Transforming Children And Teen’s Anger and Hurt Into Life Lessons

Using Simple Dramatic Play to Build Emotional Skills

Frowning faces, furrowed brows, and grumpy expressions describes our family’s morning meeting on Monday (and Tuesday, if I’m being honest) as we launched into yet another week of homeschooling. Tired of the pressures of schooling during a pandemic, we are needing to rally all of the spirit we can muster on some of our days to get through the work ourselves while attempting to inspire our child to do the same. In our homeschooling, we are discovering the incredible learning opportunities afforded by dramatic play. In Language Arts, our son is writing, constructing and performing a puppet show, his own interpretation of a novel he just finished. And in World History, he’s going to be learning to converse with a friend in Shakespeare-style iambic pentameter. Why not incorporate the big feelings of the moment into our learning too?

In fact, this idea of teaching about emotions through the dramatic arts is not novel at all. The Inuit families who live in the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia make the acting out of anger, our reactions to anger and it’s possible outcomes with their children a widely-used and accepted part of their parenting practices. In fact, Ethnographer Jean Briggs who lived and studied Inuit families reported “…something remarkable was going on in these families: The adults had an extraordinary ability to control their anger.”1 Evidence on how parents were teaching children about anger was found in the consistent healthy management of anger by adults in the community years later. And their formula was simple. When a child gets angry, so their tradition goes, it poses an opportunity to teach a child about how to react. Inuit parents will stop in that heated moment or revisit It later. They act out together how the anger feels from one person to the other including what they feel like doing with the feeling, and if/when they lash out, how it feels to other person, the consequences to the relationship, and how to repair harm if caused. There’s much we can learn from this! Check out the full article from National Public Radio here entitled How Inuit Parents Raise Children to Control Their Anger.

As tensions continue in our family lives, there’s an important opportunity of the moment if we seize it. The big feelings we are all encountering daily and weekly provide a common experience among adults and the children they love. What better chance do we have of teaching our children emotional intelligence than at a time when their emotions are running at a fever pitch? I know what you may be thinking now, reader. “How can I possibly teach emotional intelligence when I’m feeling overwhelmed, run down, and highly anxious myself?” Well, it’s a good question. And you can! Let me explain.

It helps to draw upon a research-backed framework that gives four essential factors of parenting resilience.They are:

  1. Social connection and support;
  2. Knowledge of parenting and child development;
  3. Social and emotional competence of children; and
  4. Ability to ask for and accept help.

This framework provides the hope that as you gain knowledge of your own role as a parent (you are doing that right now!), you can learn ways in which to promote your child’s social and emotional skills which, in turn, will offer you greater empathy, patience, and sense of agency and competence. In other words, you’ll have greater endurance for the marathon of stress we are now running together. Learning how to manage your own stress and teaching your children how to manage their own big feelings in healthy ways just may be one of the most significant opportunities of our time. Preparing this generation with the tools to be change-makers and agents of social and racial justice will require that social and emotional training.

Check out my simple ideas for transforming the drama of the moment into a vital lesson for the future.

  1. Invest in the Pause. 

No matter what is going on, no matter your level of frustration, the pause is your best friend. It will transform any immediate reactions based on impulse that may leave you with regret later. Impulse and feeling happen instantly but thought takes a moment. So allow your reaction to be informed by your thoughts by pausing in the midst of the drama. Have a hard time stopping the escalation? Say “stop” or “time out” aloud — for yourself. This will assist your whole body and brain even when highly upset in taking that essential pause. Even better, agree with your family on a word or phrase (such as, “freeze”) you’ll say to each other when there’s a need to pause the drama.

  1. Ask, Listen, Accept.

Though we often think we know exactly what our child are thinking and feeling, we don’t. We may pride ourselves on knowing them best. Yet, the very fact that they are children or teens means that they approach life differently than we do. Though it may be tempting to assume, it’s important that we ask them what’s going on for them. Our fears and worries often are not theirs. But they can become theirs if we engage in projections and assumptions. So as you pause and take a moment to breathe before responding, be sure and ask, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling?” and listen carefully so that you address the problem they are perceiving. And then, whatever feelings they share, we need to be ready to accept them — even those that make us uncomfortable or annoyed. And there are those days when we are right on the verge of our own explosion when it feels like one more challenging feeling from our child will make us erupt. If we reach that near boiling point, go back to the start. Invest in the pause. Breathe. Write down your own feelings. Validate what’s going on for you. Then, return to your child to accept that their hearts are never wrong, that we accept their emotions helping them feel supported and understood.

