By Lillian Henricks, PsyD, Mackintosh School Counselor
As we separate for summer vacation let us all continue to fly the flag of compassion. There were so many lovely demonstrations of compassion in the sixth graders’ service component of the Exhibition. Continuing some element of service to family, friends, neighbors and strangers will do us all good. Amidst ongoing Covid-19 anxiety, rather than constrict, let us expand in ways that are physically safe and healthy, but also allow for connection with others. We can do this with the trust that in giving we receive in tangible and intangible ways, and that our happiness correlates with attentiveness to the needs of others.
In addition to outward compassion, let us practice compassion within our homes. The Latin etymology of compassion is “to suffer with.” We are all suffering or have suffered from change, ongoing isolation, and the loss of expected events and activities (and, more importantly, the loss of loved ones). We are suffering with our own limitations as parents and with those of our children, all of which make family life challenging. The word patience comes from the Latin patiens, meaning “I am suffering.” The first person voice is notable. Growing in patience entails expanding our ability to suffer with the imperfections of self, other, and circumstance, as well as accepting the loss of what should still be present. This correlates with flexibility or even malleability if we consider the role that circumstances have in forming us. A key word for a Mackintosh learner is flexible.
In addition to the role that circumstances have in forming us and our children, let us also form our children with solid guidance along the path of patience and compassion. One area is to guide how our children deal with disappointment. A child’s expectation might be as simple as expecting juice with dinner instead of water. We can all imagine a child who might not respond favorably to the disappointment. One simple approach to children’s disappointments is in three steps. First, empathize with them, telling them: That was hard, that’s not what you wanted, you were expecting that, or, you’re angry, as examples. Second, express a limit to their behavior or the expectation of what you would like them to do: It’s ok to feel that way, but it is not ok to throw that/stomp away/shut the door on Mom; you wanted something else to eat, but this is what we are eating right now. Third, ask them what they want to do to calm down. The emphasis here is that they are the ones who hold the key to their own happiness.
While leaving the ball in their court of choosing what to do, continue to coach them over time with ideas for self-soothing. Some examples include deep breathing (five finger breathing, box breathing, bubble breathing), running around the outside of the house, stomping somewhere that it is allowed, punching a soft object in a way that is safe, removing themselves to a quiet space, or recourse to a special self-soothing box with sensory materials. As children develop, coping skills can become less concrete/physical and more abstract; for example, trying to see another perspective or counting blessings. However, physically calming our bodies is usually a good place to start no matter what our stage of development. While you equip them with tools, try not to forget that the decision to pursue happiness and how to do it is ultimately theirs. We lead the way, show the way, and then get out of the way. This basic idea of children being responsible for their own happiness comes from Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don’t Go Their Way by Elizabeth Crary.
For your summer voyage, I am linking to a few resources to use this summer with your children to guide them toward more flexibility. The emphasis on family discussion and reflection in these School-To-Home Connection activity sheets is really helpful. You can find sheets for Kindergarten – Second Grade, Third through Fifth Grade, and Sixth through Eighth Grade. Equally helpful is the distinction made between what is in our children’s control and what is not. Many if not most circumstances are not in our children’s control. Additionally, feelings of stress, sadness, and anger are often not in their control. What is in their control is how they choose to calm themselves and to respond to disappointment and unmet expectations. I hope that these brief handouts can help you over the course of days, weeks or even months as you revisit, reflect upon, and practice the ideas with your children. Reflection is a powerful tool through which we learn from our past behaviors or mistakes and equip ourselves for future challenges; and, of course, reflection is also a hallmark of our Mackintosh learners!