As the summer nights begin to draw in I sit here both as a mother and a psychologist reflecting upon the changes that both the autumn and the academic year will bring for our children and families. Change is occurring all the time for our children in terms of their physicality, their thoughts and their depth of understanding of both social and academic situations.
Change is ever evolving and inevitable but September highlights a number of transitions for us all, both as parents and children. For some of us it will be the first time that we have had to leave our children at the classroom door and for others it will be the first time that we have a clear understanding of our child’s emotional, cognitive and social needs so that they can be best supported during their schooling. For many parents this type of change is also associated with a loss and an ending of one phase of the child’s life but hope and excitement too as they begin another chapter.
For many adults and children change can instil a sense of anxiety, for it is far easier to carry on as we are then sometimes to embrace the “newness of a classroom, a teacher and the different expectations and boundaries that new year’s bring for all. As a psychologist it is my job to support the system around the child and the individuals themselves in terms. Just like the movie “Inside Out.” It is vital that we nurture and support the development of children’s emotional literacy skills. Children are not born with an innate ability to express their emotions. Hence the reason for the tantrums and sulks that regularly occur in households. We need to give children the words and phrases and in some cases the gestures, to express themselves both verbally and non-verbally.
For example a child may stand at the entrance to their new classroom and flatly refuse to go in. They may not be able to say “Mummy I am worried, I don’t know when you are going to get me, what if I can’t eat my lunch?” We need to be able to reassure and tell them these feelings are normal and acceptable. Phrases such as “I can see your feeling worried, maybe you feel a bit sad too…” Daniel Goleman (2015) has often said that emotional intelligence is the most profound form of learning. I believe children need these skills initially in order to make positive progress socially, emotionally and academically throughout their lives.
This summer saw the release of the Movie “Inside out. As a psychologist I didn’t need much persuading to see it. The movie is about an 11 year old Girl Riley, who moves from Ohio to San Francisco, moving away from her school and her friends. The leading characters of the movie are Riley and her family but her primary emotions- Happiness (Joy), Sadness, Anger. Fear and Disgust play the biggest role in the film. These emotions demonstrated what it might be like in the mind of an 11 year old girl who struggles to move to a different city, away from her friends, away from her hockey team and she experiences difficulty expressing these feelings to her parents.
The movie highlights a number of salient points that are important in all our lives, not only our children. The movie emphasises how all emotions are important and valid. We cannot selectively feel some and not others. Joy tries desperately to loose and isolate the feeling sadness throughout the movie but what is emphasised is that both emotions need to exist in order to feel and appreciate the good with the less good. The movie demonstrates how not being able to express sadness can lead to internalising these feelings with negative consequences including feelings of depression.
The movie also emphasises the importance of finding space to express feelings. The same type of feelings of uncertainty, anger, resentment as well as curiosity and excitement that children may experience when transitioning into school.
“Inside Out,” recognises that the feeling of sadness allows us to make connections with each other, be it physical or verbal. There is actually a neurological change in our brains which activates us to feel empathy and want to cuddle those in distress, in turn releasing oxytocin, the warm fuzzy feeling experienced when giving a hug. The teacher at the class door is likely to feel empathy for the distressed child and alleviate their sadness. When we stay with this individual as Riley does with her imaginary friend, Bing Bong, Riley soon feels better once she feels listened too and has someone who is listening to her and validating her feelings.
The movie also recognised that our memories are part of our personal narrative, but that in many ways we construct the narratives that we believe. We can change our story any time and for children this is also related to making sense of their world. We know that we can’t delete certain chapters of our lives or experience but research has suggested that the way we tell the stories will affect us the most. In light of school transitions and changes, honesty is the best policy. Talk about your experiences as a child in school which are positive and how you developed a sense of resilience to the difficulties inevitably encountered too.
I felt that the most important message was that from the word go we need to teach our children how important it is to feel all the emotions and to be able to name them and express them in a way which is supportive. The movie reminds us that all humanity feels the same emotions, we are all so similar despite our differences and at this time of year it is important that together with our children we all reflect on this too.
Inside Out provided a summary and a thinking platform about how change and transition can be supported and understood. At this time of year as we both reflect and look forward; remember that to feel all emotions is crucial, feelings move and change as they will for your children and you too can be their guiding light.