  1. Brainstorm Healthy Ways to Respond – Together.

Working together to think of healthy ways to respond teaches your child that they have options in any problem and can take steps to feel better and make better choices.  Generating ideas together also takes the heavy lift off of the parent to fix the situation or figure it all out. In fact, if the parent engages in fixes, they rob the child of their social and emotional learning opportunity. But co-creating solutions scaffolds their participation in learning about healthy coping skills and making responsible decisions.

  1. Reenact the drama.

When the heat has died down, create a moment to return to the drama for the purpose of learning. It may look a bit differently depending upon the age of the child.

For young children – Pretend play is a hallmark of young children and they are ready to engage in dramatic reenactments on a moment’s notice. So use this to help advance their emotional skills. Be sure and get down on your young child’s level to equalize power. This is important. Make it simple. “I’m so mad. I can feel my face is red. I feel hot. What do you look like when you’re mad?” Make faces at each other — the more dramatic, the better. Then ask, “What can we do or say to feel better?” Be sure that you think of options that cool the heat. In other words, don’t raise voices or throw pillows. Instead, hug a pillow, or get a cool drink of water. Discover together multiple ways to feel better.

Elementary-aged Children – You might ask, “What happens to make you mad?” Then, play act out the story your child offers. Whether it’s a classmate sneering at a joke your child makes or you telling your child to get off screens, you might offer, “let’s act it out and see how it goes.” Try out your own respective roles. “I cannot believe you are making me get off video games now! It’s so unfair!” And you offer what you might say in response, “It’s not right. You know the rules. You’ve taken more time than you are allowed anyway.” Now call, “Time out!” Stop the action. Ask some reflective questions about the moment. “What were you feeling in your body to indicate you were mad?” This raises self-awareness. You may share your own typical physical symptoms you feel when you’re mad as a model. ”I can tell my heart starts racing. I heat up too. What can we do to get to a better place?” Brainstorm together ideas for feeling better and addressing the problem at hand without placing blame or criticizing. And if justice is at issue, anger is a critical emotion to help motivate to action. Discuss what your child can do to right wrongs in ways that create fairness and respect.

Tweens and Teens – This age group is particularly interested in social dynamics and drama. So play on this interest. When friends argue or someone on social media gets mad, what does it look like? What does it sound like? Place your teen in the role of youth culture expert and learn from their experiences. Ask for the full story including what happens when a friend or social media icon “loses it.” What happens in the moment? And even more importantly, what happens later to their reputation? Then, play act It out. You might ask, “Show me how it sounds” and then, “Did this cause harm to you or others?” and if so, “What could this person have done instead?”  Be sure and reflect back that anger can be a vital emotion for moving a person to change, to take action, to right a wrong, or correct an injustice. The question to ask then is, “How can you use your strong feelings to pause and consider how to bring greater justice, fairness and respect to the situation?”

We are living through times that produce big feelings for adults and children regularly. We can offer our children and teens a pathway to building strength and resilience if we teach them how to use their anger productively and constructively. Our world requires change-makers everywhere to turn around racial injustice and a global pandemic and it is necessitating our emotional courage. Take these small family fires as opportunities to teach your children that they can be change-makers today and you’ll help prepare them for a bright future.

References:

  1. Doucleff, M. & Greenhalgh, J. (2019). How Inuit Parents Raise Teach Kids to Control their Anger. National Public Radio.
  2. Center for the Study of Social Policy (2018). Framework for Parental Resilience; Protective and Promotive Factors; https://cssp.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ProtectiveFactorsActionSheets.pdf

Are You Spring Breaking At Home?

