I have never asked a child under six to talk about his or her feelings.
I just had an 'A-ha moment'! Now I don't expect that everyone will agree with what I'm saying, because it goes against what I've been taught too. In thirteen years of working with young children I have never asked a child to talk to me about his or her feelings because my instinct told me that it didn't feel right. There are so many things that I have never done in thirteen years for the same reason. I now understand this instinct to be a great gift, because when you work in a profession where the choices that you make have the potential to affect people's lives in profound ways, you don't want to look back and feel that you got it wrong.
A child who is displaying negative behavior is a child in pain, and I've never seen a child in pain and felt that he or she wanted to sit with me and talk about emotions. And this has nothing to do with my discomfort. Emotions are my specialty. I'm more than comfortable talking about them with adults, and singing about them, and (sometimes to my detriment) expressing them in public places.
And I'm not sure that we always want to talk about our feelings either, which is why I've never been to a counselor. Being analyzed by a dispassionate observer never felt like my cup of tea. Most young children certainly haven't developed the kind of vocabulary for this kind of activity. It's quite possible that in asking them to engage in it, we're adding to their stress rather than soothing it.
So what do we want if not to talk about our feelings? We want to be loved! Yes, I'm talking about the L word again. Yesterday I was listening to a TED Talk by Marisa Peer. She was talking about how she had helped so many people, saved their lives even, by teaching them this simple phrase, "I am enough". This is what was missing from their childhoods, "I am enough". Once they had trained their minds to accept this idea they were healed, mentally and physically.
This is what we need to give children. We need to see beyond behavior to the person in pain, the person who needs love and unconditional acceptance. We need to honour the core of the person that is not a bunch of 'feelings', but is a soul that longs for connection with others, that longs to be seen.
This could mean sitting together, playing together, reading together. It could mean hugs and cuddles. A child's body language will tell you if you've made the right choice. If they can see that they are valued recipients of our time and attention they will learn that they are enough. The wounds of childhood don't disappear unless as adults we learn to be loving, comforting, unconditionally accepting arms for ourselves. Easier said than done. Young children can't be expected to be able to do this alone. If we can help to provide this foundation for them, they may never need to.