In Floortime, we talk a lot about emotions: emotional awareness, early social-emotional capacities, using emotional expressions, accepting all emotional expressions in our children, etc. We even use it interchangeably with the noun affect, which the dictionary equates with emotion. But there is a risk when we only consider emotions rather than affect, as it is used in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based model, referred to as the DIR model.
There is a lot of talk about emotions and how parents should teach their children about them. There are charts to look at the degree of your emotion with green, yellow, and red zones. There are even board games about emotions. Let’s think about what these methods do: they help children label something. However, these cognitive methods are just a starting point. They may help children memorize the definition of each emotion, but they are a far cry from children having an understanding of what each emotion feels like.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan gave a great example in many of his talks about how showing a child a flashcard of an apple can never give the child the experience of holding a real apple in their hand, taking a bite out of it, and experiencing the juicy taste of the apple. It is through this latter experience that the child will learn and generalize what an apple is. Can this be taught? The answer is “no”. Similarly, for a child to really learn what it means to feel happy, sad, angry, jealous, or ashamed, a child would need to experience what each emotion feels like.
Our goal in Floortime is not only to help children recognize and label their emotions, but also to support their experience and understanding of them. In order to do this, they need the support of a warm, nurturing Relationship, within which they can regulate these complex emotions through affective reciprocal interactions. While a chart or board game can be a starting point for labelling emotions, without these continuous affective circles of communication between the child and others, teaching how to label one’s emotions can only go so far.
Beyond teaching our children how to label emotions, then, how can we really help them learn about their own emotions? The first step is by making room for them, which means not shutting down your child’s emotional expressions. When we say things like, “Calm down!“, “You’re OK“, “Stop that right now!“, “Don’t cry!“, “That’s enough!“, we are shutting down our children’s opportunity to learn about emotions. This is especially confusing for our children if we ourselves are saying these things with intense emotion ourselves, such as loudly yelling this at them.
Why do we do this? It could be that it’s the way we were parented ourselves, and/or because of our discomfort with expressions of negative emotion, or even with extremes of positive emotion. It could be that this display of emotion signifies to others that our children don’t have self control, which we believe reflects on our own parenting skills. It is also indicative of us as caregivers not being comfortable with our own emotions. If we can’t understand and tolerate our own emotions, it will make it very challenging for us to tolerate them in others.
In order for healthy emotional development to proceed, we need to experience, or feel all of our emotions which will be impossible if some of them are being shut down by others. Next, yes, we need the label to identify our feeling: the experience of the emotion. But labelling to identify will help us learn and develop when it happens spontaneously within an affective interaction with another caring person. “Oh, I can see how frustrated you are right now!” “Oh boy, you are really excited about this!” “Uh-oh, this is really scary!”
We can also support our children’s learning of emotions when they are noticing emotion in their peers or even in us. Maybe we stub our toe and give out a good yelp. The child is startled and looks at us. We can say “Ouch! That really hurt! I’m frustrated!” Maybe we hear another child crying at the park. We can foster understanding by commenting with a lot of emotion in our voice, “He’s really sad. I wonder what happened?” or we can see a child jumping up and down with glee and comment, “Look how excited that boy is over there!”
Another important piece that we’ve covered before is that of co-regulation. Before our children can self-regulate, defined by Dr. Stuart Shanker as ‘how effectively and efficiently a child deals with stress then recovers‘, they learn to co-regulate with their caregiver. This involves mostly non-verbal communication, which is affective communication: facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, body language, etc. Our children can co-regulate with us when they feel understood by us through our affective communication. That is, our calming and empathetic facial expressions and sympathetic gestures, etc. will help calm our children down.
Do you now better understand the difference between teaching the labelling of emotions versus how children actually learn about their emotions? If you found this post helpful, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter via the links below, and please share any related experiences or comments in the Comments section below.
Until next time… here’s to affecting autism!