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The Full Dig: Nurturing Emotionally Capable Children - VTDigger

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    A woman standing in a room with a tiny home big sign.
    Alyssa Blask Campbell co-wrote “Tiny Human, Big Emotions” with Lauren Elizabeth Stauble. Seen in South Burlington on Friday, Oct. 13. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

    The Deeper Dig is a biweekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom, hosted and produced by Sam Gale Rosen. Listen below, and subscribe on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlaySpotify or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

    Managing big emotions is hard for adults, so what must it be like if you’re 3 feet tall and still in diapers? Anyone who’s been around kids knows how they can get overwhelmed by big emotional reactions. Those can run the gamut from despair to rage to laughing fits, sometimes within the same five-minute period.

    So, how can you teach kids to manage emotions in a healthy way? Especially if you’re still figuring it out yourself?

    Deeper Dig host Sam Gale Rosen talks about this with Alyssa Blask Campbell, a Burlington-based expert on parenting, education and child development. She’s the CEO of , which serves parents, teachers and caregivers with tools for mental wellness and building emotional intelligence. She also hosts the podcast “Voices of Your Village.”

    Her new book, written with Lauren Elizabeth Stauble, is called “Tiny Humans, Big Emotions: How to Navigate Tantrums, Meltdowns, and Defiance to Raise Emotionally Intelligent Children.”

    This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

    I attended a talk Alyssa gave in Burlington last month organized by the Dad Guild group, and a lot of what she spoke about struck a chord with me, both as a father of a 3-year-old and just as a person existing in the world, so I was eager to ask her a little more about the topic.

    I started by asking Alyssa how she defines “emotional intelligence.”

    Alyssa: Sure. I appreciate that question because I feel like it’s gotten so buzzword-y, but a lot of folks don’t know, like, “What does it even really mean?” And it’s kind of, like, in the early ed world, when people are, like, oh, yeah, my kid goes to a Montessori school but barely know what that means. It’s just like a buzzword in early ed.

    So for emotional intelligence, there are five components. We have self-awareness. We have self-regulation, social skills, empathy and motivation. And when we’re looking at those five: Self-awareness is really being able to notice, like, what is happening inside my body? What is coming up for me? We talk about it with kids as like a volcano, when it’s starting to build before it erupts. Self-regulation is the ability to regulate the nervous system. So once you notice that building, what helps you calm? Social skills, the ability to read the room, to differentiate how I show up at school versus how I show up at home, or how I show up in a religious environment versus at my grandparents versus with my friends, and be able to differentiate those spaces. Empathy, the ability to connect with someone over what they’re feeling, not necessarily why they’re feeling it, maybe you don’t have the same lived experience and you haven’t walked that same path. But if you know what disappointment feels like you can empathize with disappointment. And then motivation, being that intrinsic versus extrinsic, never with the goal of strictly intrinsic motivation. We live very much in an extrinsic motivation society of rewards and punishments and a lot of external drivers. But helping kids foster that, like, I am proud of myself, rather than consistently looking outside to say, are you proud of me?

    Sam: And the whole idea of the book is obviously predicated on the idea that these are things which need to be taught, right? And that’s not necessarily something that people have always known or acknowledged. Is that right?

    Alyssa: Yeah, exactly. I think for a lot of folks, it’s assumed that you hit certain ages or stages, and just get these tools, kind of like: Yeah, kids are probably going to walk and talk at some point. And when you pause, and you look around at the adults in your space, we can recognize that a lot of the adults didn’t get a lot of these tools. A lot of us are still building these tools if we weren’t taught them in childhood. If you didn’t learn, like, what does it feel like inside, when I’m having a hard feeling? How do I calm my nervous system? If we didn’t learn those, we’re not practicing them. And this is what we dive into in the book and in our work. How do we build emotional intelligence? How do we foster it?

    Sam: That was something I definitely wanted to talk about, which is, you know, for many people, emotional regulation is a challenge for ourselves, right? And it’s something that we’re learning how to do continually, and it’s a work in progress. So I’m curious about your advice, specifically on how someone can feel like they’re effectively teaching emotional regulation while they themselves are also still working on it with themselves, and how that can not become just another thing to worry about. Like, oh, now I’m passing my own flaws or deficiencies on to my child.