A Week of Joyful Challenges and Shared Responsibilities

Though last year, we had an enforced staycation for spring break, this year, we may choose to stay home again considering the pandemic is not over quite yet. Ours begins this week and we feel weary and in real need of a break, like many parents and educators, who have been working non-stop during exceptional times. Though time off offers the hope of renewal, we lose the comfort of a schedule for our children. I admittedly was daunted by the thought of a whole week home with a twelve-year-old who, if plans and expectations were not established, would indulge in screen time most of that time or else whine about boredom. Yes, we’ll be playing card games and board games and doing puzzles together. But I also wanted to promote independent play. So what’s a caring parent to do? I reached out to a wise friend to see how she was handling the expanse of time and she was ready with some reliable ideas.

If you too find yourself daunted by a safe staycation, let the following ideas guide and inspire you! 

Establish Expectations for your Morning Routine

By what time will you get up and how? When will you eat breakfast and who will provide it? By what time do pajamas come off and day clothes go on? Though you want your child to have some freedom, the morning routine can cause considerable stress if all family members are not clear about expectations and also, take some responsibility for their own roles. Get together as a family. Discuss each of your respective roles and responsibilities. Agree on a plan together. Check out this video short on ways to create a smooth morning routine.

Work Together to Manage Screen Time 

Learn together about the brain development impacts on children and teens so that it’s not just you, the “meanie” parent saying screen time should be limited but an understood science-based principle about healthy development. Check out Common Sense Media for a helpful overview.

Create a System for Screen Time Tracking

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of screen time per day for children three years and up including teenagers. If children must work on screens for school work, that time can be assigned or limited differently since that may be the only way they can get their school work accomplished. But for video gaming, YouTubing, Netflixing and any other entertainment, the recommendation is two hours a day.

My friend’s method is simple and elegant. Her girls each have four 1/2 hour popsicle sticks (color on one end is red to designate used-up time and on the other, green for unused time). Each half hour they use, they flip over the stick in a cup to designate time used.

My son keeps a chart on a white board. He knows he’s allotted fourteen hours per week (or two hours per day) and can go over on any given day but knows he must keep that fourteen hour balance and sacrifice screen time at the end of the week if he uses it up.

My friend allows exceptions for family movie nights. Those do not count toward her girls’ hours. For us, we’ve created an exception for piano learning on YouTube. Our son used to have lessons outside our home but now, he learns online so that we offer an extra hour a day for his online learning. How will you agree to track screen time in your household?

For a family meeting agenda and a template of a family media agreement, check out this article that will also help you learn together about why limiting screen time is important.

Create a List of your Child’s Favorite Non-Screen Activities.

Have you noticed that when a child gets off a screen, they feel lost and unsure what to do? Their hormone levels have been so stimulated and rewarded by the screen time that it can be disorienting without that level of stimulation. That’s why it’s important to develop a go-to list of non-screen activities that are favorites of your child’s. When she shuts down, she can visit her list and consider a range of options instead of looking to you to figure out what’s next. Now that the family is home together, why not also create a family list of favorite things to do individually and together?

Get Outside at Least Once a Day (Regardless of the Weather)

We all need some fresh air and simple exercise. The outdoors offers both. So set the expectation with your family that it doesn’t matter what time of day they choose, all should get outside and refresh their bodies and minds with a walk around the block, a bike ride, or a gander around the backyard. 

Ensure That Each Family Member is Responsible for a Chore (per day or per week)

Learn more about teaching how to do chores through interactive modeling, creating a team work environment, and agreeing upon age-appropriate tasks for children.

Allow for Plenty of Freedom and Offer Creative Prompts

Yes, freedom is a wonderful thing if your child will take advantage of the time. But we are so conditioned to rely on screens for our entertainment, that your child could be challenged by the large amount of free time. For our spring break time, I created daily prompts that I posted for our family. Set a tone by posting the challenge and turning on music that will inspire calm or creativity energy (and turn off news which can create a stressful energy). Lay out inspiring and novel art supplies to help with the challenge. You could choose a different theme for your week like the arts, nature, or even a favorite story book. 

