It’s OK to Get Upset

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As long as I have been a part of the early childhood education world, the following phrase has been a part of it: You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. 

I don’t know when parents and educators started using this phrase, but can we please stop?

Not only is it dismissive to the child aka you’re feelings don’t matter but more and more research indicates the importance of teaching children how to express and handle their emotions. When we teach children about their emotions, we give them the power of expression and self, and we start letting them know their mental health and well-being are just as important as their physical well-being.

I understand what the phrase is trying to do; it’s saying, whatever happens, it’s going to be ok, but to blatantly and repeatedly tell children they cannot get upset is ridiculous; it’s also not human.

We get upset. I get upset. One day years ago, when I was teaching four-and-five-year-olds, it was my day to be at the school early and open the classroom. On these days, I made a special stop at Starbucks and bought an expensive splurge drink. A parent who was in a rush asked if they could leave their child with me.  Even though I wasn’t clocked in yet and not even in my classroom, I was in the kitchen of the school enjoying my last moments of quiet before the crazy day began; I said yes. 

While in my hazy, still sleepy, somewhat-annoyed-that-the-parent-had-just-done-this-state, and trying to keep an eye on the kid while I got what I needed for the classroom snack that morning, I set my coffee down on an uneven surface and the entirety of my specialty, splurge coffee spilled on the floor. 

It wasn’t even 7 A.M. My once-a-week splurge lay on the floor (and I now had to clean it up). And I had a 4-year-old standing next to me. I vividly remember telling myself silently, “Don’t cry. Do not let this child see you cry over a spilled coffee.” Honestly I wanted to have a tantrum.

So why didn’t I have a tantrum? Well, I came close, but I didn’t because I had learned how to process and handle strong emotions. We need to teach our children that it is OK to be upset when something negative happens, but how you respond that matters.

When I was teaching and passing things out, I would always shorten it to “You get what you get.” There was always at least one child in the class who would then say, “and you don’t get upset.” When that happened, I would look at them and say, “It’s ok to be upset when you don’t get what you want; what’s important is how you handle it.” Pay attention to that second part – it is OK to get upset when you don’t get what you want.

I have been performing in theater and music nearly my entire life, which means there are countless times I didn’t get the part or the solo I auditioned for and wanted. Do you know how many times I was upset I didn’t get the part I wanted? EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Of course I was upset! But here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on social media and bash everyone involved with the show. I didn’t scream and throw things. I didn’t swear off doing theater ever again. 

I talked to a friend or my mom. I went and did something I enjoyed like reading a book.  I took a walk and listened to music. I enjoyed a glass (or two) of wine. I took a bubble bath. The point is I found ways to work through my disappointment and move on. These are the skills we need to be teaching our kids. Go ahead and have your disappointment, but let’s figure out the best way to handle it.

There are times I cried and times I didn’t. There are times it took me a few weeks to get over the disappointment and times it only took a few hours, but I was still upset every single time; because I’m human. 

Is it appropriate for a ten-year-old to cry because their sibling got the last green Jolly Rancher?  In most cases, no; but they are allowed to be bummed out about it. Is it appropriate for a five-year-old to have a tantrum because their best friend got the sticker they wanted at circle time? Probably not, but if they do, we can use it as a teaching opportunity to find other ways to express disappointment.

It is rarely a healthy option to tell kids “Don’t cry” because it is another way of telling them their emotions are not valid, but sometimes it can be hard not to roll our adult eyes and think, “Really? He’s crying because Godzilla is no longer on Amazon Prime?” (And yes, my son did this. So what I like to do instead is say, “It is ok to be upset, but Is this situation worth your tears?” Phrasing things in this way makes children slow down and evaluate their responses.

We can help our children process big emotions and disappointments by using phrases like:

  • I see you’re really upset right now. Would you like some space?
  • This seems to be making you sad. Do you want to talk about it?
  • It is ok to be angry, but it is not OK to hurt people or things.
  • You seem worried. Would you like me to sit with you?
  • I am not sure what is bothering you, but I am here if you want to talk.

