When I talk to surgeons and other trauma care providers about burnout, I tell them that the first step avoiding the emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a low sense of personal accomplishment characteristic of burnout is to be emotionally aware. I make my audience stare at an empty black slide and ponder their emotions to explore how those emotions are impacting their impression of their day, their reaction to my talk, their distractions.
By the end of the talk, most in the audience know that the surgeon who flips out and throws things in the OR is not emotionally aware. The surgeon who goes home and gets into a fight with his/her spouse over some totally minor household to-do item because he/she had a long day and someone died and the work to-do list is getting out of hand is not emotionally aware. The surgeon who turns to alcohol or drugs to get through his/her days/nights is not emotionally aware.
And it occurred to me, as I was still reeling from and strategizing about what to do about our son’s recent behavioral issues, that my 8 year old has no emotional awareness. Whether it’s about brushing his teeth before going to bed, or wearing long pants when the temperature is below freezing, or losing a board game to his sister, anger and frustration drive his immediate response. Though the response is the opposite when he is excited about something, the effect is the same. His boisterous enthusiasm about getting picked to use the iPad in class, or lining up to see the neighborhood haunted house, or getting the gift on the top of his wish list under the tree on Christmas morning results in disrespectful acting out.
Whether he behaves like an angry petulant child or a boisterous obstreperous child, his emotions, in the absence of any emotional awareness, are driving him. I say “he behaves” rather than “he is” because I am convinced that he’s a balanced kid on the inside. He just needs to become emotionally aware and behave in a way that is safer and more socially acceptable. So here is what we have done as parents to move toward a more emotionally aware child.
We don’t ignore the minor transgressions. It’s easy as parents to zone out on the cacophony of kids. But now, when we hear a cupboard slam (because his favorite cereal is out) or perceive a wrecking ball to a lego structure (because it just wasn’t coming together the way he wants), we remind him that this is the kind of behavior we are now discouraging. If he learns to manage his emotions with the little things, he will be more like to do it with the big things.
We are talking a lot more about feelings. When he acts out or appears as if he is about the act out, we bring him to a full stop and have him verbalize what he is feeling, what is driving him. Often he does not know, but having him pause is helpful. And if he can put his finger on it, giving him the chance to bounce his feelings off of us validates his emotions while reigning in his destructive responses.
Now that he is aware that he has a physical response when he is frustrated or disappointed or angry he can work on ways to contain he outward behaviors. We have taught him how to slow down and take deep cleansing breaths when he feels his emotions getting the best of him. If we are near, his slow deep breathes are enveloped by a giant loving bear hug. If we are far, he squeezes a stress ball which he can find in his back back, or desk at school, or in various places in our home.
While these reactions in the moment are important, our son needs to learn a more constant sense of emotional awareness. Therefore, we are finding calming activities which had been increasingly absent as he grew into boyhood. My son now spends much more time coloring “adult” coloring books, working through origami, sewing, crocheting, balloon sculptures, and gimping. He was forced into these activities nearly full time during a 34 day period of “house arrest” following his misbehavior on the eve of Halloween. Putting his hands to work in a quiet, non-competitive way has been incredibly effective in allowing him to remain calmer, more centered, more contemplative when his is back to playing with his buddies.
Meanwhile, our newest adjust is practicing mindfulness and meditation via several apps we are currently sampling. It’s been 3 months since the epic transgression leading to our son’s loss of Trick or Treating. We are proud of his progress so far. We are proud of our progress as parents of a child who can, in fact, learn emotional awareness.
We are simultaneously monitoring our own emotional awareness with higher acuity. Whether the stressors are at work, or from a spousal disagreement, or related to raising an 8 year old, we are hyperaware that how we manifest our anger or frustrations influences what our child feels is acceptable. Therefore, we are challenging ourselves more than ever before not to fly off the handle but rather to be the kind of emotionally aware, present parents our rambunctious young man deserves.