Consider the fact that a focus on the arts may offer a chance for your child to express fears, worries, or other emotions they are experiencing during this unique time. Here are some ideas from our week of the arts  that offers daily choices…

Arts Week

Day One: Creative Writing

  • Decide on a friend or relative that lives in another town. Write a pen pal letter and mail.
  • Write a song to express your current emotions.
  • Write a poem on a favorite memory from a birthday.

* Offer a couple of alternatives for writing tools including loose leaf paper and pens, typewriter, or markers and plain paper.

Day Two: Drawing

  • Still Life: Place an already constructed Lego set or other interestingly shaped toy in the center of a table to draw.
  • Self Portrait: Use long paper to do a full body outline of your child. Then allow him/her to fill in their own self-portrait details. Build on it by writing different unique attributes of your child’s identity around his portrait.
  • Landscape: Using a rectangular-shaped paper, challenge your child to illustrate the setting for his/her favorite character’s story. Go “plein air” if the weather is nice and take your supplies outside to draw from your yard.

Day Three: Drama

  • Write a play about three kids who discover a portal to another world in their basement.
  • Create a video acting out a number of big emotions.
  • Develop a skit telling a story of a favorite animal and her friends without any words.
  • Create a puppet show that explains to aliens from outer space the global pandemic.

Day Four: Sculpture

  • Get out clay or play dough and generate a list of favorite objects. Pick one to sculpt.
  • Take a walk around your block and find interestingly shaped natural objects. Bring them back and use a hot glue gun (with a parent’s help) to glue together a found object sculpture.
  • Use multi-colored construction paper and create a three-dimensional bouquet of spring flowers.

Day Five: Dance

  • Turn on your favorite music and host a family dance party.
  • Learn new moves and techniques on YouTube together. Our friends recommend Just Dance.
  • Play GoNoodle Movement videos and follow along each time you plan to transition to a new activity – from breakfast to playtime, after lunch, and late afternoon.

Though we do not have a daily agenda or full day routine during spring break, we still have plenty of ideas to keep our imaginations fueled and bodies, minds, and spirits fully engaged. When you are spending time together as a family, check out these – anytime, anywhere collaborative games that will promote family connection!

Wishing you joy, creativity, and connection for your time off together!

*Many thanks to wise friend Kimberly Allison for her tips this week that inspired this post!

Originally published in April, 2020.

Special Thanks to All Who Participated in International SEL Day!

Jennifer Miller of CPCK co-founded SEL4OH in her home state with Pamela McVeagh-Lally this past year. We are grateful to long-time social and emotional learning champion U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan for recognizing SEL Day in the Congressional Record!

With organizations and participants around the world, there were 12 million views on #SEL Day posts and social media! What an incredible way to raise awareness about the importance of social and emotional learning for our children and ourselves! It was hosted by The Urban Assembly and SEL4USA and we feel so much gratitude for their leadership! Also, big thanks to the many Confident Parent’s collaborators who offered their wisdom on this site and through social media that day including Roger Weissberg, Nikkya Hargrove, Erik Keefe, Mike Wilson, Pamela McVeagh-Lally, Shannon Wanless, Fernando Restoy, Annmarie McMahill, Rebecca Bauer and Agenda Bonner.

What did you need from your parents when you were a teen?

Jennifer was able to talk with a few young professionals who gave insight into what they needed as a teenager from their parents.

How can families Partner with educators on their children’s Social and emotional Development in Equitable, inclusive ways?

There were a number of educational leaders committed to social and emotional learning that shared their perspectives on this question.

How Can Parents Teach Racial and Social Justice?

We are having some valuable conversations today! Teaching your children about racial and social justice can be challenging but also vital. Check out what these experts who are also parents have to say.

How Can Parents Teach Social and Emotional skills?

Check out what these professionals who are also parents have to say!

Happy International #SEL Day!

In celebration and recognition of the ways in which we best promote our children’s development and our own, Confident Parents, Confident Kids’ Jennifer Miller will be posing questions all day to a diverse range of experts who are also either parents, educators, nonprofit leaders and even some young adults who will answer questions about their own upbringing. Watch for these questions and answers here on the blog or our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/confidentparentsconfidentkids) and also, on Twitter, @JenniferSMiller. Thank you so much to the sponsors SEL4US and the Urban Assembly! Check out the #SELDay page for more information on events happening today.