    Alyssa: Well, rest assured, you are going to pass some stuff along to your kid. All of us are. And the goal isn’t that we do all of this healing and all this work, and that our kids have no work to do, and they come to adulthood with all of these tools, and they’re not building anything. That’s not our goal. It’s really messy to be in it and building these tools and practicing this while we’re building these tools with our kids.

    And there is not a single human on the planet that’s like: Oh, yeah, I’ve fully healed from all my things, and now I’m just teaching my kid. At every age and stage, there’ll be new triggers, new things that come up, new biases.

    Like I was just chatting with a friend of mine who was, like: I felt like I had a lot of patience when they were 3 and 4 (years old). She has twins. And she’s like: Now they’re 5, turning 6. And I’m like, you should know better. Like, all of a sudden, this is coming up, where I have less patience.

    And I was like, totally, it’s so normal. And then you’re gonna get eventually to teenage years, and there are going to be different triggers that come up where you’re, like: Oh, my gosh, the “you should know better” will surface in other ways. So recognizing that it’s not something you do and you get to the end of it and you’re, like, I’m done with all of this work. That is a constant practice.

    And our method, the collaborative emotion processing method, is five components. One is adult-child interactions, about how we show up with kids and what we say and what we can do with them to help build these skills. The other four are about us. And so we guide you through, what does it look like to do this alongside fostering this with your children?

    Sam: Can you give a few examples? Both of what you talk about in terms of the parent-kid interaction, since I think that’s what a lot of people gravitate to immediately, but then also what these other other factors are that have less to do with those direct interactions.

    A woman is smiling in front of a microphone.
    Alyssa Blask Campbell co-wrote “Tiny Human, Big Emotions” with Lauren Elizabeth Stauble. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

    Alyssa: Yeah, totally. So we look at the other four that are about us, our self-awareness, that noticing for ourselves. We have implicit bias, so really uncovering those implicit biases for ourselves, that age bias coming up, right, that you should know better. Or for some of us that grew up in obedience cultures where we were supposed to be obedient to certain humans. And now when our child is staring us in the face and doing something they’re not supposed to, we see that defiance. We see that ignoring behavior. We see those meltdowns. We’re gonna feel triggered in the moment. 

    There’s gonna be parts of us that surface and say: Hey, this is not OK. This is not what a kid’s supposed to do. This is not how they’re supposed to show up, and really what they’re saying is, is this child going to be lovable and safe if they’re doing this? At the end of the day, we all want to be lovable and worthy and connected and belong and feel safe. And so these parts of us are going to surface to say, like, is that happening? And so that’s the bias work, and we dive deep into that and how it will continue to surface.

    And then we have self-care. This is where we’re looking at, it’s not something for us like an occasional thing you do. For us, self-care is how we nurture our unique nervous system all throughout the day. We get real nerdy about this, diving into the nervous system, the eight sensory systems, looking at what we’re sensitive to and then what regulates us. We get to dive in here to help you understand your nervous system and also your child’s. And recognizing that there are some things that your child is going to be sensitive to that aren’t sensitivities for you, or maybe the way your child regulates is different than you

    For example, I am really regulated and calmed by touch. I could have a massage for four straight days, and be, like, I want more. I love a hug. I like to have a hand on me if I’m having a hard time. And my 2 ½-year old is dysregulated by touch. And so if he’s having a meltdown or a hard time, and I reach over and touch him, that further dysregulates his nervous system. What we need in the moment is different, and so we dive into that a little bit in that self-care piece.

    And then the scientific knowledge portion of the set method, looking at what is happening inside of our brains, inside of our bodies. We chat about things like mirror neurons and how our nervous systems communicate with each other. For instance, my little guy, who’s, I just mentioned, 2 ½, got like, the giggles the other day, and it’s so contagious. It’s the best sound. It makes me smile, makes me laugh. But when he’s having a tantrum on aisle four of the grocery store, the same thing happens, where my body responds to exactly what he’s doing. And now internally, I’m having a tantrum on aisle four of the grocery store. And so we dive in to that neuroscience as well.

    And then, ultimately, that adult-child interactions. So when we are doing this work, when we’re noticing for ourselves what’s coming up, we’re diving into our bias work and working on regulating our nervous system, both through proactive self-care throughout the day, but also reactive in the moment, what helps us feel calm, then how can we bring that calm? What does it look like from that scientific knowledge portion? And in adult-child interactions, now we look at, OK, now how do we respond to the child in front of us?

