

It’s true; our brains are actually hardwired for happiness and empathy.  They also love to practice gratitude; every time we take a moment to be grateful, our brain gives all the cells in our body the gift of peacefulness.  It’s that simple.

Whenever I feel sadness or fear trying to creep in, I know I have to take action before those feelings get the chance to anchor themselves in my heart and mind.  The easiest and fastest step I can take to protect myself is to start naming the many things for which I am grateful.  The more I reflect on gratitude, the calmer and safer I feel.  And then of course, the next easiest thing to do is breathe–just breathe.  I close my eyes and inhale from down deep in my belly, hold it for a second or two and then exhale slowly through my mouth. This simple gift I give to myself makes me feel powerful, safe, protected and in control of this moment.  This is all I have really–this moment, this breath, this genuine feeling of gratitude and I know I am okay and I can do it again and again.

Another Tragic School Shooting in Nevada…

Bullying is not new; it’s been around for as long as most folks can remember.  What is somewhat new however, is what appears to be an emerging trend with which victims of bullying find solutions to their ordeals through suicide and/or murder. Scholarly psychology papers claim that victims of bullying are more likely to demonstrate aggression and in recent years, studies suggest that teenage shooters have been victims of bullying. (http://www.sozialpsychologie.uni-frankfurt.de/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Leary-et-al.-2003.pdf.)

Many schools have some sort of anti-bullying program, but how effective have they been in reducing the incidence of bullying, empowering victims, and changing the behavior of bullies? According to a recent study by criminologist Seokjin Jeong, at University of Texas at Arlington, these programs have not only not been helpful but some anti-bullying programs actually make the problem worse because they teach bullies new and more effective ways to hurt victims! (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57606812/are-anti-bullying-efforts-making-it-worse/)

More and more experts in the field are saying we have been misinformed about the nature of bullies and what to do about them and that at least a dozen myths and misconceptions still abound. Rachel Simmons, cofounder of the Girls Leadership Institute and author of Odd Girl Out,  explains that bullies generally do not possess low self-esteem as was originally thought but instead are confident, powerful, popular, and adept at terrorizing others.  She states,  “Bullies are talented chameleons. The most psychologically aggressive kids are usually the ones who cop angelic poses when adults walk into the room (Eddie Haskell, anyone?). These kids possess high social intelligence. The same skills that enable them to hurt their peers are precisely what allow them to manipulate adults.” (http://mag.newsweek.com/2010/10/14/the-nine-most-common-myths-about-bullying.)

So, if traditional anti-bullying programs are not helping and we have misunderstood the true nature of bullies–then what is the solution?

In my book, Empathy Warriors, I describe how I was tormented and excluded as a teenager and the resulting isolation and depression I endured because of it.  I was, in fact, alone with no support from family, teachers, or friends.  Because of my own personal experience being victimized, I believe that what schools need is a profound shift in the emotional, social climate of the entire school environment from Pre-K all the way through 12th grade.  Inclusive of every breathing human being in the school environment, empathy must preside over all relationships and behaviors. Social and emotional learning must be taught systematically from Pre-K to Grade12 students, teachers, parents, administrators and all staff on campus.  This school wide shift into empathy can only occur successfully when everyone is on board with a policy that honors authentic emotions, respects multiple perspectives, and practices empathy in all situations, at all times, with everyone.

Social and emotional intelligence can be taught and learned; it’s the right choice for all schools today.

One Mindful Breath and Your Brain Cells Will Benefit!

A myriad things that we are barely aware of can trigger us and a darkened veil can suddenly descend over our joyful spirit; we feel the shift into darkness yet we don’t know what caused it.  It is in these moments of feeling the transition toward the negative that we must act to protect ourselves from allowing a dark mood to control us.

The moment our mood begins to shift, we must remind ourselves that we have the power, choice, and ability to remove the veil and step back into the light.

Breathe; it sounds so simple yet we resist it.  It takes less than ten seconds to complete one focused, deep-belly breath; why talk ourselves out of doing it?  Even just one mindful inhalation and exhalation will begin the shift back to peace and calm.

Breathe; you deserve ten seconds of peace.   Breathe again; you deserve another ten seconds!  Between each breath, say to yourself, “I deserve peace; I deserve calm.”

As you breathe mindfully, every cell of your body is rejuvenating and the cells that benefit the fastest are your brains cells controlling your moods.

Your brain prefers joy, peace, and calm so breathe–and give your brain what it desires most.