How do we define social and emotional learning?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at the University of Illinois at Chicago defines it as (2020):

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.

Hope you’ll follow along and learn from the many experts we’re talking with today and also contribute to the dialogue yourself. So your first question is, how do parents become confident?

Happy #SEL Day!

#SEL4Equity, #SEL4US

International #SEL Day!

Friday, March 26th is a Day to Celebrate Social and Emotional Learning!

Confident Parents, Confident Kids is excited to be a part of International SEL Day! We’ve asked a diverse range of experts and parents questions about how they parent with social and emotional learning. We’ll be posting their responses like the one above from Fernando Restoy of The Ripple Effect all day long. I hope you’ll reshare and help shed light on the critical nature of social and emotional learning for ourselves and for our children!

Also, check out the many webinars and online events that will be happening!


#MySEL Competition

March 22, 2021 – March 26, 2021

During the week of March 22–26, educators from around the world will share their favorite strategies for teaching social and emotional learning in their classrooms, schools, and homes. On International SEL Day (Friday, March 26), members of the @SELinEdu community will vote on their favorite strategies.

Weaving SEL Assessment Data into the Fabric of Education

March 25, 2021 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm ET
In honor of SEL Day 2021, Educators from Northwood Elementary School in Michigan’s Parchment School District will share how they successfully integrate SELassessment data into daily instruction in multiple ways to strengthen SEL programs and practices.

WEBINAR: Children of the Pandemic: The mental health and resilience of children during COVID 19

March 26, 2021 @ 16.00-18.00 CET / GMT +1

On the occasion of International SEL Day on 26th March 2021, the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence (ENSEC) in collaboration with the Erasmus + Project Promoting Mental Health in Schools (PROMEHS) and the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University of Malta, are organising a webinar on mental health, wellbeing and resilience of school children during the pandemic.

Congressional Briefing: SEL Policy to Foster Connection after Trauma

March 26, 2021 @ 12:00 pm – 1:00 pm ET

How can federal policy support state efforts to foster positive youth skill development and overall mental health? In this briefing, students, members of Congress, and experts in child development will discuss the importance of social emotional learning (SEL) concepts and how they can be advanced through federal policy.

The Graduate Profile: Imagine the Possibilities on #SELDay

March 26, 2021 @ 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm ET
On International #SELDay, co-hosts Urban Assembly and SEL4US are teaming up with CASEL to discuss how Graduate Profiles can cultivate meaningful school experiences and how social and emotional learning can strengthen our vision of future-ready graduates. Celebrate #SELDay by hearing from leaders about why and how they adopted a Graduate Profile and join us in imagining what’s possible when all young people are socially, emotionally, and academically prepared for their futures.

Bringing SEL and Mental Health Back to School: Strengthening Districts Systems of Support Amidst the Impact of the Pandemic

March 26, 2021 @ 2:00 pm ET – 3:00 pm ET

In this interactive webinar, learn practical strategies you can use in your district to strengthen your systematic approach to social and emotional learning and mental health.This virtual workshop will introduce you to a data-driven and culturally-responsive process for recognize district’s strengths, identify gaps, and plan concrete action steps to strengthen your comprehensive approach to SEL/MH in your district.

Twitter Chat: International SEL Day!

March 26, 2021 @ 2:00 – 3:00 pm ET
Join an engaging Twitter Chat led by National University’s Sanford College of Education and co-hosted by Inspire Teaching & Learning and Harmony SEL. Education experts and SEL industry partners will discuss advocacy and policy promoting SEL in schools and communities. Follow along (@NatUniv) and join the conversation by using #NUSEL.

Celebrating International SEL Day! “Small” Talk with Rural School Leaders

March 26, 2021 @ 2:00 – 3:00 pm ET
International SEL Day 2021 gives people around the world the opportunity to showcase the social-emotional skills they use to build relationships and support their communities. This year, we’re celebrating “small” by highlighting the unique challenges and opportunities that smaller, rural school districts face while implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives.

