By the time your child is a teenager they will have had millions of experiences that informed their understanding of consent. Ones that you may have not even considered. It’s perhaps our narrow ways of thinking about teaching and learning that lead us to imagine a teaching moment as one that involves a lecture of some sort. But learning, especially for young children, happens underneath language in the subtle layers of the body.
Diaper changes are an incredible, and often missed, opportunity for teaching about consent and respect. Diaper changes are often rushed through, dreaded (by all parties), done forcefully, quickly, and without permission. A child will have roughly 5,000 diaper changes in their first few years. That’s 5,000 opportunities to teach your child about respect, intimacy, boundaries, and connection.
Here are some simple ways to build in experiences that will enrich your baby’s understanding of healthy consent through diaper changes.
These guidelines are based on Magda Gerber's approach, called Resource for Infant Educators (RIE). Check out this sweet video of a diaper change that follows this approach. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TZIYMpy9Fc
(This video is of a very long, 8 minute diaper change. I’m not suggesting that all diaper changes take this long, but it gives a view into a possibility!)
Here's two great posts by Janet Lansbury for more ideas on how to change diapers respectfully: how-to-love-a-diaper-change and the-evolution-of-a-diaper-change-2.
I am bursting with many more ideas for ways to support the development of consent! More to come!
With love and deep respect,
Children rely on adults to deal with difficult emotions. Through out my years as a teacher and caregiver, I have seen many different ways that adults deal with children's intense emotions. My experience in receiving psychotherapy, and my education in mental health, has shifted the way that I respond to children's emotions. My role has shifted from one whose responsibility it is to "make" children happy, to an adult whose responsibility it is to deepen and clarify children's emotions while allowing them to participate effectively in the environment.
Every child is different. Every moment is different. There is no one step magical solution to helping you deal with an upset child. We all have different ways of dealing with emotions. None the less, I have found that the guidelines can provide a framework for interacting with children who are upset.
1. Calm yourself as much as possible. Whatever tricks work for you. Taking a few deep breaths, close your eyes for moment, feel your feet on the ground. A calm adult helps the child feel protected from others and from their own behavior. When a child is upset, they feel comforted when adults around them stay calm. According to John Bowlby, it is the parent's role to be the stronger, wiser, kinder person in the relationship. Staying calm in the face of a child's emotional turbulence allows you to fulfill the role of stronger, wiser, and kinder.
2. Acknowledge the emotional expression with calm compassion. This helps the child feel seen and understood. They learn that the are responded to when they are in distress and that they are accepted, even when they are expressing something difficult. It’s especially important if the strong emotion is coming out of a conflict you are having with the child (You had to take away a dangerous object, or get your child in the car seat etc). This can be difficult when the child is crying over something that seems ridiculous, but try your hardest!
Example*: “you seem so upset about leaving." “ It sounds like you have a lot of crying to get out.” “It seems like you have a lot of big feelings right now.”
3. Offer physical and emotional contact. Be with your child during the difficult emotions. Offer your lap or just sit next to the child. Reassure them that you are listening and compassionate. If they do not want physical contact, respect their request. Make your voice gentle and slow and get down on their level.
Example*: “I’m sorry you’re so sad, I’m here with you.” “You can sit in my lap while you cry.” “ I can hold you.” "I will stay here while you finish hitting the pillow."
4. Clarify the narrative that preceded the emotional reaction. This may require asking questions about what happen, if you do not know what happened. Avoid asking too many questions as this may also distract the child from their emotional experience. You don’t need to know all details to support them, just the big picture.
Example*: “You are really missing your mommy.” “You’re not ready to leave.”
This part may include summarizing your own behavior. “You really wanted the plate, and I took it away.” or "I said 'no' very loudly when you got close to the street". It may also include holding a boundary that caused the upset, children often cry when adults hold necessary boundaries (like not eating a lot of candy, going to bed, and getting in the car). Respecting their emotional response does not mean giving them what they want, it means allowing both of you to feel their response.
5. Offer a cooperative transition/guide behavior. Emotions come in waves; often there is cessation and still points in their expression. After the child has been able to express the emotions nonverbally, you can help them come back into their thinking minds and come up with a plan for reengagement. When this is done together the child learns that they play an active role in regulating their experience. This is similar to a distraction, because it helps the child organize their behavior to do something new; it is very different when it comes after the child’s emotional expression being validated and when the child participates in making choices.
Example*: “ That was really hard. You seem like your feeling a little better, are you ready to find something to do?” “Do you want me to help you find a new toy to play with?” “Sometimes when I feel sad, I like to….” "I know your angry about cleaning up, but we need to clean before we leave. You can take this block to put away and I'll do the other one."
Offering emotional support to children is a complex process that requires the adult to manage their own emotions. It is the adult’s responsibility to help the child feel their own emotions, to process and understand the chain of experiences that helped those emotions arise, to accept the child through difficulty, and to support the child in organizing their behavior in the environment they are in. This gives children the opportunity to learn ways of respecting and responding to emotional experience.
* The examples I gave were for toddler and preschool age children. The same principles apply with all ages, but the application is changed to fit the current developement of the child.
Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Siegel, D. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self- understanding can help you raise children who thrive. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.
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Emotion Extinguisher: How Extinguishing Your Child's Emotions Can Interfere With Their Emotional Development.
I will paint a very familiar image for you.
A toddler is crying. Maybe the crying is inspired by a scraped knee, maybe another child is playing with the only desirable toy. The frantic adult is offering things to distract the child left and right: a blue cup, a green cup, some crackers, a set of keys. Amidst the chaos few phrases seem to rise to the surface again and again, “it’s okay”, “ oh, don’t cry.”
Well, of course the adult is frantically trying to mend the child's distress. That’s their job! Right?..... Right?!
Among the many roles adults play in the lives of children 'emotion extinguisher' is one that I have come to challenge. When adults deal with young children’s emotional experience by trying to make it stop or distract them away from it, children learn a few lessons about themselves and their caregivers. Janet Lansbury writes, "Smiling, laughing, tickling, or telling children they’re okay when they cry might seem more benevolent than reacting angrily or telling them to be quiet, but the message is the same: You shouldn’t be upset. Your feelings aren’t valid or acceptable".
When adults consistently attempt to distract children out of their discomfort they learn distraction as a primary way of way of dealing with difficult emotions. While distracting oneself from difficult emotions is a valuable tool, when overly used it can prevent people from feeling the depths of their emotions and making decisions that support their emotional experience. A healthy relationship to emotions includes learning how to express them appropriately, asking for changes to be made in relationships, and making choices to support emotions. When distraction is used with an upset child, an opportunity for more complex learning about emotional regulation is lost. They miss the opportunity to practice expressing their emotions with words and asking for what they need. They miss the opportunity to problem solve. They miss out on the opportunity to honor themselves and connect deeply with others. They miss the opportunity to learn effective emotional skills they will need to calm themselves as they grow into adulthood.
When children are upset they need adults to respond to them in calm and confident manner. They need to know their emotions are felt, understood, and valued. I think adults attempt to distract children from difficult emotions because we are uncomfortable their pain or we are worried that they are going to behave in ways that are inappropriate socially (disruptive crying or hitting). We need to find more compassionate and supportive ways to help children behave appropriately, while still giving them the message that all their emotions are valuable and respected.
This is not easy. I have been practicing this with children for years and still stumble. I have found that my acceptance of my own emotions, has deepened my ability to support emotions in children. For ideas on how to practice supporting difficult emotions see this post: Calm in the Storm.
"Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it." Brené Brown
Brene Brown, The wholehearted parenting manifesto.
Janet Lansbury, The happiest kids don't have to smile.
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