By, Jenny Kleppe
On November 2, when there was no school at All Seasons, our teaching staff had the privilege of attending a presentation by Tina Feigal, Parent Coach and Mental Health Professional. Ms. Feigal focused on how parents and teachers can best help children who have experienced some type of trauma. Trauma can be defined as “big trauma” such as abuse or neglect or “small trauma” such as overhearing their normally loving parents fight with each other. Children who experience either type of trauma tend to display challenging behaviors that can be difficult for parents and teachers to navigate. Ms. Feigal discussed how to support children when they exhibit these difficult behaviors, which as we all know, is truly all children at one time or another!
She recommended that instead of giving children consequences for difficult behavior or focusing on punishment, parents and teachers should instead work to emotionally attune to the upset child and focus on strengthening their relationship. When children engage in their most challenging behaviors (crying, screaming, kicking, spitting, throwing, etc.), they are using the part of their brain that is used for survival (the amygdala). The message their behavior is communicating is “I am afraid I am not safe.” During this time, a young developing brain is incapable of using the logical, thinking, prefrontal cortex part of the brain that oversees registering consequences. Children will simply not hear adults giving consequences and the adults are basically wasting their breath, becoming even more frustrated.
What to do instead? When a child is stuck in the emotional state of fear, our job is guide them with love and to make them feel safe and seen. Sometimes that looks like a hug. Sometimes that looks like saying, “I see you” or “I’m here for you when you need me.” It is only after a child is calm and feels safe that they can use the parts of their brain that can make connections between their behaviors and the results.
This is not to say we should do nothing and simply be passive observers waiting for a child’s next outburst. Parents and teachers should be active and proactive during calmer times by creating opportunities for future success.
Ms. Feigal’s calls this “heartfelt appreciation,” which is sending children positive input or messages that make them feel seen, appreciated, and loved. The easiest way to do this is use the following phrase:
“When you…. I feel…because.”
Here are a few examples of these types of statements:
“When you do your chores without me asking first I feel so happy because I know you are helping take care of our family.”
“When you play kindly with your sister I feel so proud because I can see you are trying to share.”
“When you are quiet when Mommy is on the phone I feel so cared for because you understand Mommy needs to have a grown-up conversation.”
“When you remembered to give that toy to your friend when you were done with it I felt happy because you remembered he wanted to play with it.”
When you…I feel…because.
It feels so silly to do this at first – prescribed and phony, even. But consistency with these types of messages to children will form deep rut neural pathways in their little brains, permanent messages telling children “I am smart,” “I am kind,” “I am caring,” or “I am loved.” These “when you…I feel…because” messages are ways to essentially download success into their hearts.
I have been using these types of statements more and more both when teaching here at All Seasons and at home with my own children. My daughter has always been the type to beam at any sort of praise. But these statements go beyond simple, pat praise. They provide specific descriptions of the type of behavior we want to see in our children. They describe the qualities and roles that all parents and teachers hope children will develop: helper, friend, problem solver, thinker, champion.
My son is very different than my daughter. Daily, he does something to push my buttons, his dad’s buttons, or his other teachers’ buttons. These phrases have been eye opening. When I take the time to make these statements, even for the smallest thing, he lights up and hangs onto the words. Just a few days ago, I told him, “When you got your pajamas on right away I felt so happy because now we can read three stories and I love reading with you.” He absolutely lit up, ran to get the books, and said, “I love reading with you too, Mommy, and I love you.”
Another one for him: “When you cleared your dishes without being asked I felt proud because you were helping.” His response, “I’m a great helper! Can I help you with anything else?”
It is important to note that Tina Feigal specifically stated that When you…I feel…because statements should only be used for positive input and NEVER for a negative interaction. It does more harm than anything else for a child to hear that they made someone feel sad, bad, or angry, even if they did indeed do something to elicit those emotions. So remember- only for good, positive, input!
These statements won’t solve all the problem behaviors, but they will make it clear to children that they are good, they are seen, and they are loved.
For more on Tina Feigal’s work, her books Pocket Coach for Parents and Present Moment Parenting are excellent resources for parents and teachers alike.
Tina Feigal works with families as a Parenting Coach in the Midwest area at Anu Family Services www.anufs.org