It’s Not SEL If It’s Not Equitable: Using Teen-Written Stories About Racism to Reflect on Teacher SEL

March 26, 2021 @ 2:30 – 4:00 pm ETThis interactive 90-minute webinar for school leaders and teachers will review the equity-minded additions CASEL made to their competencies. These competencies—including examining our own biases and working with others to create change—are vital for teachers seeking to create a more just educational environment. With special guest: Dr. Robert J. Jagers, Vice President of Research, CASEL. Hosted by Youth Communication.

#SELDay #SEL4US #SEL4Equity

The Safety Cocoon We’ve Been Living In

Reflective Questions to Guide Our Emergence

In some ways this past year has felt like a year-long retreat. Each of us has experienced our own unique version. For my family, we’ve limited our outings considerably only shopping for essentials online. Our social life has amounted to run-ins with familiar eyes at the grocery store and “seeing” friends on online chats, our son on video games and in chat spaces. Our favorite ways to spend time together typically include daily walks and forays into nature. We meditate. We learn together (taking on homeschooling, yet another unexpected turn of events). I stare out of the window as a matter of course. “What are the birds up to today?” I wonder. We relish in our family dinners offering thanks for staying healthy, maintaining our jobs, and accessing fresh foods. If we are not exactly monks, we are narrowing in on a more simplistic existence.

I just don’t like people anymore,” my thirteen-year-old son teased but I know there’s a kernel of truth he’s expressing not wanting to emerge from our safety cocoon. Yet, upon this writing, more than 33 million people (or 10% of the U.S. population) have been fully vaccinated to prevent COVID-19. As we consider moving back out of our homes and into schools and workplaces, into community centers and restaurants, there are a number of reflective questions we can ask. After all if we’ve truly retreated, shouldn’t we emerge wiser? 

Pamela McLean of the Hudson Institute, author of The Handbook of Coaching; A Developmental Approach, describes a cocoon stage in a person’s life as triggered by an ending or life crisis that forces the person to turn inward. She eloquently writes, 

People who cocoon come come to terms with who they are without their previous roles dominating them. They work through an identity crisis and take time out, psychologically speaking, for soul searching. Little by little, out of solitude grows a more resilient self, anchored in a revised set of core values and sense of peace, all the while challenged by new purpose and passion.1

In this time of cocooning, we’ve felt vulnerable – to COVID, in our livelihoods, to differences that have divided relationships, to chaos and injustice in our neighborhoods and across the national and global landscape. And that sensitivity is characteristic of cocooning, when the caterpillar literally turns to goo and reforms her very identity. If she leaves too soon in the goo state, she will not survive. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable situation to be in this “neutral zone” in a world of do-ers and accomplishers who want to know what we’ve been up to — when in reality, we are staring out of the window wondering what the squirrels are thinking. In fact, it’s reassuring to understand that the emptiness felt during this time, the quiet, the aloneness, the space unfilled is exactly what we need to let go of our past, integrate it into our present and reform into something new.

This collective cocooning is challenging us all to accept and allow for an internal transformation to take place.  If we surrender to this uncomfortable place while we need it and use the time it takes to look inward – however long (and no one else can prescribe it for you!), we can emerge from our cocoon as a fully developed butterfly.

William Bridges in his book, “Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes” offers frameworks to understand these changes we are undergoing.2 He discusses the five “d”s we go through as we are letting go of our past identity and worldview including disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation. As we fully feel and face the endings we are experiencing along with the loss and grief and fear, we enter into this unknown, uncertain place. We can change our external environment to shake things up and attempt to speed the way out of the “neutral zone.” We can change jobs, move houses, get a divorce, or disown close friends with the mistaken notion that we’ll feel some relief from this new beginning it creates, a welcome distraction. Have you seen the real estate market? Meanwhile, our core is quietly begging us to stare out of the window and reflect on some deeply essential questions, questions that may require different answers than we’ve ever given before (and that’s scary cause maybe I’m not who I thought I was).

