Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence
by Melinda Seley, PLPC
Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?
Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!
Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good. I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).
If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.
Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:
Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect.— Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.
Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.
Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.
Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:
Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?
Validation: Why it matters.
by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC
We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them. We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.
What is validation? Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.
To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.
Why is it important? Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them. It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person. When we don’t validate others, it hurts.
How do we do it? Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them! We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation. It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry? All of these clues help us in conversation.
We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.
What’s the impact? Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.
Give it a shot!
Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.
by: Isaac Knopp, PLPC
Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy
Big Figures, Small Worlds:
A big strong horse was the toy that Nate chose to play with in the sandbox. To anyone else this toy was just a small, plastic animal you might find at pretty much any toy store. But to Nate, who took his toy and plunged it beneath the sand and then looked up at me with wide and terrified eyes, it was more than a horse. Over the course of our time working together Nate was processing the sudden death of his dad. He always chose the horse, because to him, his dad was big and strong just like that horse.
Nate’s play was his way of telling me what he was wrestling with. Our kids have a different way of dealing with stress than we adults do. Play is a child’s way of grappling with the forces of the world and life that they cannot yet grasp. When our children encounter something too big, scary or difficult to grasp it gets incorporated directly into their play. Play is the essential and natural way a child resets their safe connections to others, self, and the world especially after they feel like their safe connections have been lost or threatened.
At times children will be classified as struggling with ADHD or having childhood anxiety, outbursts of anger, difficulty controlling emotions, self-regulating, and defiant behaviors. When in reality these classifications are simply symptoms of the child experiencing frustration in resetting their safe connections.
How do I give my child what he or she needs to succeed? As parents, our first thought is usually education, which is very important. However, often giving children what they need relationally can be a challenge because we feel ill equipped to meet them where they are. Learning how to connect with your child through play can give your child a big boost in self-image and development.
Connect Through Play:
- Curiosity: Asking your child to explain what something means to them can be a window into their world.
- Acceptance: Learning how to notice behaviors or play that seems bizarre yet may make total sense in their world of trying to reset their connections.
- Empathy: Curiosity and acceptance create a platform for you to see the child’s expression of what they are really wresting with.
- Trust: Once connections get established you will notice it is much easier for your child to rely on themselves as well as others. It will also be easier for you to trust that your child is doing important developmental work all the time.
In one of my last sessions with Nate, he walked up to the toy shelf to gaze at all the toys. His little hands brushed over that big strong horse, he then moved over to a red firetruck. He said, “I don’t need to play with the horse today”, instead he reached up and took hold of the truck. Although the horse was small it was big in Nate’s world. Through play, Nate was able to successful reestablish his safe connections.