Lessons from the Ocean About Managing Emotion

My heart goes out to each and every child, returning and new, with his and her trepidations, anxieties, excitements, consternations — you name it!

DR. ZAN STRUEBING, SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGIST: One of my dear friends and colleagues always told me, “Sometimes having too much empathy can be a hazard.” This statement is never truer for me than on the first days of a new school year. Every year, I enter the new adventure with my most empathic heart on my sleeve, and my family would be happy to tell you that it’s an emotional roller coaster.

My heart goes out to each and every child, returning and new, with his and her trepidations, anxieties, excitements, consternations — you name it! The one certainty is that each and every student walks through the doors of our school with a myriad of emotion. Some are just better at buttoning down and masking those emotions. While all of us as adults fall into the trap of feeling we have somehow “succeeded” when we minimize or avoid first day tears, we are simply deluding ourselves if we believe that many are not “raining” or trembling on the inside.

Human beings feel. That’s what we do.

Please heed the reminder that emotions and feelings are neither good nor bad; they simply are. Human beings feel. That’s what we do. Sometimes we experience those feelings as unpleasant, and sometimes we experience them quite positively. Mostly, it’s somewhere in between. Our children are going to have feelings about a transition like starting a new school year. For them, this new beginning is huge. There are losses involved (freedom of a more relaxed schedule, just to name one). Yet, there are also huge and wonderful growth opportunities! Of course, the more we help our children to focus on the wonder of growth and learning, despite its frequent and expected discomfort, the better. However, we must also honor their process. And part of this process is typically heightened emotion in a variety of directions. Such emotion can lead to behavioral acting out when there is not ample opportunity to talk about the feelings.

So here’s the takeaway: let your children talk about their experiences and their feelings candidly and genuinely. Let them get their own reactions out fully before you start to shape their expectations toward something that you think will be more positive for them. Help them learn to sit with the discomfort, not reacting too quickly. Then, and only then, you can guide them toward a useful reframing of any initial negativity.

As someone who learns best with memory aids, I offer you the following multi-step approach. Think of the rhythm of ocean waves as they surge and recede:

Let it crest. = Allow for full emotional expression without intervention. In other words, let it happen!

Take a rest. = Resist the urge to jump in with solutions or advice or suggestions your child “should” feel differently. A simple offering of listening, validation, and signs of understanding is all that’s required.

Offer your best. = Now comes the time, having allowed emotions to settle, to collaborate in setting a positive tone. For instance, “I understand it’s disappointing you’re not in the same class with your best friend, but let’s think of all the times you will get together throughout the day.” or “This gives you a chance to talk about what you’re learning from different perspectives.”

When in doubt, please reach out. = You are sending your child to a great school, so please make use of your resources. There is no need to parent in a bubble. We are all in this together!

In conclusion, I never really wish to have less empathy. But in times of transition, I do buckle in and prepare for the emotional ride. I’m grateful that we are part of a community where there is support during the journey.

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