On a prior episode of There Goes the Motherhood, Stefanie’s 7-year-old son Ellington found his fear of dogs ignited when he came in contact with Jen’s dog at Rivers’ birthday party. In group, Stefanie and Jill made a plan to create a book for Ellington to prepare him for a visit from Jill’s very friendly dog Otto, to help Ellington overcome his fear. The intention of the book was to humanize dogs for Ellington, and to introduce Otto as a potential friend. In the book, we gave Otto interests that are similar to Ellington’s (like wearing hats, liking superheroes and watching cartoons) and also showed Otto’s vulnerabilities (Otto is “afraid of big waves at the beach and runs to his mommy when he’s frightened”). The idea was to help Ellington see himself and all of his feelings in Otto, which helped to reduce his anxiety and prepare him to meet Otto.
On last week’s episode, Ellington read the book with Stefanie and, to her happy amazement, agreed to meet Otto on his own terms (behind the family home gate). Because Ellington was prepared in advance by reading the book – which communicated that his mom and dad respected and understood his fears – and because he was assured that he could maintain control when meeting Otto by going at his own pace, Ellington was able to begin to face his fear of dogs.
One of the most challenging aspects of parenting children is helping them move through the fears and the big emotions that can come with family and life changes. Starting a new school, moving from one home to another, welcoming a new sibling, divorce, the death of a friend or pet or family member, parents traveling, and a child feeling afraid of something are just some of the many issues that most parents will come face to face with at some point as your child grows. The big feelings your child has about these inevitable curveballs in life will undoubtedly tug at your own heartstrings as you search for ways to help your child cope with the situation at hand. But with some helpful tools and supports, your child can come through a difficult situation with more confidence and resilience, new skills, and a broader perspective about himself and about life. Our challenges are actually what help us grow the most, no matter our age.
One of our favorite tools for helping kids face life changes and the big feelings they bring is to make a book to read together. The purpose of this project is to not only empower kids by helping them understand the change that is happening but also to give them an avenue for processing their feelings about that change. Research shows that when kids can tell the story of life events that are potentially overwhelming - using both language and the visual support of pictures to support the story - they can better integrate both the change and their feelings about it. Kids can read the book on their own or with parents again and again, allowing them to process information and emotions in their own time and at their own pace.
This is Otto. He is a dog and he is 9 years old.
He loves his family very much and he has a brother and a sister. They play outside a lot. It’s fun.
Otto likes to dress up like Willy Wonka. That’s one of his favorite movies.
Sometimes Otto goes to the beach. He likes to play in the sand and run on the edge of the ocean,
but if a big wave comes, he gets a little scared and runs to his mommy!
Creating stories with visual elements helps parents in several ways, too. These stories can serve as a guide in your explanation of complex subjects – subjects that you yourself may be feeling emotional or unsettled about. And let’s face it: seeing a child’s upset is one of the most upsetting things a parent herself can experience, so the container of a story told through words and pictures gives you a place to process your own feelings, too. In other words, having some structure around the storytelling with your child helps you feel more calm and relaxed, which allows your child to also feel more grounded as you discuss the unfolding of life events together.
The book you create for your child can be quite simple (stick-figure drawings and stapled-together copier paper) or more elaborate (computer-generated books with photos or other graphics). If you’re not artistically inclined, don’t worry! You can easily make a book with simple illustrations in about 15 to 20 minutes. Those of you with a creative bent can go to town making something with artistic elements – but focus more on the purpose of your storytelling than creating a snazzy finished product; it’s the heart of the message that will impact your child most. Whatever your medium, tell a story about the situation at hand using simple language, with a beginning, middle and end – and no more than one concept on each page. Avoid the temptation to tell your child not to feel sad, scared or angry about what’s happening, which creates an internal conflict for her because she may very well be feeling those things. Instead, give your child explicit permission to have any feelings she has about the situation, and let her know that you’ll both support her in expressing those feelings and also keep her company while she has them, without trying to “fix” or change them. In the pages that follow permission to feel feelings, you can offer ideas for how to handle the situation or a reminder to ask for help when she needs it.
In the 20 years that we’ve been working with families, we have consistently heard from parents that creating a book for their child – with appropriate, heartfelt and honest information – allows parents and child to connect deeply about an issue, process and integrate the feelings that come up for the child, allows the child to move through an otherwise difficult situation with a stronger sense of connection in the parent-child relationship, and allows the child to trust in himself to handle the challenges that life brings his way. We can’t stop life from happening to kids, but we can help them develop the inner strength they need to rise to any occasion.
There Goes the Motherhood airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Bravo.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR OWN CIRCLE OF MOMS
Why not have a get-together with your own mom friends and keep the conversation going? Here are some questions to get you started. You can also join us each Thursday at 10 am PST on our Facebook page for a virtual mom group where we'll talk about all that's on your mind and in your heart! Join us!
1. What fears or big emotions has your child struggled with? How did you help him work through those feelings?
2. What is your own experience of your child feeling afraid? Do you have a difficult time supporting him through his feelings without becoming overwhelmed by your own? What do you feel would help you stay grounded as you help your child process his emotions?
3. What strengths or skills did your child gain by facing a difficult situation and working through it?
Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack
Co-Founders, Sleepy Planet Parenting