My first-born is an emotional creature. I have yet to figure out if the recent abundance and fortitude of her emotions has something to do with a phase or the changes our family has gone through, but in the meantime, they are fierce.
Many have told me, ever so helpfully, "Welcome to having girls." Newsflash: I am a girl, and not a stoic one. But I have never in my life seen so many feelings, and homegirl is not even 5. Heaven help us make it to 15!
Mirabella's preschool is Reggio-Emilia inspired. It's one of the things I love most about it. Its founder champions the inclusive concept of The Green Circle. The children sing The Green Circle song each morning, which reminds them of the importance of including others and showing love. It is a central tenet of the school. Each child has a photo of herself that she can place in or out of the circle each day, which prompts the teachers to know how the children are feeling. They are encouraged to talk through their feelings, and the circle is a very effective tool. It helps them know themselves and relate to each other.
That said, on more than one occasion, Mirabella has told me, upon being reprimanded, that I made her feel "outside of the circle." This might happen when she has yelled at her sister or stolen a toy from her, or when she has thrown a fit in a public place. Initially, this really irritated me. I know my child is smart and that there is a smidgen of manipulation at work here. So, how to deal with that and the issue at hand that requires discipline, all while acknowledging and validating her feelings?
I never thought I'd be the kind of mom worried about "validating feelings." I think I thought I'd be more "because I said so" (yes, I do say that more than I'd like). But here's the thing: I don't want to trample my children's feelings. I don't want to yell. I don't want to say "get over it" or "tough" when they tell me how something made them feel (that's not to say I haven't said those things). I firmly believe there are a variety of intelligences, and that being emotionally intelligent is essential to having a happy, productive, well-adjusted life that benefits others. I want to hold my children accountable for their actions, and I want them to feel they can talk to me about anything. I believe that if I dismiss them now, I am teaching them that they cannot trust me with their feelings. But navigating this minefield while also keeping my own emotions in check has been difficult.
In the past, we have handled tantrums punitively. Privileges and treats have been withheld, or conversely, rewards earned when tantrums were avoided. This worked when Mirabella was younger. But as she approaches 5, I'm just not sure we're getting to the root of the problem.
We decided to lean into the feelings. To listen to them, to name them, and to take control of them. I explained that feelings are good and important. We have begun talking about the importance of being "in charge" of our feelings, so that they don't become in charge of us. When a meltdown starts, we ask who is in charge. Mirabella usually considers this and answers accordingly. We have encouraged her to take a break when the feelings start to feel stronger than her ability to control them. We agreed that the "reading nook" (a corner of her closet with a kid-sized chair, pillows, blankets and twinkly lights) would be a good place to take a break. We agreed that all she needs to do is tell us that she needs to take a break and she can go there until she feels calm.
I'm not sure if it's working. I know that it has worked, on occasion. When a freakout is brewing, without any prompting from us, Mirabella will announce that she needs to take a break, disappear for 10 minutes or so, and come back a different child. It doesn't happen every time, and of course, this only works when we're home.
What it has encouraged is more discussion about feelings. Instead of focusing solely on the behavior, we have been talking about what prompted the behavior. How she was feeling, and behaviors that might be a better way to deal with it. It has also increased my ability to talk about the effect of her actions on other people's feelings. It's given us more tools, I guess.
Ironically, all of this emotional management has coincided with our studying of the Fruit of the Spirit. So far, we've studied love, joy, peace, and patience. On multiple occasions when Mirabella is distraught, I have overheard Emerie pray, "Dear God, please give Mirabella peace." (Granted, often Emerie is the thief of the peace.) The irony of these lessons I am teaching my children is that I very well may need the reminders more than they do. As a stay-at-home mom, I have found it easy to become duty-bound. Though all of my efforts are grounded in love, they are also incredibly mundane--endless. It can be easy to lose the love. Easier still to lose my joy and complain. I am not advocating being fake. I don't want to speak positively for the sake of seeming positive-- I want to feel joy, love, peace and patience. And I don't know how to feel it unless I choose it, all day, every day. That is so much harder than it sounds.
I winced as I taught the girls their most recent verse, "Love is patient, love is kind." How quickly I can lose my temper with my little ones and speak to them harshly, loudly, unkindly. This morning, as we prepared to run errands, Mirabella was especially fragile, telling me, "My feelings just feel too strong today!" and taking a break at the same time I needed her to be getting her shoes on. I probably rolled my eyes and made a sarcastic comment. When she came back down, she told me the way I had talked to her made her upset, hurt her feelings. I knew that it had. And all she had done wrong was not moved quickly enough, with the same sense of urgency I had. Once we were finally on our way, I apologized to my children. I do it a lot. For yelling, for losing my patience, for being unkind. How can I teach Mirabella to manage her emotions if, when pushed, I can't seem to do it myself? Who doesn't need a "break" now and then? We agreed to push our reset button on the day and move on, and we did.
It amazes me how unprepared we are to parent well. I was previously one of the least compassionate people I've ever known. My children are teaching me love, consideration, patience, kindness, and compassion in ways I would have scoffed at not long ago. I am not the mother I thought I'd be. But maybe these little girls are helping me inch a bit closer to the kind of mother I'd like to be.