Catching Emotions

“…it’s just emotion that’s taken me over…”

–          Emotion, Bee Gees

The baby books are keen on discussing “emotional contagion,” noting that babies, even in utero, can feel your emotions and tend to adopt those same emotions (just to add to our Mommy guilt!). And certainly you’ve experienced the contagion in your family life. One person has a bad day at work and suddenly, all family members are grumpy and upset about even the smallest things. There’s actually a physiological origin to emotional contagion. Researchers have studied facial muscles during emotional experiences and have found that the muscles in others’ faces mimic the one who is experiencing the strong emotion.[i] Because of this physical reaction, we can’t help but catch some of the emotions of others particularly when they are strong ones. The trick in dealing with this is to recognize that it’s happening when it’s happening and to actively work to change the family climate so that it doesn’t take over a whole Saturday, ruin plans, or escalate normally small, insignificant conflicts into big ones.

What can you do? When another family member catches a cold or flu, you take proactive steps not to catch the cold. In that case, maybe you take some Vitamin C, wash your hands more frequently, and get enough rest. Keeping it simple, here are some ideas for proactively stopping a contagious emotion that threatens to ruin a perfectly good day.

For Small Problems

Pleasantly surprise – I’m not sure anyone has been able to stay mad in our household when chocolate chip cookies are baking in the oven and the smell is wafting throughout the house. Turn things around by offering a pleasant surprise to change the physical and psychological atmosphere in the house when you recognize that the contagion is trying to spread and take hold. The best strategies involve multiple senses. Play some favorite happy music (gentle and calming or upbeat depending upon your audience), bake cookies or brownies, burn a candle with an enjoyable aroma, make a fire in the wintertime, pop popcorn, play a feel-good movie or show, or even go out for a treat.

Find something to laugh about – There are particular family jokes that get a laugh everytime (often they have to do with bodily functions – I know – sophisticated, eh?!). Injecting humor can be the simple remedy needed to turn around a climate in the household. Have a singing fish or whatever strikes your families’ fancy at the ready for just such occasions.

Go to your happy place – Peter Pan[ii] had his happy thoughts to help him find his way to Neverland. Just getting the family out of the house and to a place that makes all members’ happy typically can change the tone of the day. Maybe you enjoy going to the park (places in nature have an added benefit of nourishing your spirit), getting some ice cream, or taking a Sunday drive. Whatever you choose, make it simple and not complicated. You want to make sure that going out doesn’t add to the stress (from traffic jams, long lines, or poor service) but reduces it.

Do something for someone else – I must give full credit to my Mom for this one. She not only said this everytime I was feeling bad but also lived it herself. “Why don’t we make some soup and take it to our next door neighbor?” “Why don’t you just go visit Rosemary and ask her to tell you some stories or memories?” These were regular suggestions in my household. At the time, I didn’t like to admit it, but they really worked. Schools do this through service learning, involving students in service whether in the school or beyond, in the community and then, tying it back to the curriculum. First, it’s an authentic way to put social and emotional skills into practice. And second, it promotes empathy, perspective-taking (understanding another’s perspective), and gratefulness for your own circumstances. Doing something for another can happen just as easily at home. Writing a note for a family member who has been sad with a few words and a smiley face can be just enough to make someone happy and make the giver feel good.

Read a short story together – Reading a short book can take only a few minutes but, if it’s a good one, can take you into another world and produce emotions other than the worry or anger that is trying to take hold.

Get creative – Grab some crayons and a coloring book or some paints and a paintbrush and express. No thinking allowed. It can be mesmerizing and calming to sink into the rhythm of drawing or painting using whatever materials are at the ready. Make sure you have the intent to throw out whatever you produce since it’s about the process, not the product.

For More Serious Problems

Directly address the problem in small manageable steps – The aforementioned series of ideas work if the problems are small and everyone is just a bit grumpy. But when a problem is big and there are great worries and fears on the part of one or all members of the family, then the way to change the family climate also changes. Creating a happy environment and distracting from the problem just won’t be enough when tensions run high. Consider how you might quickly entertain the children for a time (if it’s a partner or both partners that are experiencing worries and fears) by popping in a favorite movie or bringing out a novelty toy and sequester yourself with your partner to really discuss the issues. What’s at the heart of your worries and fears? Are there worst case scenarios going through your brain that, with a little conversation and maybe some research, you can eliminate? How can you seek out more information so that you can take some of those worries off your plate? What supports can you seek out to help with the situation? What action can you take? Try to take small steps toward eliminating your worries even if it’s making a plan or a timeline to take action. How can you combine forces and work together to make things better? Even small steps forward will alleviate some of the stress since you are actively working together toward a solution.