We are experiencing a unique moment to empathize with our tweens and teens since they are undergoing their own cocoon experience. They are in the process of reforming their identity wholly from “I am who my parents told me I am” to “I am who I believe I really am.” As they seek privacy, push us away, yearn for their independent time and space, we can recognize the signs of the “goo” state. They know they are vulnerable and they are highly sensitive to our comments, to anything that reeks of judgment because their vision of themselves is shakey and undetermined. We can find some peace in knowing that they are right where they should be existing in the midst of discomfort.  We are better equipped to support them and indeed more authentically aware if we too are existing in our developmental discomfort.

As we anticipate emerging from our cocoons, instead of risking a return to old stories and patterns when a new identity, set of core values and sense of purpose wants to be discovered, we may take some time to reflect. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • What am I deeply feeling these days including the layers beneath the surface?
  • Are there difficult feelings I’ve been escaping? How can I uncover them, own them, accept them, and make meaning of them in life-giving ways?
  • How have I fundamentally changed? What personas did I put on that I’ve shed in the past year? What qualities do I most want to embody going forward?
  • What do I know to be true? What do I stand for? What can’t I stand for?
  • Are there old stories or assumptions about my own identity that must change? How can I let them go?
  • Who do I envision being when I emerge from my cocoon?  What will my version of butterfly be like?
  • What is my reason for being, my sense of purpose that validates why I’ve been given the gift of life?
  • How do I want to be and give the best of who I am? How will I contribute to making a difference in the world (even if small)?
  • What boundaries do I need to set to assert who I newly am?

As we enter the spring season, it may remain wintertime inside our hearts and minds as we reflect on the past and integrate our learning so that we can move toward our emergent future. A blooming tulip’s petals, though beautiful at each stage of opening, cannot be forced open. If attempted, the tulip petals will rip. So too, in our own development, we cannot emerge until we we are ready. If we’ve taken time out to be reflective about our changing identity, we can enter spring time on our own terms and engage in an authentic rebirth.

References:

  1. McLean, P. & Hudson, F. (2012). The Completely Revised. Handbook of Coaching; A Developmental Approach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Bridges, W. (2004). Transitions; Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2nd Ed.). Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press.

Using Art To Help Children Tell Their Stories

Illustration by Joseph Belisle

By Guest Author Joseph Belisle

Long ago I bought an “art box” that was filled with about fifty post cards that featured a wide range of art done over the centuries from artists all over the world. When working with some of my art students, it is always a fun exercise to go through this box and let them pick out a favorite. They always choose something unique and surprising and they always tell me something insightful about themselves using the art from the postcard as a springboard for their feelings. Sometimes words can’t be found until a visual stimulus jogs a memory or suppressed feeling.   

For as long as I can remember, one painting in particular has stirred my soul and captured my imagination; Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World. It always fascinated and simultaneously disturbed me. Once I laid eyes on it, I could never really get it out of my head. Years later, when I finally committed to producing my first children’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Wyeth, Christina, the Olson House and that endlessly wide chasm of grass that separated Christina from that house. I reference this painting in my new children’s book, What if Wilhelmina, because it so strongly affected me and I found a way to use it to help tell my story.

In the book, which I both wrote and illustrated, I make use of classical art in my illustrations. As an art museum fan and lover of art history, I was intrigued by the idea of using classical art in this way. I wanted to somehow use the great artists that have long inspired me to help explain what was happening in the story I tell. I write about a real-life experience that happened to me and my family when my daughter was seven years old. I admittedly take some fun liberties in the book but it is based largely on real-life events. 

What if Wilhelmina is about my daughter and the time she lost her beloved pet cat and furry “sister” (as Wilhelmina is affectionately known in our house). On its surface, the story is indeed about a lost cat, but for me, I wanted to delve deeper into what my distraught daughter was really thinking during this upsetting time of “what ifs!” Referencing classical art helps tell my story, it also educates and helps explain the emotional state of my seven-year-old protagonist.

