Tag Archives: social-emotional health

Can We Stop Telling Kids We Want to Teach Them to “Manage” Their Emotions?

Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”

Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’ 

Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.

To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.

It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us. 

How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Kids Become Healthy Adults

color spectrum

As parents and teachers, we are often uncomfortable when kids display strong emotions, with the exception of joy. For some reason, we generally love it when kids are joyful and happy. But when they are overwhelmingly angry or frustrated or sad, our first response is usually to tell them to tamp it down or talk them out of it.

“It’s not that bad.”

“Don’t cry.”

“Why are you getting so upset about something like that?”

Much of the time, especially with middle and high school aged girls, we dismiss their outbursts with an eye roll and label it drama. Boys are allowed to show anger or frustration and happiness, but almost never given an opportunity to cry. As the adults charged with helping these kids navigate the tricky waters of adolescence, these responses couldn’t be more harmful. Sending the message that there is only a small range of acceptable emotional responses to life events does not set them up to be healthy adults.

Healthy adults express a full range of emotions. Healthy adults have learned to accept their feelings and modulate their responses. Effective adults use their feelings to gauge their connection to something and often propel themselves forward into important work.

Unfortunately, emotions occur along a spectrum, like color. Purple bleeds into blue bleeds into green bleeds into yellow, etc. When you turn the light off, you can’t see any color at all. Our eyes (unless you’re color blind) are designed to see ranges of color; we can’t just block out everything but purple. In the same way, closing the door on what we consider to be “negative” emotions such as sadness or anger means that we are also shutting out happiness and excitement. It is impossible to selectively remove one or two feelings and still keep the capacity for others. Instead of sending our children the message that certain emotional responses are wrong or bad, it is important for us to teach them how to open the door to the entire range of human emotion. The more they realize that emotions are not to be feared or avoided, the better they will be able to handle them and use them to become more resilient.

It is often difficult for parents to watch their kids struggle with emotional pain and not be able to fix it. In the short run, it is much simpler to ask them to not share their pain with us, but we then risk losing the opportunity to be a safe haven for them to express sadness or fear. As school staff, it is often frustrating to hear about disagreements, especially when they are the same ones that happen year after year, but labeling them “drama” sends the message that only certain kinds of emotions are acceptable and it prevents us from seizing the learning moments that we are presented with.

Because middle and high school kids are so inundated with emotion, this is the perfect time to make a concerted effort to teach them to understand, identify, accept and positively act on those strong impulses. If we choose, instead, to look away or minimize, we won’t succeed in tamping down the feelings, but we will send the message that the feelings themselves or wrong or that we as adults cannot be trusted to share them with.