    Sam: Are there examples of some of the advice you’d give around those parent-kid interactions, which are where a lot of the flash points come up in all of this?

    Alyssa: Yes, that’s what everyone comes to us for, right?

    We, in the book, outline five phases of emotion processing, five things that you go through to process an emotion. One is allowing, which sounds so simple, and it’s so hard in practice — allowing a child to feel, where we’re not distracting them out of it, where they, you know, they want to get this toy at the store, and we said no, and then they’re disappointed about it. And we’re like, you know, next time you can get this, or we try to make it go away as fast as possible because it’s uncomfortable. It’s inconvenient. It’s really hard to be with somebody who is having a hard emotion, and then add any public layers on and we’re like, oh, my gosh, there’s embarrassment, and am I doing this right?

    We actually, I can give you a real life example. I can give 7 billion real life examples. We went to the Champlain Valley Fair, and my 2-year-old woke up from nap. And we were meeting friends there. And so we were like, oh, we’ll just give him his afternoon snack on the drive over. And so in the car, we give him a snack, and he doesn’t eat it. He’s so jazzed about the fair, and we get there. And he’s amped up. He’s, like, a little dysregulated but on that excited side of things. And he kept saying, I’m having so much fun. I’m having so much fun, and he’s going on rides and doing other things.

    And then we took a pause to eat food. And he, again, too jazzed, too amped up to eat. At which point, my husband was like, what do we do now? And I was like, well buckle up because at some point, there’s going to be a crash here, right? We know, he’s going to get to the point of being hangry. And about half hour later, he is melting on the ground.

    There’s, like, a grassy area with picnic tables. And families are eating together at picnic tables, and my child is screaming, go away, leave me alone, to me and my husband, as he gets as close as he can to these families, who are trying to have a nice hang together.

    And I’m like, I’m sorry, he’s just, like, fully in meltdown mode, and in this moment, he is fully out of control, and so there’s no distracting him out of this. What his body needs is food, and you can’t make a kid eat, sleep or poop. So we’re just in this space, where I am waiting until he’s ready to accept food without punishing him for feeling or having a hard time.

    And so I turned to my husband. We sat down on the grass, far enough away from him but also where we could see him. And he would, every once in a while, kind of look up to see if we were watching still. He wants to know, like, you’re still here. You still see that I’m having a hard time, right? But don’t come close or talk to me.

    And I had some fried dough sitting in the grass there. And we had set for ourselves: If in about 10 minutes, he hasn’t come down from this and isn’t ready to, like, have some food, then we’re going to leave, and we’ll carry him out, and we’ll get home, and at some point, he’s going to accept food and we’ll move through it. And sure enough, about 10 minutes later, I pulled the I’m very pregnant card and was like hey, husband of mine, can you carry him to the car?

    So he carried him, and he was not jazzed to be carried, remember, he’s sensitive to touch. And so he’s flailing and crying as we carry him to the car. And we get him to the car, and we get buckled in. And the whole time he’s still expressing his dysregulation via cries and screams. And then on the car ride home, he all of a sudden goes, mama, I need rice and beans. And then he started to eat, and he just, like, came back to life. He started to regulate. This is that separation between sensory regulation and emotion processing.

    I’m not yet nor have I at any point in this process yet been like wow, buddy, it’s so frustrating or, like, this is what’s happening for you, or do you want to make another plan? I’m not trying to problem-solve out of it. I’m just allowing him to feel first. And then, once we’re in that space where like he is allowed to feel, we might pop in one phrase that’s validating, that recognizes what’s coming up for them or what happened, like: Oh man, your belly is really hungry, and you’re not ready to eat. Or sometimes in a sibling conflict: You really wanted to have a turn with that, and your sister is using it. Gosh, it’s hard to wait.

    This is that part where we connect with them. We help them feel seen and understood. And then we have security in our feelings. This is where we know we are safe to feel because we won’t feel this way forever. We might pop in a word like: I’m here with you when you’re ready to feel calm, just signaling to the brain, like, all right, calm exists. I will literally tell my child: Yeah, it makes sense to feel sad. Sad doesn’t stay for a long time. And just reminding him that you’re secure in this feeling because it won’t take over.

    And then we have coping. Coping is what regulates the nervous system. And this is the part that is not a one-size-fits-all. This is where we are pulling in, like, how does your nervous system best respond in the moment and to what. Sometimes coping is getting that food in, right? It’s the rice and beans.

    Sometimes, it’s sleep, when we have an overtired child. Sometimes it’s certain types of movement. Sometimes it’s touch. Sometimes it’s having a quiet, dark space, where we can take a break from stimuli. And we go deep into to this in the book, too, the different types of coping — how to help you understand what’s most supportive for you, what’s most supportive for your child. 

    And then, ultimately, once we’re calm, so in this instance, in the car with the rice and beans, as he ate, and then he started to calm, he came back to life. He was like, mama, when we get home, can we play with tools in the basement? And I was like, yeah, and also I need a minute, right? Like, whew, he just fully forgot what just occurred, and he’s regulated now. And I’m like, whew, it’s draining.

    And now we’re at that problem-solving, moving-on phase, where once they’re calm, we can talk about the behavior sometimes, or we might figure out a plan for what to do next. Where problem-solving with siblings here, where you both want the toy and there’s only one of them.  I might say at this point, like, wow, buddy, your body was feeling so overwhelmed or out of control when you were hungry. Maybe next time, we can work together so that you can eat before your body gets there. We can make a plan for that, and then we move on.

    Sam: And just to state the obvious, it’s so hard not to blow through those steps or get there too early.

    Alyssa: It’s so hard because we’re, like, all right, allowed, check, validated it, check, security, check, coping, check, let’s go. We’re ready for it to be done, and a huge part of allowing emotions to exist is on their timeline, not ours.

    And they won’t let you blow through them, though, is the thing. Like as you start to offer coping, they won’t be receptive to it if we’re trying to blow through them. Or we had a little girl in our work who was yelling — no calm! — we’re like, yeah, she’s not ready for that part of this yet. It really is allowing them to be in the hard emotion. It’s the messy, hard part for us.

    Sam: And this is something that you talked about a bit in the talk that I attended, which I thought was very interesting, which is obviously, you can sort of control your own interactions with your child. But it’s a big world, and your kid is having lots and lots of interactions with all kinds of people within your own family and who knows elsewhere, that may be very different and may be not controlling or thinking about interactions in the same way. How do you think about the parent’s or the caregiver’s role in this big web of interactions and the difference you can make based on just your own way of doing this?

    Alyssa: In short, your own way of doing this is enough.

    We all need one human that we feel safe and secure in relationship with, that we can be vulnerable with, whose feelings we don’t feel responsible for, that you can break down to, that you can be your messy self with. And if you are that person for your child, that’s enough. It’s OK if your partner or co-parent isn’t, or if the way that your parents or the kid’s grandparents show up with them is not in this emotionally supportive way.

    What the child will learn is that social skills part. They’ll learn how to differentiate between, OK, if I’m feeling scared, who is the person that I can turn to that can handle my fear, that can support me through it, that doesn’t try to minimize it or distract or just make it go away as fast as possible for their comfort? They’ll learn that internally, just truthfully without thinking about it. Just it becomes a part of their subconscious. And then that’s how they’ll show up in relationships with different people. And that’s OK.

    I think the biggest part is for us as adults, allowing ourselves to grieve the relationship we maybe envisioned for our child with these other humans. Maybe for yourself as a kid, you wish you had a certain relationship with your dad or with your grandma. And now you want that for your kid, what you didn’t have. And you see it in action, and it’s not what you hoped for. And now allowing yourself to grieve that, that you’d envisioned this relationship, and it’s not what is happening in practice for your child, and giving yourself the space to move through that grieving process so that you can allow what is in that relationship. And knowing that it’s enough for you to be that safe space for them to turn to and process all the things that come up.

    A woman standing in front of a window.
    Alyssa Blask Campbell. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

    Sam: This is another aside, but I feel like you’re pretty deliberate about how you use the word human in referring to people. And can I ask if there’s any sort of logic or intent behind that?

    Alyssa: Yeah, the book is called “Tiny Humans, Big Emotions.” It was really for myself, at first, when I started doing this work. When I think of them as kids, then different biases come up, right? And so, when I can really remind myself, they are humans. They are going to have hard feelings. They’re going to have hard days. When they’re sick, they’re going to be grumpy. When they’re out of routine, things are going to feel hard. It really grounds me in the reality of: They’re human, just like I’m a human. And we all are humans, and it’s messy to be a human. It gives me more compassion.

    Sam: Another thing I think that is cool about the way you talk about this, in part I guess because you’re talking about kids, is that: Talking about mental health or emotional regulation, a lot of times is centered around the things that are going wrong. And this is more, well, this is hard for everyone. And it’s a process, and it’s something that has to be actively taught, and everyone is sort of this, whatever their own journey is towards wherever they’re trying to get to. And I think that’s really cool, and I wish that could be sort of extended towards more of the discussion around mental health that goes on.

    Alyssa: I agree. And I think one of the downsides of the discussion around mental health right now is this idea of only feeling good, right? That if I do all these things, and whatever, then I’ll only feel good, and there’s not a whole human on the planet that’s regulated all the time, that is always feeling connected. We’re meant to cycle in and out of dysregulation and regulation. We’re meant to cycle in and out of connection and disconnection.

    And for us, mental wellness, mental health, emotional resilience is really about learning how to be in the hard stuff, and what it looks like to regulate and process through hard feelings. 

    And we say this at the beginning of the book. But our goal isn’t that you read this book, and you go through this work, and you’re like, great, now everything only ever feels good and calm and chill. But rather: Oh, now I know that I’m not failing. When my kid’s having a hard time, they’re allowed to feel disappointed when I set this boundary, and they’re really upset about it, that makes sense. They’re allowed to feel disappointed or frustrated about the boundary that I just set. And then we get to move through that together. I get to hold space. I get to teach them that those feelings aren’t bad. And they’re not wrong. And they’re not failing for feeling them. But instead it makes a lot of sense. And everyone feels them sometimes, and you won’t be stuck in them forever.

    And practicing this with kids is most effective when we practice it with ourselves when we’re having a hard time. And we’re like, yeah, this makes sense. And I’m not going to feel this way forever. And it’s not my job, or my goal, to only ever feel happy and calm. Although those are the easiest feelings to feel, right? It is hard to be in the hard stuff. And it’s really welcoming that and saying, yeah, sometimes it is, and it won’t feel this way forever.

    Sam: And just the idea that what we call “negative emotions” do serve a purpose. Like, as long as you let them serve the right purpose and don’t let them sort of spiral you out into some other place. That I feel is something that a lot of people just were not taught as kids or for much of their lives. So what matters is your response to that emotion rather than, like, the existence of what you might call a negative emotion.

    Alyssa: One hundred percent. I think a lot of us actually experienced shame around having hard emotions, especially if we express them. And there’s a huge difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is about the behavior. It’s, I did something that’s out of alignment with who I am and who I see myself as. And shame is I am that thing, right? So I am stupid. I am lazy. These “I ams” are about our character and our identity.

    And for a lot of us, we experienced those as kids. And the language that we use around kids is really important for this — like dramatic or whiny or bratty or spoiled or needy versus kind and curious and creative. And the ability to fill them with those “I ams” that become a part of their identity. And who they see themselves as then allows for them to make those mistakes and say, Oh, I am curious, and I made a mistake.

    That is that difference between guilt and shame, which is really powerful. And I think a lot of us grew up with a lot of shame around hard emotions.

    Sam: I asked Alyssa what she wanted most for people to take from her work.

    Alyssa: I think there are two big things I hope folks leave this work with, or if you read the book that you leave the book with knowing that: One, there really is no perfection in this. It’s not the goal. Actually our editor, there was supposed to be a whole other chapter on perfection, and she was like: Totally, we could keep this chapter, or since you mentioned it in every sentence of the book, I think it’s covered.

    But that feels really, really important to me, that folks know that it really is OK to make mistakes. And so much of that work is our own adult work around guilt and allowing ourselves to make mistakes, especially if we grew up in a culture where when we made mistakes, we were punished, or we felt shame, or we felt isolated. There’s a lot of relearning for us there.

    And the second is that, yeah, there’s no world where you read this book, and you leave and you’re like, OK, everybody’s always collaborative and cooperative and calm and kind. And that’s how we’re always moving through the days. Also, that is not the goal. That’s not mental wellness. That isn’t emotional resilience.

    Resilience and wellness for us is really allowing yourself to experience the range of emotions and having a toolbox to move through those emotions where you’re not stuck in them or falling deeper into them. I hope that we can learn to be in the hard stuff a little bit more, with more grace and ease, rather than avoid or try and circumvent it with our kids, not trying to save them from feeling hard feelings, when they feel left out when they feel embarrassed, when they don’t feel included, allowing that to exist and helping them process rather than trying to save them from it.


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