“Mama… What are you feeling? You seem frustrated a lot of times, and you are sighing really loud.” Sighing is apparently my thing, one of the ways I express frustration, anger and overwhelm. This was news to me when my then 4-year-old said this from his car seat a few years back. In that moment I remember thinking… Was I sighing?! How do I feel? I am not even sure I know.
There is often a misconception that it's only young children who struggle to find their words and tolerate the discomfort of big feelings, but all of us – regardless of age – can struggle to cope with shame, anger, joy, sadness… or any big feeling. And just like young children, if we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to feel our feelings, and validate them, they will find their way into our thoughts, behaviors and bodies.
What my son was doing for me that day from his car seat was the first step of the ParentCorps’ four-step FEEL technique, Focus on the Feeling. He noticed I was experiencing a big feeling and reflected back to me his best guess of what my feeling might be, based on my behavioral clues.
Starting with this step, the FEEL technique teaches us how to identify, validate and move through big feelings.
In my experience, Focus on the Feeling is both the hardest and the most important step. If our big feelings were not welcomed by caregivers when we were children, we adults need to build our capacity to sit with the vulnerability of big emotions.
“If our big feelings were not welcomed by caregivers when we were children, we adults need to build our capacity to sit with the vulnerability of big emotions.”
In the car that day, I realized I often just skipped over this crucial step of labeling, understanding and accepting my feelings, deciding instead to dismiss them as stress and busyness and stay in motion. But my son’s question caused me to pause. As a mom of two and a mental health professional with almost 20 years of experience I know that young children develop the skills to identify, understand and manage their feelings through supportive interactions modeled by their caregivers. And at 4 years old, my son was coaching me on my own emotion awareness.
So why the sighs? About a week later and with much reflection, I got to what I was feeling. It was mid-September, a few days before the anniversary of my father’s very sudden death, and despite it being 15 years earlier it still knocked me off my center. All these years later, grief felt like a more tired body, a more distracted mind, and a feeling that anything might bring me to tears.
So back in the car, two weeks after Gregory had first caused me to pause and Focus on my Feeling, I shared a little more.
“Hey Greg, do remember how mama was sighing a lot… I figured out what I was feeling.”
“What was it, Mama?”
“I was feeling really sad because I was thinking about grandad, this is the time of year that he died and I miss him a lot.”
“That is really really sad, Mama.”
Gregory is now 7, and I am still sighing, but together we know to get curious and Focus on the Feeling. As Micheal Rosen so brilliantly wrote in his children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt…
"We can’t go over it.
We can't go under it.
We’ve got to go through it!"
Katherine Rosenblatt is ParentCorps Manager of Programming.