As a parent, and a counselor, we talk a lot about feelings in our family. So I was not surprised last week at my four year old daughter's wellness check-up when she vocalized she did not want a flu shot because she felt scared that it would hurt.
I did not give much thought to my response. I think I said something like, "It's okay to be scared. This is important though and will keep you healthy this winter." The nurse supportively chimed in that she knew my daughter could be brave. I added that the shot would just take a second and that I would be right there holding her hands. The nurse proceeded. My daughter cried and I comforted her with a hug when it was done. Her tears subsided shortly after the Strawberry Shortcake bandaid was placed on her arm.
What did surprise me was my daughter's response several hours later when I told my husband how brave she had been at the doctor's office earlier that day. She argued insistently that she had not been brave since she was scared and had cried. Imagine my surprise - all that talk about feelings and my four year old daughter had still gotten the message that being brave meant feeling fearless.
I think most of us would agree that there is a big difference between being brave and being reckless. I can remember when my daughter was a toddler, we called her Eva Knievel for her daredevil-like antics. Now that she's a little older she has some experience with pain and consequences of acting reckless. It's important to teach our kids that pain and fear are inevitable parts of life. When we come up to a challenge that pang of fear may be warning us of danger, hence the fight, flight, or freeze response. When we rumble with those uncomfortable feelings we gain important insight helping us decide how to respond to challenges with courage in a way that fits with our values.
The whole ordeal got me thinking that teaching our kids to be brave in large part is teaching them to be vulnerable, acknowledging uncomfortable feelings, and moving through them. It's a practice. If I've learned anything about parenting it's that we are offered ample opportunities big and small to practice our own vulnerability and teach our kids to do the same. So I put together a short list of small ways to help our kids practice feeling brave in the midst of their fear.
1. Acknowledge the feeling without becoming overly attached to it
When we name the feeling our kiddos are showing us behaviorally we are helping them build an emotional vocabulary which can help them to process their feelings in a different way. When kids are able to "talk" about their feelings they are less likely to be stuck in fight, flight, or freeze mode as long or as often. It's easy once you get into the practice. When you notice your child's eyes well up or he sticks out his bottom lip you simply respond with, "You feel sad we have to go now (or whatever the case may be)." It may not stop a full wailing session, but over time your child will not have to rely solely on expressing his emotions with his behaviors, but will be able to use his words too. Plus, when you identify the emotion for your child, he knows you are making an effort to empathize with his perspective. Don't worry about getting the feeling wrong, your child will correct you if you do.
One small practice we can teach our kids is to use "I feel" statements. What seems small and petty can have a big impact as children learn they have ownership of their own feelings, not anyone else's and they can begin to manage their feelings as well. An "I feel" statement is simply stating "I feel (insert name of feeling here) when (name what is happening that is eliciting the emotional response.)" The "I feel" statement sets the stage to put the child in charge of the feeling, not a victim of the feeling or the event that has elicited the response. I also think stating "I feel" as opposed to "I am" places a more comfortable distance between the child and the uncomfortable feeling making it more manageable. Perspective on who is control of the child's internal state can make all the difference.
2. Teach your family's values
In the best case scenarios, our values drive our behaviors and when they do, we experience fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms. Similarly, I believe when our children are feeling fearful and the end goal is tethered to a value they believe in; they are better able to summon the courage to keep moving. In the midst of their fear, or uncomfortable feelings you can add why it's important they follow through on this challenging opportunity. In the case of my daughter's flu shot, our family values health and wellness. In other situations it could be your family values courage, growth, learning, kindness, accountability etc.
3. Provide an emotional holding space
I think it's helpful to understand that feelings are both irrational and normal. I don't know about you, but when our kids are in the midst of a big feeling, there's no talking them down with logic. Disputing fears with logic can be useful when your child is calm, but in the moment of a melt down they need someone calm, someone who recognizes their perspective, acknowledge their feeling and can sit with them and see them through it. Share your calm with your child, take an interest in their feelings and show them their big feelings are tolerable and you can see them through it and those big feelings will not last forever. This is easier said than done when you consider what else may be going on in the moment, your expectations, and your own self-talk. When I am trying to be empathic with one of my kiddos in an already stressful or busy situation I am constantly having to keep my own self-talk and expectations in check.
4. Model your vulnerability
If we want our kids to be brave with their vulnerability we need to show them what that looks like. Be silly with them and have fun, even if they think you're totally uncool because of it. Tell them you love them regardless if they say it back. Apologize, admit your mistakes, and circle back when you've acted in a way that is not consistent with your values. Challenge yourself to learn new skills, try new things and talk to your kids about your uncertainty and what if feels like when you follow through.
5.Talk and read
We don't need to wait until there is a "problem" to start talking about acting with courage and rumbling with our fears. Start talking now. Ask your child what sort of things do they worry or feel nervous about. What helps them summon the courage to do something brave on the playground or elsewhere? Share with your child your bravest moments as well as your falling face first moments and your experience getting back up from them.
You will hear this from me again and again - when I struggle to find the words I always turn to children's literature to start the conversation. There are so many great children's books out there. The list of books below are some of my favorite picture books on the topic of vulnerability, courage, and resiliency.
"La La La" by Kate DiCamillo
"Still Stuck" by Shinsuke Yoshitake
"Sam the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the Whole World" by Mo Willems
"Here We Are" by Oliver Jeffers
"The Dark" by Lemony Snicket
"After the Fall (How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again)" by Dan Santat
Later that night I talked with my daughter again as I tucked her in bed. I tried reassuring her not only is it okay to be scared, it's normal and a part of growing up, but no matter what - her dad and I would be there to help her through it. I added that as a family we can do tough things, and I believed she can do tough things too. I know it's a practice and I've set my mind to be more intentional about talking and modeling vulnerability and being brave with my kids.