What Kids Can Teach Parents

Parents have little time for furthering their own emotion education.

Posted May 28, 2019

By Marc Brackett, Ph.D., and Diana Divecha, Ph.D.

Are you tired of the hollow after-school small talk with your child?

What if instead of the well-worn “How was your day?” “Fine,” your child came home from school initiating a conversation like this one from a sixth-grade girl from Long Island:

“Mom, I just learned this new word in school: alienation. We are studying human migration and talking about how painful it is to be an outsider. I shared that I felt alienated when I moved to a new school. Mom, when have you felt alienated?”

Would you be prepared for the discussion?

Sharing feelings brings people closer and most families say this is something they want—but may not know how to get.

In January, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released a report concluding that social and emotional skills are a critical proficiency that children should be learning. And since schools are increasingly teaching just that, parents are finding they have some catching up to do.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is not just a fad or a distraction from the “real subjects,” the report concludes; they are “the substance of education itself” based on decades of research on child development, education, and brain science. SEL skills are predictors of success in schools, career, and life.

Already, all of the states have agreed to SEL competency standards for preschool education. Fourteen states have adopted additional standards for grades K-12. A 2018 survey revealed that the vast majority of administrators (96 percent), teachers (93 percent) and parents (81 percent) believe that SEL is just as important as academic learning. As a result, more students are learning tools that support their emotional life, and in turn, they are changing their families’ lives.

One father didn’t realize the impact of his anger on his family until he was confronted by his son’s newly acquired emotional skills. The father was in the middle of a fight with his wife when the younger six-year-old interrupted their argument to insist that he get him more batteries for his gaming console. The father said, “I was already pissed, and David’s ‘Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad!’ just sent me over the edge. I blew up and sent him to his room; in fact, I half chased him out of the kitchen and up the stairs.”

Later, the father found a note from the older ten-year-old to his younger brother: “Take three deep breaths,” the advice read. “Daddy was just in a really bad mood; he’ll feel better tomorrow after he sleeps.” The father said, “My wife and I realized we’d not only been terrible role models, but we’d been subjecting our kids to a lot of unnecessary hurt.”

Another parent said that dinner time used to be chaotic, marred by interruptions, frustrations, and shouting because everyone wanted to talk at the same time. One evening, one of the children stopped what he was doing, closed his eyes, and said, “I’m going to take a meta-moment” (a pause when one makes a conscious decision between being triggered and choosing a constructive response). From that moment on, dinner was peaceful.

An emotional current is always running in each of us, but an SEL education can illuminate and segment feelings, suddenly making an amorphous “felt sense” visible and tangible, and able to be worked with. Sometimes that means that children recognize their parents’ feelings more clearly.

A first grader from New York City told us that she wished her mom could recognize how often she was angry. “My mom is ‘in the red’ a lot of the time, and if she used the Mood Meter (a tool to help identify feelings), maybe she would realize it.”

A third grader added that he wanted to teach his mother breathing exercises because she usually comes home from work stressed out. “She’d be calmer at home if she knew how to do it,” he said.

But kids also want their parents to be more sophisticated in how they deal with their children’s feelings:

“If my mother could use the Mood Meter with me and learn exactly how I was feeling, then she’d be better at helping me regulate,” a third-grade girl reported.

But parents have little time for furthering their own emotion education. From our work in schools, we have learned that most parents find it challenging to attend a family night at school, and a one-off training workshop just isn’t effective.

So how can parents keep up with their children’s advancing emotional education?

Shutterstock_127688339
Source: Shutterstock_127688339

One way is to cultivate students to teach their parents. For example, in RULER, an evidence-based approach to SEL that we’ve co-created, students learn twelve feeling words per year. Along with sharing stories, analyzing characters’ emotions in history and literature, and brainstorming constructive strategies to regulate emotions, students are assigned homework where they share and even teach the word to their caregivers. They tell a story about when they felt a particular feeling, and then they ask their caregiver, “When have you felt this way”?

Initially, the mother whose daughter asked about alienation was taken aback - a little “blown away” that her daughter would know the concept. But the mother—a police officer—was open to engaging, and for the first time, revealed to her daughter her feelings of alienation as the only female officer in her precinct. The conversation brought them much closer, according to the mother. Children crave conversations with parents and other caring adults about topics that really matter, and they have been telling researchers this for decades.

Knowledge empowers, and sometimes all it takes is having a conversation about feelings to rebalance a relationship.

Here’s an example: a middle school teacher shared what happened when her students were working on the word “pride.” In class, the students shared with each other what made them proud—from being a good friend to making good grades to creative achievements and performing their best in sports. But when they went home and asked their parents to share a story about what made them proud, the children were hurt. Many parents said they were most proud of their children—but it became clear to the children that it was based solely on their achievements, rather than who they were as people. Fortunately, the teacher took the lesson deeper and helped the kids find the language to communicate their hurt to the parents.

Research shows that the more often constructive emotion language is used at home, the more emotionally and socially competent the children become. This is especially true when there is more “emo-diversity,” or specific differentiation of emotions.

One father was not particularly supportive of an emotion education until he saw that his child was smarter than him. When his five-year-old had a tantrum because he wanted to go out and play, the father asked, “Why are you so angry?” The older third grader corrected his father: “No, Dad, he’s not angry, he’s probably disappointed.” And a dinner time conversation ensued about the difference between the two emotions.

A good emotion skills education encompasses more than simply naming and regulating feelings in oneself and others, it can also open hearts.

At back-to-school night, one grandmother reported that her granddaughter came home and asked her to think about a time when she felt elated.

“I felt elated on the day you were born,” she replied.

“I wouldn’t have thought to share that with her unless I was prompted,” she said.

Co-author Diana Divecha, Ph.D., is an assistant clinical professor in the Yale Child Study Center. She writes about children’s development at developmentalscience.com