Do something for someone else – This one works with big and small problems. When combined with directly addressing the problem, it’s a one-two punch for feeling better. The reason being that it promotes empathy and puts your own problems in perspective through experience.


Berenstein, S. & Berenstein, J. (2006). The Berenstein Bears hug and make up. NY: HarperFestival. A story about a day in which the whole Bear family was grumpy with one another until the end of the day when they realized how silly they all were.

[i] Hess, U., & Blairy, S. (2001). Facial mimicry and emotional contagion to dynamic emotional facial expressions and their influence on decoding accuracy. International Journal of Psychophysiology. 40 (2): 129-141.

[ii] Barrie, J.M. (1911). Peter and wendy. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.


Cooling the Fire

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.                          

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Ahhh, family life! Being in a family means that all members will witness one another in the best and worst of times. Typically the worst means they are intensely upset about something. That upset is usually a great amalgam of emotions – stress, frustration, anger, hurt, worry, fear. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint what the problem is and which emotion is ruling the day. It’s a great challenge for adults to identify their own emotions so for children, who are still getting a sense of their emotions; how they feel, how to identify them and what they mean, it can be overwhelming. Even teenagers, who have had a bit more life experience than young children, seem to regress at times to their toddler days and they have their own form of meltdowns as they are overcome with hormones raging combined with a sense of the injustice of rules and the pressures of social life.

Multiple coping strategies to deal with the firestorm of emotions and stressors in life are not just helpful, but survival. Consider that most adult-onset illnesses and ailments are stress-induced. Without proper expression of emotions and coping strategies, many bury their emotions and those stresses, with no other outlet, turn into problems within the body. My husband is experiencing back problems as we speak as a direct result of work stress and cannot sit at his computer (his daily stance) without major pain. Medication, exercise and other therapies can assist but he knows that it won’t completely go away until he either changes his mental game or he changes his work circumstances.

Trying to problem solve when emotions are high is frustrating and ultimately, a waste of time. Your brain physically cannot take that leap because it’s kicked into the “fight or flight” response and the rest of your mental abilities are on automatic shut down until you can calm down. That’s why yelling at children when they’ve done something really wrong doesn’t work (but we’ve all been there!).  Their brain has shut down and they either want to run and hide or punch you. In fact, it takes everything in a child’s power not to do one of those two things.  You can test this if you like… if you have had a circumstance where you’ve been upset and yelled at your child, ask later in a calm moment when the upset has passed if the child remembers what you said when you yelled or even why you yelled in the first place. My experience has been, 9 out of 10 times, the child can’t remember so, I have asked myself, what am I teaching him? I know the one thing that he’s going to take away from the experience is that yelling is okay when you are mad or stressed because that’s what I’ve modeled. Ugh!

Here are some very practical ways to teach coping strategies for every age child so that they can have the opportunities to practice and become proficient at dealing with stress.


  1. Create a calm environment (have your calming tools at the ready so that it’s easy to grab and use when the situation arises)
  • Listen to soft music (headphones can be helpful in focusing attention on the music and blocking out the world for a time)
  • Listen to sounds of nature (from a sleeping sound machine or toy that makes bubbles or other soft sounds)
  • Snuggle in your favorite blanket and/or stuffed animal
  • Sit with your comfortable pillow, chair or other place to sit
  • For older children who can go out on their own, being outside in nature is a great place to cool down. For young children, pulling them in a wagon on a walk can be calming or taking a quiet drive.

We set up a favorite four year old size chair in our finished basement with a basket next to it of books about feelings, a book with Grandma’s voice reading a story, crayons and paper, a stuffed animal friend, and a toy that requires blowing a ball to keep it in the air (a.k.a. deep breathing). See Positive Time-Out And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and Classroom[i]  for a detailed description of how to create a calming down space.