The more we as adults recognize and discuss emotions, the more our children will understand them. Like language and social interactions, children learn about handling emotions from the adults surrounding them.

If a child grows up in a house where anger is considered “bad,” they may have trouble processing feelings of anger because they believe it makes them bad. We must also avoid assigning emotions to genders. For example, if children hear that crying and whining is what girls do and boys should be strong and fearless, then we are assigning weakness as feminine, but we are telling our boys that they have to be brave all the time. 

Fear is another normal and completely biological response in many situations; fear is what kept our early ancestors alive. They needed to know when to run, when to fight, and when to hide too, survive. 

Emotions need just to be emotions—all normal and all OK.

Children should be learning self-awareness and understanding of their own emotions, regulating and controlling those emotions, learning to understand what is essential and what is not (AKA is this situation worth your tears?), and reading and understanding emotions in others. 

We do this when we allow children to see our emotions and emotional process and demonstrate how to handle disappointing and upsetting situations. Teaching emotional intelligence puts our children in the driver’s seat of their mental well-being and teaches them how to problem-solve and self-soothe. 

So, teach your kids you get what you get, and you CAN get upset. But also teach them that a tantrum over a Jolly Rancher probably isn’t worth the energy spent, and if you take the red one, at least you still got candy! More importantly, you’re helping them process their emotions and how to handle things independently so that when they are thrity they don’t have a melt down over spilled coffee.

The Power in Positive Phrasing

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One of my son’s favorite books is “No, David!” by David Shannon. We read it all the time. I like to jokingly put his name in the book, and while it is funny, it also hits a nerve for him and me too. That’s because we can both see him as the character in this book, a little boy who has trouble controlling his emotions and actions and, as a result, hears the word “No,” a lot. 

The funny thing is I know that that is the least effective way to communicate with him and to get him to do what I need to be done. I’ve read all the research on positive phrasing; as a teacher, I had that skill down almost to perfection. I even counseled other parents to use it and explained the benefits behind it. As a mom, though, easier said than done.

When you place a negative in front of a phrase, the child doesn’t hear the negative; they hear the action. So “Don’t run inside” becomes “run inside.” Now, I am not saying children hear this and automatically think you are telling them to run in the house, but the negative gets washed away; it’s not effective.

Positive phrasing, in all communication, is more likely to yield the results you’re after. But why? Well, first, it’s more pleasing to the ear and the mind. “Please walk inside” is more compelling than “Don’t run!” Second, when we phrase things positively, we are more likely to speak in a calm voice than yelling or a scolding tone. A calm voice is more likely to garner attention.

Experts say if you want your children to listen quietly and calmly, don’t yell. When you yell, they begin to shut you out and begin to shut down. When you speak calmly and quietly, you show respect, which begets respect, and they are also forced to listen to hear what you have to say.

You may still get surly looks and crossed arms when you talk quietly, but I guarantee they are listening. 

Telling your child what you want or expect instead of what you don’t want sets up clear guidelines; it tells your child exactly what is expected. If you say, “Don’t run,” it leaves room for them to interpret that as ok well, I can still skip, jump, hop, cartwheel, or crawl. If you say, “You need to walk when inside the house,” there is no room for interpretation. It’s cut and dry.

Trust me, I know this is a difficult skill to conquer, especially of late when we’ve all had way more “quality” time with our children than ever before, but it does work. And I need to remind myself of that from time to time too. But just try it, write your self post-it notes or reminders around the house so you see them and can remember it in the heat of the moment. 

Try taking a deep breath before responding to your child’s behavior. It will help you stay calm and it gives you a chance to phrase what you need to say in your head first.

Take some time and think of all the things you say “no” to in a day and see if you can flip them into positives.

Instead of:

  • Don’t leave your laundry on the floor.
  • Stop playing with your food.
  • Stop hitting your brother.
  • We don’t draw on the wall.
  • Don’t dump all your toys out.
  • Don’t talk back to me.

