Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 17, 2018)
Just this past week, I was leading a training session for in-service school teachers on the topic of positive emotions and we all agreed that if students can have positive emotions, school would be much better academically and socially. Sometimes people mistaken that learning about and focusing on emotions ‘takes away’ from the learning that is needed at school but we all know that if we are stressed, feeling angry, mad or sad, it’s a lot harder to focus on work and on getting good results. Helping our students experience positive emotions will enable them to learn better and to enjoy the process more.
According to Prof. Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model, one of the five integral elements of a life of well-being is experiencing positive emotions. But sometimes people can mistaken this as never having negative emotions.
In one of our classes with kindergarteners, we asked students 4-6 year old students, is it okay to feel happy? “yes” was the unanimous answer. Then the question was “is it okay to feel mad?” “no” was furious shaking heads. Many of us have been taught since young that it’s ‘bad to feel bad’ and that we should shut our emotions off.
I was once speaking to parents of a 2 year old and I asked them whether they had anything they were concerned about and they shared that they were worried that their daughter would cry and throw a tantrum when she’s upset. I think they were surprised when I said that it was a good thing. It’s healthy for a child to express her emotions to people close to her and at 2 years old, she doesn’t have the vocabulary nor emotional capacity to express herself well. But instead of shutting her emotions down, it’s to help her understand her emotion and to work it through.
I’ve heard parents say to their children ‘don’t be upset’, ‘stop crying – boys shouldn’t cry’, ‘it’s not big deal – why are you so mad?’ and all those comments shut those emotions off and make children store them shut without learning how to release them properly.
I think there are 4 steps to learning to deal with emotions that are helpful for children and adults alike:
1. Acknowledge and accept the emotion
The first step is acknowledging that an emotion is being felt and to accept it, whether it is a positive or negative one. If someone else is expressing an emotion, accept that there are no good or bad emotions, just positive and negative ones.
2. Identify the emotion
This is often the hardest part, especially for children, their limited vocabulary may only have ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ but there are so many more to understand. ‘Sad’ could be disappointed, frustrated, angry, indignant, betrayed, hopeless, melancholy or so much more. What emotion is being felt and why am I feeling that way?
3. Articulate the emotion
I think it’s important to be able to share what emotion we are feeling. But this can be hard for young children so parents and adults can really help children learn how to do this step by ‘naming the emotion’. For example, “I see that a boy just took your toy without asking and you must be feeling angry and hurt” or “It must be frustrating that you didn’t get that part in the play you wanted”
4. Express the emotion
There are responsible and irresponsible ways to express emotions and that is what differentiates a good and a bad response. It’s okay to feel angry and there may be legitimate reasons for feeling such but it is never okay to hurt yourself or others. So learning to express emotions responsibly is something that needs to be practices and taught. Everyone has a different way of expressing an emotion in a way that helps. For some it’s listening to music, for others it’s doing breathing exercises, for others it’s going on a run. We each have to find what works for us.
With healthy and positive emotions and the emotional intelligence in dealing with different types of emotions, we are setting ourselves up better for the world we face.