Why We Should Drop the Power Struggle and Empower Our Children
The Intersection of Parenting, Social Emotional Learning, and Yoga.
“Stop that this instant!” screams a desperate parent in a grocery store isle, pleading with a tantruming child.
“No hitting,” begs a teacher, now out of steam and ideas. As both the student doing the hitting and getting hit burst into tears, she tries a futile, “Use your words.” It’s now too late for this kind of instruction.
So common are the power struggles we face with children. So common are the emotional breakdowns that both adults and children face every day. When emotions flare and kids act up, it’s frustrating. Trying to fix the problem once there has been an outburst can be futile. We may end up trying to control the child rather than understand their experience and they may end up trying to rebel rather than submit to us.
There are strategies we can put into place during non-crisis times to improve behavior outcomes and live more mindfully. When we practice these skills with regularity, it’s possible to stop a crisis before it happens. And when we can’t prevent acting out, we can have simple, go-to exercises the children have command of and ownership over so they are accessible even in a heightened state. Just as we will never forget “Stop, drop and roll” if our sleeve catches fire, we can make easy to remember strategies available to our children for regular, everyday issues they may face. So while tantrums and acting out may never disappear, they can be diminishing. And once there is a flare up of emotion, the child can reach into their tool box and get the right tool for the moment.
Social Emotional Learning
What is social emotional learning (SEL) and why does it matter when it comes to our children? According the CASEL, it’s the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
There is evidence that mindfulness and SEL work well together. If you want to drop the power struggle with the children in your life, try some social emotional learning infused yoga and mindfulness borrowed from my The Calm Child workshop.
The Calm Child is a workshop I provide for parents and early childhood educators. I have truncated a portion of it for this article. It is intended for children ages 2-7 and can be adapted for older children by using facilitated discussions and tweaking the material to feel particularly relevant and more mature. For example, when working with older children remove puppets and instead ask they what they would tell a friend in a given situation.
Conscious Parenting and Education
The Calm Child Method
Normalizing the emotions, knowing the names of emotions, and what they feel like in the body is a great start to understanding and managing emotions. In The Calm Child workshop, we match 4 emotions with a breathing exercise, movement pattern or yoga pose, and a mantra that can help children to manage emotions and avoid an outburst.
- Embody – Name and embody the emotion in a relaxed state.
- Notice -How does the emotion feel in your body? In your belly, hands, face, and jaw, etc.
- Model – Demonstrate how you will deal with the emotion using one of the strategies.
- Imitate – Ask the child to copy your approach.
- Own- Child takes ownership by deciding what they will do next time the emotion is present.
- Thank- Be grateful by thanking the child for participating.
Set a Time
Whether at home or in school, it is important to have some structure when presenting important information. Therefore, whether it’s circle time, a morning meeting, or a special time for the parent and child after breakfast, create a special time for learning SEL. Doing this at a regular interval a few times a week is a good way to commit these skills and is an way easy to memorize so your child can use the tools when emotions are high.
Keep it Light
We also need to make these lessons feel like regular learning. We should not overemphasize this learning by making it feel too serious. When it feels light and playful, children are more likely to jump in. With too much intensity, they may feel reservation or anxiety and unconsciously block learning.
Exploring Anger using the Calm Child Method
Practice naming the emotion by saying the words angry, mad, or upset. (Note: for younger children, using consistent simple language is best. For older children, give and ask for a few synonyms.) Ask everyone to think of a time they felt angry and talk about what happened. Use statements like, “ I felt angry when…” For preschool and kindergarten aged kids, we can include use of a puppet to demonstrate a story about feeling angry, being sure to avoid showing any act of violence. For older children, let them talk about conflict with friends or family members that made them feel angry.
Embodiment. Here we all act as if we feel angry. We use our bodies to experience the sensation of anger in the body, noticing what we feel like in our face, belly, hands, and shoulders. We take turns sharing what it felt like to embody anger. For literate children you can provide writing prompts such as, “when I feel angry my belly feels ____ .” We can go farther and display an image of a person with angry body language and expression. This will help the child connect to what it looks like and feels like for others to experience anger, helping them develop empathy. For pre-literate children, using a body-shaped coloring sheet, they can draw where they feel angry in their body, increasing self-awareness.
