- Whole Child Counseling
Two Surprising Ways to Increase Children’s Joy
Guest blog post by: Danielle Jones of Flourishing Life Counseling.
Joy. It almost brings a smile to my face just to say the word. And what more does a parent, teacher, or therapist want than to bring joy to a child’s world? Joy can transform a classroom and forever etch concepts and facts into the hearts of the students. Joy can take a long, boring car ride and turn it into a family memory that those kiddos won’t ever forget. It bonds together a mama and baby, a classmate with another classmate, and a teacher to his co-worker. Joy, the feeling of great pleasure, is an emotion we’d surely all welcome more of into our classrooms, offices, and homes.
But what if joy and sorrow were inextricably linked? What if there were some surprising ways to expand our kiddo’s capacity for joy?
As a marriage and family counselor who specializes in working with kiddos with vulnerable nervous systems, anxiety, anger struggles, and disruptive behaviors, I’ve worked with many families and teachers whose goal has been to find more moments of joy in their ordinary life. Together with these families, I’ve found myself surprised by the unexpected ways that our nervous system actually grows its capacity for joy. Let’s explore two of those ways.
1. Roll out the welcome mat for disappointment to increase joy
Disappointment is a feeling we can’t afford to shove away. Susan Cain, in her book Bittersweet: How Joy and Sorrow Make Us Whole, explains how joy and sorrow are linked. When we shove away our sorrows, we dampen and dull our capacity for joy. Brain science shows us that emotional suppression often leads to disruptive behaviors, increased anxiety, and despair, and increases social skills deficits. When children aren’t allowed to have their feelings or are talked out of their disappointments, complaints, or losses, it doesn’t necessarily increase their resilience or their ability to go with the flow. However, it may decrease their ability to experience joy and it will almost certainly lead to more disruptive behavior and anger issues. Unexpressed or suppressed emotions don’t just go away. They go underground and mutate into other emotions. They hide away where they fester until they come out as anger and disruptive behavior (University of Texas at Austin, 2011).
What if we simply saw anger or disruptive behavior as a messenger letting us know about the hurt, sadness, disappointment, and loss inside of that child’s body? What if anger was simply trying to knock down the door of a house where sorrow and pain had been locked up, suppressed away, and shut in? And what if that anger or disruptive behavior was there to let us know that a kiddo had some big emotions that needed regulating from a safe and steady fellow human being?
When we can welcome a child’s sorrows, hear their disappointments, and offer some compassion, we decrease the likelihood of anger showing up as a secondary and disruptive emotion and increase that child’s capacity for joy.
I’m convinced our children can lead the way for educators, parents, and therapists in welcoming sorrows, if we will let them. Everyday life affords us plenty of opportunity to stretch and grow our ability to welcome disappointment. There will always be school lunches featuring a giant helping of “there’s nothing I like here.” Nightly tooth-brushing and daily grooming aren’t likely to fall off the daily agenda. We won’t be having class parties every day of the school year and that child’s best friend won’t always want to play “the floor is lava” with her. Life in the ordinary provides plenty of space for stretching and growing our disappointment muscles and widening our capacity for joy.
2. Hold that limit, lean in, and don’t find a rainbow in every storm
Ordinary life provides plenty of opportunity for parents, teachers, and therapists to practice the art of listening. It opens up a plethora of moments for observing and patiently sitting with our littlest ones in their sorrows.
When our kids stretch those disappointment muscles, and the sounds begin to flow out of their mouths, and the tears pour from their eyes, this is the moment for us to practice our listening posture. As a mama of three little girls, I confess that when my littles begin sounding off about wanting to stay and play at the park longer or wishing we could have the latest toy from the store right now, the first thing I want to do is jump in and solve it. I either want to give in to their toy request or teach them a lesson on being grateful for what they do have. I have this knee-jerk reaction to find the rainbow in the storm for them.
Or, in my not-so-great moments, I just want to stop the sadness because I’m done hearing about it. It’s exhausting at times. It’s embarrassing to me in other moments. This is a long, hard, intentional journey that I’m on as a mama and therapist. On this journey, I’m practicing the difficult posture of listening, naming, and noticing, instead of rescuing, suppressing, or rushing in too fast with the teaching.
“Yes, honey, it is really sad that we can’t get that treat from the store today. It looks so delicious.” My daughter mumbles a little. I listen and lean in with compassion and empathy, all the while holding the limit. She makes some more groans, displays some unhappiness and meanwhile, I do some of the most difficult work of parenting: I stay and listen, steady and confident, compassionate and gentle. I welcome her loss and sit with her in it and I trust that this is good work.
My middle name actually means something like “listener.” When my dad named me Danielle Audi, he named me after one of his favorite cars. I’d like to think that somehow the name grew on me and perfectly fits to who I am as a counselor. It would be great if people said about me, “Danielle is truly a listener.” Even though it’s in my name and even though I’m trained in the art of listening, in the ordinary muck of life outside of my therapy playroom, it is still incredibly difficult. Listening and reflectively responding is hard work.
This posture of listening is the opposite of distracting a child from her grief with lessons on the rainbows that can be found in storms and more about being with that little one in her grief. Sitting with the tears, the meltdowns, and the losses is a much more effective way to cultivate joy than shoving them away or denying them. Oh sure, there will be times for the “bright side,” but it doesn’t need to be in the moment of loss.
I’ve worked with many kiddos with debilitating anxiety, and underneath that anxiety was a load of unexpressed, suppressed emotion. Oddly, the ability of these children to find the rainbow in the storm was incredible! They could reframe like a team of carpenters. That wasn’t the problem for these kiddos. The actual problem was that they had no capacity for the losses, meaning their nervous systems had to find a rainbow. If they couldn’t get back to “I’m fine and all is well” quick enough, their bodies were anxious. And when you have to be “all is well and fine” all the time, this leads to a lot of anxiety. It can result in stressing out and staying up late studying for tests too long and too hard. It creates an anxiety that demands a back-up plan because you have no capacity to handle the loss when things do go wrong. It can lead to debilitating fear over so simple a choice as selecting a book off the library shelf because “what if I’m disappointed and later wish I had chosen a different book?”
The child who is stellar at finding the rainbow in every storm may actually have limited space for micro-grief. They may be the ones who work extra hard to ensure that all of life flows along seamlessly. We know that this is an exhausting and impossible task and we can help. This is why it’s vital that we sit longer and listen better. Instead of offering a distracting toy and reassurance that everything is okay, we can offer ourselves. We can share our compassion and our regulation. This listening posture in the classroom and office, in our homes, and at our children’s games won't calm the crying right away, but maybe that shouldn't ever have been our first and main goal. Our daily grind with children will provide us with a hundred and one opportunities to strengthen our muscles for sorrow and deepen our capacity for joy.
Help kids learn to strengthen their disappointment muscles with Danielle's Book 'Gorilla's Muscles'
Danielle is the author of the picture book, Gorilla’s Muscles: A Story for Managing Big Emotions. I enjoy this book because it teaches children to honor their feelings while giving compassion towards themselves. This book also teaches kids how to get curious about the feelings that may underlie their anger and to honor their full range of emotions. Kids can learn to make space for and honor their lows so they can experience their joys as well.
Not to mention the fact that the idea of exercising their disappointment muscles is one children love and can relate to as well! This past week I paired this book with my sportsmanship games to practice handling disappointment and it was a hit for my students!
This book introduces readers to a father and son pair, adventuring through the jungle of emotions that can arise in daily life. In this delightfully illustrated book, you’ll find an abundance of social and emotional growth tools. You and your kiddos will be inspired toward self-compassion and empathy, given strategies for managing anger and conflict, and reminded to be present to the full range of your emotions. Readers will learn how to stretch their own disappointment muscles as they journey through life with Little Gorilla and his dad.
About the Author
Danielle Jones is a momma, wife, author, and family counselor. She holds degrees in social work and marriage and family therapy. As a Licensed Professional Counselor, she works families and specializes in helping kiddos with vulnerable nervous systems who struggle with anxiety, depression, grief and loss, and addictive and behavioral challenges. You can also follow Danielle on Instagram or check out her website at: Flourishing Life Counseling.
University of Texas at Austin. "Psychologists find the meaning of aggression: 'Monty Python' scene helps research." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 March 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/03/110323105202.htm>.