No, this is not an article about cuddling twins (that’s a whole other skill!). It is about helping our children manage their emotions by allowing two conflicting emotions to sit side by side unchallenged. I talk to children about their “two feelings.” “Oh, you get so annoyed at your baby brother and you like playing with him!” This skill helps children calm down because they feel understood; they don’t have to choose between two very real feelings (which is confusing and forces them to try and save face by defending their position ever more loudly); and it prevents them from getting too entrenched in one feeling at the expense of the other- a process which can also feed the feeling which is focused on.
We recently took our three youngest children to the snow. There was much excitement! Rugged up in her hired snow gear, my five year old exclaimed, “This is the best day EVER!” An hour later, feet dragging, hair wet, and nose cold she complained loudly, “This is THE worst day ever.” Calming my own internal reaction (which was along the lines of, “Don’t be such an ungrateful child.”), I gave her a hug and said, “What a day, hey? The best AND the worst! You love the snow AND you hate being so cold and tired.Wow….two feelings….” My daughter gathered herself immediately and continued trudging to the car happily enough all things considered.
I have a wooden carving of two hands cupped together in my rooms. I often give it to children to hold as they tell me about their two feelings. I often give it to adults too. Thinking in either/or, missing the shades of grey, all-or-nothing thinking, and black and white thinking are traps that we all fall into at times, especially in times of stress or after having suffered a trauma. A key sign of mental health is what we call “psychological flexibility”, the ability to consider alternative thoughts and to open ourselves up to other possibilities. Think of it as the ability to loosen the stranglehold of unhelpful thoughts, to wriggle free just enough to breathe deeply again. The thoughts and feelings may not disappear but now we can inhale the fresh air and move forward with vitality.
You can help increase your child’s psychological flexibility simply by “holding both” for them, by paying close attention to their thoughts and feelings and lovingly putting them into words for your child. Children love hearing about their “two feelings”. Next time I will expand on this topic and discuss how holding both helps us to manage our own anger, anxiety and depression. For now, have a go at holding both for your child and please come back and share how it went for you.