Demonstrate a movement pattern or yoga pose, breath, and mantra that helps us deal with anger. I recommend starting out breathing like we do when we feel angry; short and shallow breaths. Then juxtapose that by slowing down the breath, emphasizing a long exhale through the mouth. Pause after each style of breathing to notice how it feels. The slower breathing will almost certainly begin to relax everyone doing it. For a movement pattern, I recommend to tense and relax. “Let’s squeeze our faces, squeeze,squeeze, squeeze, and now relax our faces. Lets squeeze our bellies, squeeze, squeeze, squeeze, and now relax our bellies,” etc. My favorite mantra for controlling anger is, “I am in control (of myself).” We take turns saying this outloud with a calm body.
Breathing: Inhale through the nose, exhale very slowing through the mouth
Movement: Tense and release different muscles of the body
Mantra:“I am in control”
Ask the child to imitate all of what we have done. For very young children, it may be a good idea to do this after each step so we work within their ability to remember. As the child demonstrates what they remember, they may need help and reminders. Once they have tried it all again, it’s time to ask what they will do the next time they feel angry. The step is all about responsible decision making and taking ownership. By Asking, “What will you do if you notice you’re feeling angry?” children learn to how plan, and they get practice demonstrating the skills. If they choose an appropriate response, you can commend them. If they need more help, you can help guide them toward a responsible choice.
You can come up with a keyword for easy access to these skills. The codeword has that stop, drop, and roll effect of sparking the memory while requiring little access to the thinking, which has impaired human’s experience to strong emotions.
Finally when you are all done, sincerely thank the child for their attention.
This step matters because your encouragement and gratitude will fuel the child to want to continue learning. Thanking the child models how to maintain positive relationships, another important aspect of SEL.
Mindful Cleanups Reduce Chaos
Combining SEL with yoga/movement, breathing, and mantras can be a really wonderful way to help children ease their intense emotions. And sometimes mindfulness is what the doctor ordered. If your child ever feels chaotic, going from one activity to another with no pause, leaving a mess in their wake, the following mindfulness activity called The 5 Breath Spacemaker will be helpful. It will also be helpful if you ever multitask and lose focus. In part, I created this activity for my current, distracted self and for the struggling child I used to be with an unmade bed, clothes on the floor, and chaos in my wake.
How to Practice The 5 Breath Spacemaker
- Upon completing one activity, take a moment to close it out.
- Put away objects relating to the activity you completed.
- Mentally be done with the activity by noting to yourself, “I am done.” Or “This is complete.”
- Take five slow, smooth, deep breaths. This is the space maker.
- Express gratitude for the previous activity, mentally or by speaking aloud. (If you are with your child or if anyone is listening, speaking is a way to model gratitude!)
- Mentally note that the next activity is going to begin shortly.
- Notice how you feel.
The 5 Breath Spacemaker puts a little space between activities, allowing for a moment of pause, breath,and gratitude. By putting away objects relating to the first activity prior to beginning the next, there is less visual distraction and less to physically collide with. It becomes clear that one thing is ending because we are cleaning it up. When we pause after we have cleaned up to bask in the gratitude and breath of a mindful moment of reflection, we slow down enough to control the chaos.
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Therefore, whether your child has difficult or warm emotions relating to ending the activity it isn’t important. It’s more about being aware of those emotions, feeling a sense of order in the mind that is also reflected in the clean, tidy space you are in, and pausing to be together right in the now before starting anything else.
Social Emotional Learning: The Stop Drop and Roll of Emotional Competence
Social emotional development was something we erroneously assumed people did during normal daily interactions until the recent shift to include it in public education alongside academics. We now recognize the importance of SEL not just for children, but for adults, too. Many of us know firsthand that a lack of these skills can lead to power struggles with our kids where we try to control them and they buck back. The repercussions of this way of engaging feels more like a tug of war for control than a systematic way to sort through emotions and choose appropriate behavior accordingly. As parents, the moments we lash out at our children when they need empathy can illustrate this futile struggle. As teachers, these are moments when slowing down and listening would serve students, but our own anxiety to push on leaves some students behind.That is why having more practice with SEL as an adult can improve our relationships.Through example and explicit teaching, children benefit from our commitment to integrating SEL into our time spent with them.
Many schools are now offering SEL curriculum and are seeing positive results. Here is an excerpt from a Greater Good Berkeley article titled “How Social Emotional Learning Transforms Classrooms”. We learn that it’s not only students beneftting, but teachers are feeling positive effects as well.
“Elementary educator Patricia Morris found that she had changed significantly as a result of using SEL in her classroom. “I’m calmer, more patient, kinder, and far less controlling,” described Patricia. “I’m more focused and able to let little things go that before would’ve made me crazy. I’m also more willing to look for the reasons behind things that happen. And I’ve become more optimistic, so when anything terrible happens, I try to see what good might come out of it.”