The Vital Importance of Early Social and Emotional Skills
I was floored by the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. Floored.
He represented recovery and a life lived large. He was curious and vibrant and full of energy. His suicide felt like a harsh reminder that we never truly know what battles a person is fighting.
It is, no doubt, a hard time to be a human. And, I think, quite frankly, we make it harder by forgetting, or rather, neglecting, our humanness. We begin this process early and then build on that foundation throughout a person’s life. I think the biggest mistake we are making is valuing academic success and achievement over social/ emotional skills, particularly in early childhood.
In doing this, I think we are raising generations of high functioning, but clinically depressed or chronically anxious people.
So, my plea… Don’t worry that your young child is academically gifted, don’t worry that they might “fall behind”, allow them to have and enjoy a childhood that is socially and emotionally rich. The other stuff will fall into place. Let your 0-8 year old learn how to feel, relate to their feelings, understand the feelings of others, be a good friend, learn how to ask for help and learn how to accept help and love without feeling like a burden.
I know it is scary to think about your child “falling behind”, but hopefully we can create a paradigm shift in how we think about childhood in this country, so academic achievement will no longer be the estimation of good parenting. I do want to differentiate between love of learning and external pressure to succeed. Children are learning all the time, in every thing that they do. A childhood that nurtures this kind of child led learning will result in a person who is a life long learner. It’s about taking away the pressure to achieve based on arbitrary, age and developmentally inappropriate markers, and loving the learning your child is doing through exploration and play. In doing that, you will also leave room for the social and emotional skills to develop. The following are suggestions about how you can elevate healthy spiritual development in your home and family.
The best and most organic way our children learn is through our modeling. Talk about your feelings. Be conscious that the conversations in your home are at least balanced between feeling and doing. What I mean is, it’s natural that you’re going to talk about what your little one did at school, but also ask, how did you feel? And, model that in conversations. “Mommy had a meeting today and I was really frustrated about a project I’m working on. I asked my boss to help me, though, and tomorrow we’re going to sit down and figure it out together.”
Model Conflict resolution
If you are in an argument with your partner, allow the children to know about it (in a healthy way). “Daddy and I are talking about our summer plans and we’re having a hard time agreeing on where to go. We both feel really strongly that we want to do what we want to do. We’re going to take a break and talk about it again when we can listen to each other better.” And then, follow up.
With your children, with your partner, and friends, repair is a hugely important relational skill. It means that you know you make mistakes, you can admit to your mistakes and the other person’s feeling are more important than you’re ego getting to feel “right.” This should be part of every relationship, especially your relationship with your children.
Help to Enhance Frustration Tolerance
This includes your own. Your family home should be a space where frustration can be heard and held and it doesn’t cause unnecessary distress. This starts young. Manage your instinct to jump in and save your infant or child from feeling frustrated as they master a new task. Instead, narrate. “Wow, you’re learning to roll over and you’re so frustrated. “ “You are working so hard to pull yourself up. Keep working, my love!” (With the first two examples, I wasn’t to stress, frustration is normal and natural and healthy, but if they become distressed, then you should intervene and comfort them)
“I can see you’re frustrated with your little brother. He keeps knocking down your tower. I feel frustrated, too, because I see how hard you’re working. Do you want to sit with me a moment and we can both take some deep breaths, and then I can help you to rebuild?” By not rescuing your child, you are acknowledging that you can handle whatever feelings they might be having. Then, you become a source of support, and they don’t internalize your discomfort with big feelings. The same is true for sadness, anger, fear. ALL feelings should have space to be in your home, because ALL feelings will occur.
Don’t Shield Your Child From Your Feelings
Allowing your child to see you sad or angry or frustrated or scared, will help to enhance their ability to empathize, and also normalize feelings for them. It’s also ok if you have feelings that seem out of control to model the healthy behavior of seeking help. “Mommy was feeling sad a lot and so she found a person called a therapist who she talks to every week and who helps her to understand her sad feelings better.” Again, this helps to normalize feelings and also the very healthy behavior of seeking help.
Show Your Child That You See Them
Notice if they are challenged by something and narrate it for them. This is helpful for young children and as they grow up.
“I see you are really worried that your friend might want the car you’re playing with. It’s ok if you’re not ready to share. Can you use your words and tell him?”
“I saw you struggling with your homework and it seemed really frustrating. I don’t know if I can help with the work, but I’m happy to sit with you and try to figure it out.”
“You seemed upset after the game today. Whenever you’re ready to unpack it, let’s have some lemonade and talk.”
Use language that makes sense for you, but make sure your child has the experience of being seen and acknowledged by you.
Be Careful Not to Assume You’re Having The Same Feelings as Your Child
Another HUGELY important relational skill is to ask questions. When our children are young we narrate experiences, doing our best to understand what they’re feelings are and then feeding that language to them. BUT, as they get older, it becomes important to ask how they’re feeling. Your assumptions might feel like an impediment to them sharing their real feelings. Ask questions. Then, wait for their answer. Be patient. Your child is developing skills, and that takes time.
Again, I don’t think anyone is actually going to “fall behind” if we’re able to shift focus. This is a more organic and natural way of developing a human. First they develop a body, then a soul, then a mind. But, if we miss this period of instilling healthy social and emotional relatedness, then it’s very hard to go back and change the bad habits that are formed. Do this early, create this foundation, the rest will come.