Try:

  • Please put your laundry in the basket
  • I need you to eat because you are making a mess.
  • You need to keep your hands to yourself.
  • Crayons and markers are used on paper.
  • Please clean up your toys when you’re finished.
  • You need to speak respectfully to me.

Phrasing things positively doesn’t mean you are saying yes to everything; it means you set up clear expectations of what is expected and acceptable. 

Save “No” for moments of danger. Then it should be said in a loud, firm voice. Yelling “No” or “Stop” right before a kid touches a hot stove or steps off the sidewalk as a car barrels down will give them the jolt to potentially stop the dangerous choice. 

When children hear no all the time, it loses its polish. Think of “No” as your boy who cried wolf. If it happens all the time, no one is going to listen to it. If you save it for moments of import, your child will not be used to hearing it, so the novelty will grab their focus. 

My boys are fans of the new movie “YES DAY” and have watched it at least twenty times in the last few weeks. The concept is that for one day, the parents say yes to anything the kids ask (within a set of parameters, of course).

They have asked me to have a Yes Day on more than one occasion. So far, the answer is a no… but we’ll see.

Immortality Complex

We’ve all seen the numbers of COVID-19 cases fall and then rise again. At the beginning of this crisis, the majority of people becoming infected were in the 40+ range. Typically those in the younger age gap were the immune-compromised; however, recently, that’s all changed. Several states report that the majority of coronavirus cases spread and contracted in the last month have been from those in the 20-35 age group. As I read these reports and numbers, I began thinking about adolescent brain development and how it plays a role in this shift.

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Teenagers and young adults have what is referred to as an immortality complex. They are still so close to childhood that adulthood responsibilities and death seem too far away to become a reality. Many young adults who have just finished college and have joined the workforce face little to no responsibilities outside of their job and paying their bills on time. Life is a big game at this point. They are healthy and young and have that belief that nothing is going to harm them.

This stems from the fact that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-’20s for women and men may not develop fully until the age of 30. The specific part of the brain that requires more development at this point is the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the portion of our brain that develops our personalities and allows us to consider and anticipate consequences. You will always have risk-takers and the more adventurous at any age. However, the fact that brain development is still underway is why we see more cases of drunk driving, drug use, engagement in dangerous stunts and dares, and, most recently, the flaunting of COVID-19 recommendations and the crowding of bars and restaurants. Essentially, those 30 and under could be considered adolescents in terms of brain development.

Some young adults have acknowledged the risks but have said, in so many words, “So what?”. They believe that even if they contract the disease, they will be fine. Psychologist, David Elkind, termed this phase of development, “Adolescent Egocentrism.” They think only of themselves and not the potential harm they may cause others through their actions. By the end of June, many states were reporting that the majority of new cases were under 40, while the older demographics saw a drop in cases. These younger individuals becoming infected are also being hospitalized. I know of two people, personally, who are were behaving responsibly and still contracted the disease and ended up hospitalized. But even if someone is not contracting the disease, or even doing so mildly, they are potentially passing it on to others who may not be so lucky.

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None of us want to be in this situation, the recent re-shutdowns and back in place restrictions are stifling for all of us. But it is imperative that we continue to follow the orders of our local and state governments. Stay home, wear a mask, and engage in social distancing as much as possible. The biggest struggle many are facing right now is schools being closed. It is without a doubt a hardship; I am there with you; my children will be schooling virtually through December. But, when you have the young adult population unable to properly follow social distancing and mask guidelines due to unfinalized brain development, do we actually expect high schoolers, let alone, kindergartners to engage in these safe practices?

We can discuss what is going on with our children and teens until we are blue in the face. We should be talking about these things with our little ones. But expecting children, the most naturally social of our species, with young and still developing brains to follow suit when young adults are proving they don’t possess the ability to is setting up a situation bound to fail.

Stay safe and Healthy and encourage those around you to follow social distancing guidelines so that we can all phase back into normalcy.