Developing Minds, Part II: The Power of Stories
After an earlier post, “Developing Minds”, I heard from a couple of people (both of whom know my children) about the conversation between the three boys that I mentioned toward the end of the post. Both people were curious about how this conversation came about and, specifically, whether or not it was one of those uncomfortable, parent-forced “let’s all share our feelings now” kind of talks. I assured them that it was not, and thought it might be helpful to provide a more detailed description of this part of the boys’ interaction.
To recap, Ben was feeling upset and left out when his older brother, Sam, was playing with a visiting friend. His predominant feelings were of anger and fear, and I described in the first “Developing Minds” post the process I used to help Ben manage these very strong emotions. The idea for talking to the other boys, once he was calm, was entirely Ben’s.
I have to confess that I wasn’t initially comfortable with the idea of Ben opening himself up emotionally to the other boys, but I supported his need to tell his story because I knew it was a healthy instinct on his part. As Daniel Siegel (“The Whole-Brain Child”) points out, “it’s important for kids of all ages to tell their stories, as it helps them try to understand their emotions and the events that occur in their lives.” In other words, by telling his story, Ben was helping himself understand his experience and make sense of his emotions. He also could have accomplished this by talking to me (or another adult) about it, or by writing or drawing pictures about it a journal. And in a different situation, with different kids, I might have recommended one of these alternatives, but Sam and his friend are both emotionally-aware eleven-year-olds, and I realized there was also something in this situation for them — an empathy-building opportunity.
The discussion itself was rather brief (about 5 minutes), and I encouraged the classic interpersonal communication guideline of using “I” statements. If you’re like me, sometimes these “communication rules” make you cringe — they can seem very forced and artificial. I look at it this way: focusing on your own emotions and avoiding blaming the other person really does help make the interaction more productive, and allows you to move on more quickly. So, I have found this particular technique to be useful.
When the boys got together, Ben was able to succinctly describe his feelings in several sentences (he practiced with me first), the older boys acknowledged what he said and shared some of their own frustrations, and then they agreed to do something they all wanted to do (go to the park). And so it was done! Ben told me later that he felt much better, and was happy with the way it had all worked out. Granted, this was a fairly typical, low-level emotional storm, and more traumatic events will require more time and parental coaching, but this was a great “test run” of the process and techniques recommended by Dr. Siegel, and I will certainly use them again when the time comes. In summary:
- Connect emotionally with your child (listen and acknowledge their feelings).
- Ask him to name the emotion(s) he’s feeling.
- Ask him to describe how those emotions feel in his body.
- Have him look around the room if he gets stuck in an emotional loop (i.e. keeps remembering the upsetting event and getting upset again). Important: Reassure him that he does not need to stop crying, but that you just want him to look around the room as he does.
- Once calm, facilitate storytelling. As Dr. Siegel emphasizes, make sure you “respect their desires about how and when to talk — especially because pressuring them to share will only backfire.”