2. Find a physical release

  • Pounding on a pillow
  • Kicking on a bed
  • Throwing a basketball
  • Riding a bike
  • Taking a walk
  • Hitting a tennis ball against an appropriate outdoor surface
  • Drawing or painting using readily accessible materials

It’s helpful to have strategies that can be done immediately inside the house so that they are not weather dependent. Also, they must be safe and of course, acceptable to you. Practice these too! And if it seems silly to practice, then laugh and make it a silly experience to practice. It will pay off when you remind the child to do it when they are really upset and need to express themselves in an acceptable way.

3. Engage in a distraction (use with caution)

  • An enticing picture book
  • A game
  • A television show episode or movie

Distractions can be helpful in calming a child but should only be used temporarily to cool down and to move on to problem solving. If a distraction becomes the only tool utilized, it can become more of a way to escape problems than a temporary way to calm down. Be sure that, if you use a distraction tool, you then have a conversation afterward about how the child was feeling and what the problem was so that it’s not ignored.

4. Practice deep breathing

Try finding a relatable character that makes the sound of deep breathing so that children can mimic that sound. PRACTICE at times when children are not upset. This is critical! For example, chuff like Thomas the Tank Engine[ii] (and practice the chuffing sound as deep breathing), breathe like Darth Vader[iii] (school age children may be more excited by mimicking Darth Vader) , or blow bubbles like Ariel, The Little Mermaid.[iv]  Pre-teen and teens may better relate to the breathing training that star athletes in track and field and swimming undergo to become powerfully in control of their bodies and brains. Slow, deep breathing will actually restore the brain to it’s former full power. It takes the brain out of survival “fight or flight” response and gives the person the ability to reflect on his/her feelings and the problem.

Only after coping strategies are used, can discussion about the problem begin.


For Parents:

Positive Time-Out And Over 50 Ways to Avoid Power Struggles in the Home and Classroom (Nelsen, 1999) gives simple and straight-forward ideas for creating a safe, supportive cool down space when emotions run high. There are lots of helpful tips for parents on ways to proactively prevent power struggles and teach a sense of responsibility.

To Read with Kids:

Bang, M. (2004). When Sophie gets angry – really, really angry… NY: Scholastic.

For 3 years and up, this is a terrific book for learning about how to deal with angry feelings. Sophie uses all of the strategies in the Cooling the fire article in a way that flows seemlessly. This is terrific!

Spelman, C.M. (2000). When I feel angry. Chicago, IL: Albert Whitman and Company.

This is a helpful picture book appropriate for 3 and up that features a young bunny who finds ways to deal with his anger.

Dewdney, A. (2007). Llama llama mad at mama. NY: Viking.

This is from the author of the best-selling, Llama, Llama Red Pajama. This one is also appropriate for 3 and up and offers an opportunity to discuss getting angry and having a meltdown in a public place.

[i] Nelson, J. (1999). Positive time-out; And over fifty ways to avoid power struggles in the home and classroom. NY: Three Rivers Press.

[ii] Awdry, R.W. (2005). Thomas the tank engine. NY: Random House Books for Young Readers.

[iii] Lucas, G. (1977). Star wars episode IV: A new hope. Box Office Mojo.

[iv] Walt Disney Pictures. (1989). The little mermaid. Adapted from Anderson, H.C., The little mermaid. Walt Disney Pictures.

The Story of Self


Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

– Indian Proverb

Understanding who they are is one of the greatest tasks of childhood. Kids love trying on costumes pretending to be super heroes, local heroes (police officer, fireman, doctors), or beautiful princesses. Because they have not defined who they are, there are infinite possibilities. My college philosophy professor made certain that the question “Who am I?” was printed on every one of the 179 handouts he passed out over a semester. My thought as a 19 year old was “What’s this guy on and why is he still allowed in the classroom?” (Although the way he communicated that question may not have been the easiest to relate to, he was right.) The question remains critically important to ask and continually answer as a growing, developing, and ever-changing person.

At this very moment, E, my four year old is watching baby videos of himself trying to figure out who that cute, yet distant person was and how it relates to who he is today. He loves it when I tell the simplest stories about his babydom – how we came up with his name, what we said when we first saw his face, when and how he had his first bath, how he loved sleeping under the lights in the hospital since he was born jaundiced.