One example of how I use classical art in my book can be found when the little girl is being counseled by her parents.  At this point in the story, our little girl is very distraught about her missing animal. She’s in a veritable storm of worry and her parents fruitlessly try calming her down. What better painting to put over her head in this illustration than the dark and tumultuous Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt? It’s a classic and powerful painting that speaks to her fragile emotional state at this point in the story. 

In addition to being a children’s book author/illustrator, I run an LGBTQ youth group for a non-profit agency called Lighthouse. We meet once a week in a relaxed, social environment where the kids can talk about their feelings and share whatever is on their mind in a safe, non-judgmental space. Sometimes we have our meetings at local art galleries or museums and these are some of my favorite memories with the group. When we do this, I ask each of the kids to wander around the space and choose a specific piece of art that speaks to them. Then we gather around their favorite art and they talk about it.

Visiting galleries and museums like this has proven to be such a powerful and transformative experience for these teens. Each person had a different piece of art that spoke to them. It was incredible how, through the art, they were able to open up and talk about their feelings. They each saw something unique that, at first glance, didn’t resonate with me but through their stories, the artwork gained new life and meaning for me and for all of the other members. I saw how they connected with the artwork and I heard how it helped them tell their story of frustration, joy, heartbreak or whatever it was they were trying to say. The artwork helped them express bigger issues that were on their mind. 

Though What if Wilhelmina is aimed at a younger audience for ages 3 – 8, I’m so thrilled that it is connecting with all ages. Children are sending me their own drawings about more “what if” scenarios. Some of this art features more mischief that befalls our poor, lost cat and some of the art is about “what if” scenarios featuring the disappearance of something that they love — like a favorite stuffed animal that once was lost but now is found. The idea of loss or even impending loss can be upsetting and through art children can tell their own stories and subsequently heal.

I am planning more children’s books in this “What If” series. A second book is written but I’m still pondering what classical art I’ll use to help tell this next story. I’m trying to write about fears that hex children. That is what piques my interest. By using classical art references to tell my stories, I hope it will further enrich not only the books I write but start children on life-long journeys to loving art history. Art has so much to teach us and I’m just beginning to tell my stories and write my books. Hopefully, I’ll have more books to come that will feature even more art-enriched experiences that we can all learn from.

Art can have an amazing effect. Two people can look at the same image yet still have completely different reactions to it. You may connect with a piece of art that leaves me flat or I may see something in an abstract painting that you see as just blobs of color. That’s the fun and interesting thing about the visual arts; it’s up for interpretation by the viewer. 

Art can be a great way to connect with your child when words just won’t suffice. Give them ample opportunity to be creative by always having lots of art supplies around and at the ready. Take the time to look at art with your children by simply looking at a picture books or magazines together, browsing online together, or by bringing them into galleries and museums. This can make for very rich, fun and rewarding experiences that will help you both grow and learn more about one another.     

Author: Joe Belisle is the Coordinator & Lead Adult Facilitator of the Kids In Crisis LGBTQ teen group, Lighthouse. He is coming up on his ninth year working with LGBTQ teens and he learns something new from them every time they meet. Joe is also an author and illustrator of a new children’s book called “What if Wilhelmina.” The book is based on a true family story and will launch in early March, 2021 from Blair Publishing. He, his husband David, 12-year-old daughter Faith, and Wilhelmina the cat, all live happily together in Old Greenwich.

To order “What If Wilhelmina,” check it out here!

CPCK Note: We love this book and are so grateful to Joseph for writing about how to use art to help children express their feelings! This tale of a little girl losing her beloved cat shows how children can quickly escalate their little worries into big ones imagining catastrophes that haven’t actually occurred and amounting to an emotional spin out. With numerous opportunities for dialogue about the themes, this delightful children’s book shows how pausing, seeking support in caregivers, expressing feelings – through words and through art – can offer valuable support in tumultuous times. Highly relevant and relatable, this is a story that will help families discuss how to manage times of worry or uncertainty.

Jennifer Miller and her son learned about three game-changing female artists this week in seventh grade homeschool including Mary Cassatt, Frida Kahlo, and Georgia O’Keefe and how they expressed their feelings through their work in recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!

%d bloggers like this: