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Emotional Literacy: Why We Must Flatten Our Emotional Curve For Our Kids

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Show Notes

Parents must attempt to manage their emotions in front of their kids to help develop their emotional liLynn talks about how to handle powerful moments of anger and panic in an an ideal way as well as how to conclude unintentional emotional outbursts in a positive way to model emotional literacy for your kids. What is emotional vomiting and why it is a destructive habit.

We also talk about the trap of unhealthy reassurance, even when the Hogwarts ride breaks down at the Harry Potter theme park.

Lynn outlines the list of behaviors that should always be off limits at home, too, around physical behavior and language.

Emotional Literacy and Intelligence in kids and children

Episode Transcript

Lynn Lyons  0:05 

We don’t know exactly how contagious the coronavirus is. But I’ll tell you, we do know how contagious our family emotions and behaviors and attitudes are. So, this is what you also need to pay attention to, while you’re sanitizing your groceries.

Intro

So hi, everybody, it’s Lynn Lyons, and welcome to our next episode of a mom’s retreat. I’m here with Robin. Hi, Robin. Hi, Lynn. How are you doing today?

Emotional Literacy in Kids
Robin Hutson  0:40 

Pretty good, pretty good. We’re all sort of accepting the third week into this new world. Then, you know, the feelings are…the feelings are there. This is a big thing to manage.

Lynn Lyons  0:53 

Yeah, yesterday was my crying day. I hadn’t really cried a lot and I got the email from my son’s college—which is also my college— officially canceling graduation. And I knew it was coming. I knew it was going to happen. The letter written by the president of the college was so sweet and kind of motherly. I was so looking forward to having that event. I don’t even know why, but that sort of opened the floodgates for me.

Robin Hutson  1:25 

Yeah, I cried yesterday, too, for the first time about it. So, I think it’s just we’re all entering this next stage of grieving for our old ways.

Lynn Lyons  1:35 

Yeah. And that the novelty has worn off, sort of that adrenaline push that we had at the beginning. You just sort of… I’m just looking out my window now, and they’re just no cars, and no people. It just… the world feels a little, a little too quiet right now.

Robin Hutson  1:55 

At least definitely up here in New England where we’re more in the epicenter than other parts of the country.

Lynn Lyons  2:02 

Yes, I think you’re right. I think you’re right. So luckily the rain has stopped. That didn’t help. We had a few days of pouring rain, and the sun is coming out. So, we will carry on, won’t we? We will manage this. Yeah. And I think that’s what we want to talk about today really is what I refer to as “emotional management”, which…

Robin Hutson  2:26 

I call it, “Don’t freak out your kids.”

Lynn Lyons  2:31 

You’re good at making sure… I tend to say things in sort of a little bit of clinical language, and you’re good at making sure that I don’t sound too psychobabbly.  So, you’re right. It is “Don’t freak out your kids.”

And I think that right now, because we’re so close together, we’re all in the house together, we’re all on top of each other, and people are trying to do all sorts of different things. That it is a little bit challenging.

But I really what I want to talk about today is the importance of you modeling a way of managing your emotions. Because kids right now are really looking to us.

Particularly if you have little children, younger children, that can’t really understand the enormity of what’s happening. They just know that their lives have been disrupted in weird ways. And parents are home. And it can feel good for little kids to have mom and dad around.

But they’re also looking at our expressions, they’re listening to our words, they’re picking up on our emotional energy. And the thing to know, actually, is that we are hardwired to do that. So, mirror neurons, paying attention to the expressions of other people picking up on the emotional energy of other people is something that social creatures do.

So, there’s really no way around it. And so, it’s really important at this point for you to recognize how vital it is that you manage what you are feeling.

Now, when I say emotional management, I do not mean emotional denial. I don’t mean dismissing your emotions, I don’t mean minimizing your emotions. I don’t mean rationalizing them as saying, “You know, you shouldn’t feel this way. You shouldn’t be reacting that way.”

But what I’m really talking about is when you have these thoughts, when you have these emotions, how do you respond next? And it’s what I refer to as step one versus step two.

Robin Hutson  4:42 

So, step one, you’re talking about the basic anger, or stress, or fear moments that parents are going to experience —all tensions high. You’re talking about just a really powerful wave of those emotions. Right?

Lynn Lyons  5:00 

Right. So, I’m talking about panic. I’m talking about sort of fretting. I’m talking about that nervous energy— losing it, right?

And that’s what I’m talking about, because it really is okay for our kids to see us tearful.

It’s okay for our kids to see us, you know, worrying a little bit, but it’s when we take it up to that next level that makes them feel scared, it makes them feel insecure.

We need to be as solid as we can right now, on the outside.

So, step one is that you’re going to feel those thoughts and feelings and emotions and there’s really not a way to get rid of those. There’s really not a way to mediate those things when they pop up.

Step two is how we teach our kids and model for our kids, handling them when they arrive.

Because there are certainly better ways and worse ways to handle strong emotions, as we all know. It is it is a parade of emotions that we’re going through right now. All sorts of thoughts, all sorts of feelings.

And so, we really want to think about flattening the emotional curve.

And what I mean by that is that there is some mythology about the need to get it out of your system. Right? That “I just—oh!— I just got to get it out of my system.”

And people who are my age or older, you, you younger listeners aren’t going to remember this. But there used to be these seminars, these groups where you would go, and what they thought was that if you’re feeling angry about your childhood—or whatever— that you really needed to get it out of your system by emoting.

So, they would give people nerf bats or baseball bats, and you had to bang the couch or scream or yell. And somebody actually said, “Why don’t we do some research and see if all of this big emoting actually does get it out of your system?” What they found was that the angrier that you behave, or the more out of control that you let your emotions get, the more out of control your emotions get.

So, people who started out angry, and then were acting out in this way actually ended up angrier. And so that’s an important thing to think about.

Emotional Vomiting

Because the idea that if you emotionally vomit on somebody, the idea that if you get it out, that then you will feel better, is really kind of a myth.

And the reason I call it emotional vomiting, is because what happens is sometimes when we unload in that way, just like vomiting, right? Your stomach feels upset, and you barf. “Oh, gosh, I feel so much better now.” But you’ve now vomited onto somebody. And so, your family members are now wearing your emotional vomit.

So even though you may feel like you got it out of your system, you’re actually showing it and passing it on to your kids. And it doesn’t really get it out of your system as much as you may think.

Robin Hutson  8:14 

Well, I think a lot of us understand what you mean by having a really angry episode. But tell me what a really emotive vomiting moment could be if it’s more about, like, freaking out and worry.

Lynn Lyons  8:28 

So that would be the catastrophic language. So, it might be that your energy is up, you’re pacing around, you’re talking about what’s going to happen. “We don’t know,” you’re expressing all of this uncertainty. You might be freaking out about whether or not anybody in the family is going to get the virus.

So, all of those anxious behaviors, which actually come from fear and come from panic, which as I have said many times, if you’re not feeling at all anxious or worried right now, you’re not paying attention.

But where it gets into that level is that you are talking to your kids repeatedly, your physical language,  you’re hyped up. So, what anxiety does to us, what this system does to us, is it pumps us full of these hormones: noradrenaline, norepinephrine, that are supposed to jack us up. So, if you are jacked up in a way where you feel frenetic, that is the equivalent sort of the anxious emotional vomiting.

And it may be that you deal with it by getting more rigid, more controlling, that you’re not capable of tolerating noise or you’re yelling at your kids. That’s the kind of stuff that we really want to pay attention to right now.

Robin Hutson  9:51 

Yeah, emotions of all kinds are clearly universally running high. So, I could imagine parents experiencing struggle with managing things maybe in the way that they were able to a month ago.

Lynn Lyons  10:05 

Right. And when we talk about how we would respond— so what if you might be thinking, “Okay, so guilty as charged, right?” “I’m one of these reactors. I’m one of these over reactors.  What can I do?”

Right? Because here I am saying like, “Don’t do it.” And generally, that’s the first step. But then people say, “Well, how do I not do it?”

So, here are just some things to think about. I want you to focus on the word consistency. And I want you to think about your emotional reactions, at least on the outside when you’re around your family as being vanilla ice cream.

So, the reason I talk about vanilla ice cream is because you know, it’s pretty neutral and generally pretty pleasant, and everybody knows what vanilla ice cream is. Being able to keep yourself steady. Being able to keep yourself consistent.

If you need to go and scream in your car, if you need to go into your car and crank some loud music or crank some sad music.

Somebody just sent me a video of Carole King singing “Far Away.” Is that the name of the song, right? And I watched that, and I just cried. Is that the name of the song? You’re so far away. Yeah. And, and so allowing those emotions to come out is perfectly fine. But in front of your kids, I want you to be vanilla ice cream.

And I also think that it’s okay, after you have an explosion, after you are overly reactive—because it’s going to happen, because this is really hard— it is okay to let your kids know that you’re working on it.

It’s okay to have a discussion with your kids about the reality of this and that in that how important it is for us all to work on managing our emotions in a way so that we’re not taking it out on other people.

I talk a lot about that anxiety part—like we pull out the anxiety. And I’ve said to parents, “Pull out your anxiety, give it a name, right? Call it, Phyllis. Call it, Edith. And have your kids… have your kids be able to call you on it like, ‘Mom, I think Edith is a little out of control right now.’”

You can do that with your anger too. You can do it. You can pull out that part of you and call it your volcano. You can call it your freak out. You can call it your Sally, whatever. And talk to your kids about this process so that they begin to understand, and you begin to model for them how it is that we work on managing our emotions.

Robin Hutson  12:47 

So, like if you’re in the middle of a freak out, and then you realize you’re freaking out. You can say to your little kids, “Mommy’s volcano needed to erupt a minute, but I have it under control now. I hope I didn’t get you with my lava.”

Lynn Lyons  13:02 

Yes, exactly. Which might. Right, exactly. And being able to stop yourself in the middle of something or even right after being able to say, “You know, I can be a little compassionate with myself. I understand why that was… why that came out. But I am working on making sure that I don’t hit you with my lava.”

Or that, “you know, crazy Karen doesn’t freak out the whole family. So, your putting words to it and your owning it is a really great thing to model for your kids.

The thing you don’t want to do is that you don’t want to give yourself free permission to do this. And think that consistently blowing up and then offering an apology afterwards is enough.

You really have to talk to them about how you’re working on it. And that’s different than saying, “Look, I know I freaked. I know I was a total freak,” later. “You know, I can’t help it. I’m sorry that happened.” That’s not the strategy you want to use.

Robin Hutson  14:04 

And that’s the worst thing you could say to your kids. “I can’t help it.” That’s what you don’t want to ever say.

Lynn Lyons  14:09 

That’s what you don’t want to say. You don’t want to say, “I can’t help it,” because that’s just you saying to them, “I’m out of control.” And then that may be that’s one of the worst things you can say.

And then I’ll give you I’ll give you what’s definitely tie for first place is to say, “Well, I wouldn’t have had to do that if you didn’t blank,” Right?

So, that blaming thing is really, really destructive at this point. Like, “If you guys had listened to me, or if you guys were doing your online schooling better, or if you guys were this, then I wouldn’t have had to have this freak out.” Right?

Robin Hutson  14:43 

Denying accountability.

Lynn Lyons  14:45 

Exactly.

Robin Hutson  14:47 

And then saying that you can’t help it also says to your kids, there’s no point in any self-awareness and self-worth.

Lynn Lyons  14:54 

Right. Right. And it says to them, “You can’t help it either.” So, you’re right, you are saying like, “well, we’re all just these uncontrolled emotional time bombs. And I guess that’s how it’s gonna be. Right?”

And I’ve had parents say that to me over the years, “Well, this is just what our family does.”  

Really?

So, it’s really— again, it is not about being perfect. It’s really about being able to, I call it the postgame analysis, which I think analysis may be not the right word, because I don’t think that talking about it over and over and over again, is really helpful. But it’s sort of maybe, Robin, it’s postgame accountability, and postgame acknowledgement, right and saying, this is what we’re working on. That is huge.

Think about that in your marriage, right? So, you do something, or your partner does something. And then your, “Oh, God,” you’re so annoyed or you’re frustrated.

And then that person comes to you and says, “You know what, I recognize what I did. And that’s a pattern I’m working on, so I hope that you can forgive me for the way I behaved or you can help me with the way I behaved. But I own it.”

That is that is such a great skill to teach kids. It will help them, of course, getting through this Coronavirus, but in life the ability to do that is one of the key keys to successful relationships.

Unlimited Reassurance

Lynn Lyons  16:27 

As we’re talking about this, let me just give you a few more tips about the things that you really want to pay attention to with your language and with your responses as we’re going through this. Beware of unlimited reassurance.

So, what I mean by that and when I talk about anxiety and worry, in general, we know that what I call “content-based reassurance” is sort of one of the traps we get into.

Because anxiety wants certainty, it wants all the answers.

So, when we are offering unlimited reassurance, “Oh, it’s going to be fine” or “Oh, nothing’s going to happen.” Or even if we take it out of this Coronavirus thing like, “Oh no, you won’t throw up today,” or “Oh, no, people won’t judge you.” That is what we do in the short term to make our kids feel more certain and to eliminate the uncertainty that anxiety doesn’t like.

It is okay, in this situation to not know all the answers. It is really okay for you to say, “We really don’t know exactly when this is going to end. And we really don’t know what it’s going to be like in the summertime. And we really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

With older kids, you know, “We really don’t know what’s going to happen with colleges. And we really don’t know what’s going to happen with your study abroad program, and we really don’t know when you’re going to see your teachers next.” 

And it is okay for you to sit in the discomfort of the uncertainty about this.

You want to make a differentiation between the things that we can control at this point, which are our social distancing, wearing, you know, a mask, now we’re going to wear masks when we go to the grocery store or a scarf, washing your hands, doing all the things that we can. And it is also okay to not know.

Robin Hutson  18:21 

it sounds like yeah, the emotional reassurance you want to give— in a well-meaning way— denies your kids the ability to sit with the unknown and be comfortable with it.

That’s probably the most critical skill for resilience right now in this new world than anything we could do for them. Let them be comfortable with not knowing.

Lynn Lyons  18:43 

Yeah, I agree. And I think when you say to sit with the uncertainty, and for you to be able to sit with them with the uncertainty, right? So, we are together in this uncertainty. So, it’s okay for you to use that language of uncertainty and to make room for them to have that language of uncertainty.

One of the things we don’t want to do, or one of the things we want to pay attention to, is that we don’t have to zoom into the future and ask a whole lot of “what if?” questions.

We don’t have to have a constant flow of “What’s gonna happen?” and “What if, what if, what if?”

It’s okay to say to your kids, we are sitting in the uncertainty and we are sitting also in the present. So, the imagination wants to zoom into the future and tell stories and come up with all sorts of things.

And we really have to sit in the present in a way that is tricky. Worry doesn’t like to sit in the present. It likes to zoom into the future. We have to be right here. And that’s okay to be right here with it.

Robin Hutson  19:49 

Lynn, why don’t you tell them the time you took your boys to the new Harry Potter Park several years ago? A perfect example.

Lynn Lyons  19:57 

Oh, so we went down to that Harry Potter Park had just opened. So, I took my boys down. It was, by the way, 105 degrees every day when we were there. So, we get there. We’re in the hotel room, we were watching some, you know, show on TV, some family show and then the local Orlando news comes on— the 10 O’clock News.

And the reporter says, you know, and breaking news “We’re here with, you know, Amanda so and so and she is live from the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando.”

“Amanda, what’s happening?” and goes on to say that the ride has broken down, that they are taking people off. They don’t know when it’s gonna be back up again.

And my poor little guys are lying in bed, and they’re quiet, and they say, “Mommy?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think they’re going to fix the ride?”

Oh, I so wanted to say “Yes, absolutely! Of course, they’re going to fix a ride.”

But I said, “Well, I hope so.”

And they said, “Well, what will we do if we can’t go on a Harry Potter ride?”

I said, “Well, for one, we’re going to be horribly disappointed.” Right, “It’s gonna be terrible that we came down here, and so many other families are going to feel the same way.”

“Well, do you think that we would come back if they don’t fix it this time? Do you think we’d be able to come back?”

And I said, “Well, I think we’re just jumping a little far ahead. We’re gonna have to figure that out as we go. But isn’t this… this is hard right now. It’s hard for you. And it’s hard for me. I think they’re probably working on it as hard as they possibly can. And we’re just going to have to wait until tomorrow to see what happens. And this is this is really not comfortable.”

So, on the outside, I’m trying to, you know, roll around in the uncertainty and go with the mights and the maybes.

I’ll tell you as a mom, I was freaking out inside because here we were in Orlando, Florida, and the ride is broken. So, but we talked through it, they went to sleep, and when we woke up the next day, the ride was fixed, and everything worked out fine.

Robin Hutson  21:51 

I just laugh because I think of like you’re the only parent in the metro Orlando area that responded to that news announcement with those words.

Lynn Lyons  22:03

Yeah. Oh, well, and it’s one of those examples where I say to people, you know, your vanilla ice cream on the inside. I mean, on the outside and on the inside.

I mean, if there were thought bubbles over my head, and my kids were seeing what I was thinking, it would not have been great.

Robin Hutson  22:18 

You would see a couple thousand-dollar bills and a lighter.

Lynn Lyons  22:21 

Yes. Exactly. Yeah. But it was— luckily, it was fine. It all worked out.

Robin Hutson  22:28 

This is all good. One of the questions I also have is, is there anything to note about parents who might not be acknowledging their grief or their stress? Like people who supplant so much, too. How can that also be a danger in terms of recognizing stakes are just so high right now?

Lynn Lyons  22:53 

So, you mean sort of trying to push it down and not acknowledge it and not let yourself feel it?

Robin Hutson  22:59 

Yeah, yeah. That might not be… It just seems like everyone’s got emotions from one end to the other. How do we, how do we acknowledge the uncertainty? And how do we acknowledge there’s fear right now?

Lynn Lyons  23:15 

Right, from day one. That’s right. So, one of the things to think about is anger is a— and I don’t think this is entirely true, but certainly for a large— in a large— percentage of cases— is that a lot of feeling sort of find their way to anger. And so, we tend to be more irritable, angrier, more impatient, even when we’re feeling grief and loss and sadness.

So, I think it’s really helpful for parents to be able to acknowledge and to talk to their kids, about the things that they feel that they’re missing to acknowledge disappointment. To talk about how it’s really hard for them to manage all this change.

Model Emotional Literacy

One of the things we know about kids that do better emotionally with their emotional health is the ability to have what we call emotional literacy.

So, some people might say, “Well, I shouldn’t I shouldn’t talk to my kids about it,” or “I shouldn’t share this with them, because it’s only going to upset them.” That’s a myth.

You don’t want to overwhelm them with your emotional reactions, of course, like we were talking about, but being able to talk to kids about the reality of the way you feel, the reality of your own sadness, the reality of your own disappointment, is really giving a gift to your kids.

You’re showing them how to talk about something, how to ask for what they need, how to acknowledge these strong feelings. It is totally fine for a mom to say, “You know, I’m feeling really sad right now because I was so looking forward to your birthday party. And so, you might see me have a few tears about that. And that’s okay.”

Or if you have older kids to say, “You know what? I can feel myself being so irritable about this, because I am just mad that this is getting taken away from us. And I’m a little worried myself about where this is going to go.”