You as a parent provide keen insight into a child’s sense of self. The stories that we tell children about who they are – are not only believed but become a part of the stories they tell themselves over and over about who they are. “I am good with animals.” “I don’t have a very good math sense.” “I am strong.” “I am shy.” These are all ideas children may have about themselves that have come from what others have said about them. When children have specific stories about who they are, they work to reinforce those messages, whether negative or positive. We tell E often that he sees details others might miss. So he proves to us often that he posseses this unique skill by pointing out intricasies, like a small, camouflaged spider, everywhere we go to reinforce his competence in this area.

Telling children stories about themselves doesn’t have to be particularly complicated, elaborate or take much preparation and planning. Actually, it’s better that they be short and simple because first of all, you’ll be more game to do it and second, they’ll actually remember it. It must, however, be authentic (true) and specific. Kids of all ages can sense manipulation (from a mile away) so this is not a place to try and build an ability that is lacking by saying it’s already a unique skill. Also, generic praise or compliments such as, “You’re so great!” are difficult to quantify (What does that mean?) and nearly impossible to encourage and replicate (How might I be great in the future? There could be a million ways.)

Take Action!

Appropriate Ages: Any and all

Get started by telling your child stories about him or herself. Here are some simple starters:

When you were only ____ years old,  you told me you wanted to be ___________. You showed me how __________ (strong, persistent, thoughtful, attentive – add descriptive words)___ you could be.

When you were a tiny baby, you didn’t know how to ________ so the first time you tried, you ________________________. We were so proud when you practiced until you could do it all by yourself.

The first trip we ever took as a family was to ___________. You were so excited that you _____________ ahead of time. On the trip, we did lots of fun things including ___________________. You were so brave when you tried ____________ for the first time.

I was so proud when your teacher in ______ grade told me how you __________when__________. That showed courage and persistence.

Family Storytelling

Extend the learning by bringing up your story at a time when the whole family is together like dinnertime. Then, (to promote family identity and connectedness) play pass the story. Have family members think of an instance when you had fun together. Go around the table and tell only one small piece of the story and pass it around so each person has an opportunity to add to the story. Be wary of comments that are sarcastic and make fun of the subject of the story. If a family member contributes that type of comment, be sure and refocus their comments. “This story is only about the good things that Ryan did.”


Seuss, R., & McKie, R. (1969). My book about me. NY: Random House Books for Young Readers.

Fill in and complete sentences about yourself in this book about your child. Because Dr. Seuss books are such classics, this one could be fun for preschoolers with writing help from parents all the way up through childhood. Pre-teens to teens may even enjoy the nostalgia and simplicity of it.

Kranz, L. (2004). (Rev. Ed.). All about me; A keepsake journal for kids. Lanham, MD: Cooper Square Publishing.

For ages 8 and up, this is a wonderful way to begin journal writing through fun questions that encourage kids to write about their thoughts and feelings.

Hello Fellow Parents!

How do you define success for yourself as a parent and for your kids? For me, bottom line, I want my child to feel confident that he can do and be anything he chooses if he works hard to achieve his goals. In my nearly twenty years working in education, it’s been clear to me that what helps a child achieve goals, whether at school or at home, is supporting his development and creating opportunities to build social and emotional skills such as self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.[i] Social and emotional learning has been the process and content of how I have helped schools move from underperforming to achieving. As I became a parent, I noticed I was working hard to translate the work I was doing in schools to my parenting life. I found very few supports for this critical area. So the purpose of this blog is to help parents who are life-long learners and interested in being proactive about supporting their children’s social and emotional development. Not only will I share the best of what educators know about how to support children’s learning with simple, practical ideas to use in family life, I will also create a forum for dialogue so that we together develop a community of parents engaged in doing the best for our kids!

Please read on and share with friends! Check out the sidebar. You can sign up to receive the weekly posts through email. And also, get in touch at and submit questions, challenges, ideas and practices you use. Here’s to you, confident parents raising confident kids!

My best,

Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.

Educational Consultant and Parent

[i] Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2003). Safe and sound; An educational leader’s guide to evidence-based social and emotional learning programs. Chicago, IL: Author.

%d bloggers like this: