On the rare occasions that I find myself alone in my car for more than a few minutes, I’ve been listening to Good Inside by Dr. Becky Kennedy. Turns out Dr. Becky’s journey through training to be a family therapist is very similar to my journey trying to figure out how to parent a tricky kid. We both arrived at the same conclusions on our respective sides of the table, so her perspectives and guidance resonate with me.
Big Feelings Are Hard for Everyone
The most recent gem I encountered was her idea of a Feelings Bench, and how we can use that bench to help children (or anyone, really) through a hard time.
Dr. Becky suggests that we look at our kid having a big feeling as someone who is sitting on a bench. Maybe they’re on the “feeling left out” bench or the “failed a test bench.” Maybe it’s a bigger deal, and they’re on the “grandma is sick and won’t get better” bench. Our job as the grown-up is not to try to change anything in that moment. Our job is to sit with them on their bench. We can listen to what they have to say. We can help them make sense of what they’re feeling. Many kids won’t even understand what they’re feeling. They only know it doesn’t feel good. Instead of trying to change what they are feeling or do something to make the feeling go away, we just sit with them in the feeling.
The Feelings Bench is rooted in a few simple ideas. First, the fact that children are very capable of handling big or not-so-good feelings. What creates lasting challenges or trauma is being left alone with those feelings. Second, the fact that it’s really hard to watch kids sit with hard feelings. Naturally, we want to protect them. Maybe we avoid telling them about something that will make them sad, or explain it in ways that we think will be easier to hear but only add confusion. Or, maybe we just can’t stand to see our child in a puddle of tears, and quickly look for some way to make them feel better.
It makes sense. We just want the littles to be okay and we certainly never want to be the cause of their sadness. The trouble is that it’s not our job to make sure our kids never feel bad. Our job is to make sure they develop resilience. They need to know that they can experience sadness and grief, anger and frustration, loss and disappointment, and come out on the other side.
The Feelings Bench: Building Resilience
Our bodies and minds are programmed through doing the same thing over and over. (You may have heard the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.”) If we give our child the red cup every time they cry for the red cup, they never have the chance to learn that this is not an emergency and they can handle having a yellow cup. If our reaction to seeing sadness in our child is to immediately start trying to make them happy, we are teaching them that there is some reason why feeling sad is not okay. Or, at the very least, we’re teaching them that we can’t tolerate their sadness. We want our kids to learn that sometimes things don’t go their way, and sometimes they feel something big and uncomfortable…and that’s part of life and eventually, those feelings won’t feel so big. And maybe next time, things will go their way, but if they don’t, they know they’ll survive and they won’t have to do it alone.
The more practice our kids have being allowed to work through big feelings–with the support of a grown-up they trust–the more easily they will be able to recover from setbacks in the future.
So How Does Yoga Help Children Manage Big Feelings?
The idea of a Feelings Bench is yoga in action. When we struggle through one more Sun Salutation than we thought we could manage, we’re teaching ourselves we are strong and can stick with things even when they get hard. When we fall out of Tree Pose or Warrior III but then shake it off and try again, we’re learning that we will be fine, even if we don’t succeed the first time. We might even learn to laugh at ourselves. When we’re the last person in the room who can’t stay balanced in Crow Pose, we learn to measure our success against our own metric and not against other people. Or, maybe we don’t. Maybe we learn that sometimes, we’re going to feel embarrassed and not as good as other people, but we also get to learn that the feeling will pass.
Yoga Is All About Sitting on the Feelings Bench
Central to the practice of yoga is the idea of being present in the moment, fully aware of how we are feeling. Could our breath be a little deeper? How does Child’s Pose feel today? Is Triangle Pose more challenging on the left side than the right? In our yoga practice, we notice what we feel and we practice being with the feeling without changing anything. We sit with the thoughts that come into our minds, and we try not to follow or add to the story. We simply let the moment be.
None of the yoga asana or formal meditation we’re doing is the point of yoga. The point of yoga is being able to take the lessons we learn on the mat and cushion out into the world, allowing our practice to inform all aspects of our lives.
How Can Yoga Help When My Kid Is Really Upset?
Yep. Kids get really upset. The younger the kid, the more difficult it might be to understand why they are having such a big reaction to something that seems small. (Spoiler alert: It’s not small to them.) Naturally, the bigger your kid’s reaction to a feeling, the harder it is to sit with. Here’s my advice. Take a breath. Be with them, and do whatever you do to provide comfort. Maybe it’s encouraging words, or a big hug, or offering a tissue. For older kids, maybe they need a walk around the block or a glass of water. Be there with and for your child, but resist the urge to fix it or stop the feeling. Just be in it with them.
Yoga Class Example of Helping Children Through Strong Emotion
In nearly every early childhood yoga class, there is at least one kid who really, really loves the zen chime. For many kids, it’s enough to know that they’ll have a turn ringing it, and since we pass the chime right around the circle we’re sitting in, they know exactly when it will be coming to them. But for those other kids, that requires more self-regulation than they can access. They want to have the chime as soon as I bring it out, and they want to keep the chime until they are completely finished enjoying it. Often they can remain regulated while they wait their turn, but when it’s time to share the chime, they cannot. They cry. They scream. They clutch the chime with every ounce of strength they can muster. They are absolutely, positively not going to pass it to the next child in the circle.
There is always the urge to give into the child’s desire for the chime. I do not give in to it. Instead, I made sure I’m on the child’s level. I make eye contact if I can. I say to the child, “You really like the chime. It’s hard to let it go. And, it’s time to pass it on. It’s okay that you don’t want to, and you can be as sad or mad as you want, but I’m going to help you let go now.” And then, either their caregiver or I really do help the child let go. We pass the chime to the next friend in the circle and thank the upset kiddo for sharing. Then, I move along as quickly as possible.
Once we finish singing our chime song, I always point out that sharing the chime is often the hardest part of yoga class. One of the reasons we do that activity every week is so that kids can have the regular opportunity to practice doing something that feels hard, parents have the regular opportunity to practice being with their child through a stressful moment, and everyone can practice sitting with hard feelings and learning that they don’t last forever.
Yoga Can Help Parents With Big Feelings Too
The Feelings Bench isn’t just for helping other people. You can try it for yourself. Often, when we catch ourselves feeling something uncomfortable, our instinct is to distract ourselves by staying busy, numbing ourselves with screens, or seeking some sort of stimulation through food or challenging movement. What if, instead, we allowed ourselves to sit with the feeling, and actually feel it? Would it pass more quickly? Could we learn something from it? Would it allow us to deal with it in a way that prevented it from cycling back around? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.16 says “Heyam duhkham anagatam,” which translates to something like “pain that has not yet come is avoidable, or “prevent the suffering that is yet to come.” When we allow ourselves to experience our feelings in the moment, we can learn how to better manage a similar experience in the future.
About the Author
Jessica LaGarde has been teaching creative movement in the metro area since 2005 and is passionate about helping children discover and explore their bodies and the world around them. She was trained by Joye Newman, MA to teach preschool creative movement for Kids’ Moving Company, a Bethesda-based creative movement studio. In 2017, she completed her Baby, Toddler, and Children’s Yoga Teacher Training through Childlight Yoga.
In addition to working with preschoolers, Jessica is a registered massage practitioner and is trained in infant massage instruction. She has practiced massage for over twelve years and taught massage as part of Potomac Massage Training Institute’s professional training program. Outside of the movement space and massage room, she enjoys cooking, knitting, sewing, gardening and exploring the outdoors with her daughter.