The more you give kids words to talk about it, the less these emotions are going to pop out in other places. And they can pop out in physical symptoms, they can pop out in anger, they can pop out in the need to self-medicate.

So, we always just want to put it out there in a way that is digestible for kids, in a way that, as I said, doesn’t overwhelm them or feel scary for them. We are showing them how to talk about and manage.

And then we might even say to our kids, “I’m feeling really sad and frustrated right now. So, I need to go for a walk for about a half an hour, and when I come back, I’m going to be feeling better and we’re going to be able to do X, Y and Z.” So, showing them how to do it.

Managing Temper Tantrums for Emotional Literacy

Off Limit Behaviors

Robin Hutson  26:00 

Can you give us a cheat sheet on all the behaviors that should really be off limits?

Lynn Lyons  26:05 

I am not a big fan, as you can probably guess, of any kind of hitting or physical aggression in families. So that should be off limits.

One of the things that I heard when my boys were little, because — we hung around with a lot of families that had just boys, for some reason— is that people would say to me, “Well, boys will be boys.” And that to me was, well, they’ll hurt each other. They’ll hit each other— hitting, physical aggression.

I used to say to my kids, “Mommy and daddy don’t hit each other. We don’t hit you. We don’t let you hit us. So, we’re not going to let you hit each other.”

So, there’s no reason during this time to say well, because we’re all cooped up together, they’re gonna wail on each other.

Language that is name calling, swearing, insulting, that should be off limits.

Having a temper tantrum if you are a little person is a way that you are going to manage this. And so, what we want to do if a child is freaking out if a child is having a temper tantrum, the language that I used to use with my little boys when they were little is this.

I would say “The answer is still going to be no. And I am going to stand here for as long as you need me to stand here. And when you’re ready for a hug, or when you are ready to take a deep breath, I will be right here waiting, but the answer is no.”

So, you want to be careful not to reward that behavior by giving into it. But you want to stand there and be vanilla ice cream.

And being destructive in the house. So, you can have a temper tantrum, if you’re little or if you’re big. You can go up in your room and you can cry, and you can you can. Again, we don’t want to support that as a way of getting it out of your system because that really doesn’t work. But throwing things, kicking things, wrecking other people’s belongings, all of those behaviors, whether we’re in quarantine or not, are behaviors that should be off limits. Period.

The other thing you don’t want to do is during somebody’s freak out, that’s not the time to crank up the punishment. So okay, “So now you’ve lost your phone for two days! Now you’ve lost your phone for three days!”

When people are freaking out in that way— kids and adults— they are not available for learning. So, you want to be vanilla ice cream, you want to wait it out, and then you can have a discussion afterwards about what’s the skill that you all need to work on in order to manage this in a healthier way.

Robin Hutson  28:40 

Great, thanks.

Lynn Lyons 28:49

So, everybody, thank you for joining us. My goal and Robin’s goal in this is to give you a retreat, to give you information, to give you a time where you can just focus on the things that you’re trying to do as a parent during what is such an incredibly challenging time.

But you know, parenting is challenging all the time. It is a constantly moving target, and we’re all trying to do the best that we can.

So, while you’re listening to this, I hope that you are feeling some connection, I hope that you are feeling the intent that both of us have in offering you something to help you through this.

Whether you’re out taking a walk, whether you’re sitting in a hot tub, whether you’re listening to this before you go to sleep, know that that we are, above all else, hoping to connect with you, because we really are all in this together.

And nobody is perfect as a parent or as a human being. We’re all works in progress.

So, we will see you again soon. We’re checking out the Facebook group and looking at your requests and questions. We’ll continue to engage in that. And I wish you the best as we continue through this time.

Robin Hutson 30:10

Thank you so much, Lynn.

Lynn Lyons  30:12 

 Yeah, thank you for being here, Robin. Thanks for all your help. Bye, everybody.

Please share!

2 Responses
  • Linda Cranston-Tolin
    April 26, 2020

    Very helpful ideas! Thanks! Linda

  • Mary Sands
    April 28, 2020

    Heart-felt thanks for this!

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