Little Children, Big Emotions! Exclusive Interview with Li Ling Phua of Chapter Zero

We are nearly heading into the second quarter of 2021! I hope you (and your children) are settling into your new routines and there has not been too much frustration and tension.

Emotions are difficult to navigate. Coping with emotions is something we still struggle with as adults; it is even more of a challenge for children, who are still learning how to use words to express themselves (Read on to find out how we can use Music & Movement to introduce emotions)!

What is self-regulation?

(For more ideas and games on embracing emotions,
read Beanstalk, Issue 28, July – September 2020)

Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions, responses, and behaviour, when faced with demanding or uncomfortable situations; this means “not reacting instinctively, but thinking things through, considering the consequences, and waiting patiently”.

Children who are able to self-regulate know to choose to sit quietly in a corner when feeling upset, instead of venting their frustration at things and people around them.

Self-regulation matters, and it is imperative to learn it from a young age to prevent the snowball effect of issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, or rejection by peers, amongst others. Some of us may not have learnt this skill as a young child, hence it requires intention to practise. It will be a learning process for both children and adult, as we start to learn to talk about feelings, validating others’ feelings, and learning how to respond to our own, and others’ feelings.

With increasing emphasis on mental health in this time, self-regulation is an essential life skill to have to be able to cope with changing routines, and have healthier relationships with others. Communication is vital in our daily lives, so is it not better to be able to communicate easier and more meaningfully, and without tantrums or unwanted outbursts?

I got to know about Chapter Zero Singapore when I attended some parenting talks they held. Recently, I had the privilege of attending their Parent Effectiveness Training workshop. It is life-changing, and I am now learning to use the new skills I learnt to communicate with my children.

Chapter Zero was established by two mothers who wanted children to have a childhood with more freedom, play, and respect. Since 2015, the organisation has been working with the goal to make a change, one family at a time. Chapter Zero also founded the Facebook group Respectful/Mindful Parenting, and has been instrumental in creating a supportive community of parents and caregivers, by:

– Creating and facilitating in-house workshops such as ‘Respectful Parenting Workshops Series’ and ‘The Mindful Nanny’
– Hosting expert-facilitated playgroups
– Training parents in the internationally known ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’,
– Hosting talks and events with Non-Violent Communication trainers
– Organising their popular Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds where they give children the opportunity for child-led play and family bonding

I respect Chapter Zero’s advocacy very much, and I am so eager to share with you, her thoughts about the self-regulation process, and strategies to help children cope with expressing their emotions. Here, I present the current Director of Chapter Zero, Li Ling Phua (email interview has been edited for clarity):

Li Ling Phua, Director at Chapter Zero

How did Chapter Zero get started, and why do you do what you do?

Chapter Zero was founded by two mothers, Shumei and Kasia, who met at a playgroup when their first babies were little. They started Chapter Zero to advocate for respectful caregiving for babies and children, and to create a community for parents.

 

Why do adults need to help young children label their emotions?

Helping young children label their emotions enables them to make sense of their inner world. As they learn to identify their feelings, they may also become more aware of the sensations in their body that associate with different feelings, and how they tend to respond to external stimuli. This awareness is important in helping children learn to self-regulate as they get older.

 

Is it important for children to recognise their emotions?

Young children do not yet have the ability to recognise their emotions. Many people have trouble identifying how they feel even as adults. Learning to recognise one’s emotions is a lifelong practice. Perhaps what’s more important for children is to have good experiences of co-regulating by an adult. When children have an internal knowing of what calming down feels like, they can learn to self-regulate.

 

A child is throwing tantrums because he is upset, and Mum does not like dealing with such loud outbursts in public. Negative emotions are difficult for both parents and children to navigate. What do adults need to understand about allowing a child to express unpleasant emotions?

Watching a child in distress can be very unsettling and unnerving for adults. This stress is heightened if they are in a public space and the parent is worried about what other people will think or say. In their stressed state, they might feel the urgent need to stop the chid’s cries, either by distracting the child, promising the child a reward, or threatening the child with a punishment. However, difficult emotions that are suppressed will come out in some other way or form. If children feel safe to express difficult emotions and have a calm adult who can co-regulate with them, they will learn that all feelings pass, no matter how uncomfortable, and this fosters resilience.

Respectful Parenting Workshop

What happens in the long run when children are often made to suppress negative emotions (for example, not being able to cry when they are upset)?

Crying is a natural way for all human beings to release built-up tension and emotions. When we’re told that crying is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, or may even face scary consequences when we cry, we learn to suppress our emotions.

In the long run, someone who is used to suppressing negative emotions may become increasingly desensitised to these emotions and may develop other strategies to alleviate their discomfort. This may be through food, using electronic devices as distraction, exercise, cigarettes, alcohol, shopping… the list goes on. Some strategies are healthier than others, while some may even cause harm to themselves or others around them.

 

How can we help children regulate their emotions?

As children are not yet able to self-regulate, we can help by co-regulating with the child. We do this by being a safe and soothing presence as they ride the wave of their emotions. We do this by being at the child’s eye level, keeping our facial expression soft, and ensuring that our body language is welcoming to the child – arms relaxed, open palms on our laps, versus arms crossed in front of our chests. Finally, we respond to the child’s needs. Does the child want to be held, or does the child prefer to have space? Does it help the child when we acknowledge how they feel, or does the child become more upset when we talk? There is no fixed way. We stay attuned to the child’s needs in order to respond appropriately.

Parents actively participating in the various workshops facilitated by Chapter Zero

What are some outlets children have to express negative feelings? What strategies can children use to acknowledge that bad feeling?

What children need most is a safe haven and a secure base where they can express their negative feelings. Parents can invite their children to talk with them: “Would you like to tell me more about what happened at the playground? I will listen.” When children share, we avoid asking questions, and giving advice or opinions. Instead, we can empathise: “You really didn’t like that he used your bicycle without asking you.”

Sometimes, children don’t feel ready to talk or might be too upset to talk. Usually, this is when they are dysregulated and won’t be able to talk about their feelings, or explain what happened until they have calmed down. The best time to talk about feelings is when the child is calm. To help children learn more about feelings when they are calm, we can ask questions that encourage reflection when we read books or play such as, “How do you think the girl felt when her toy broke?”

Some children have strong urges to pinch, bite or hit when they are upset. We can calmly but firmly stop them from hurting anyone: “You are so upset you want to hit. I won’t let you hit me. You can hit this pillow/cushion instead.”

 

We have heard the mantra “Help yourself before you help others”. How do adults learn to respond instead of react to children’s unpleasant feelings?

We can first check in with ourselves when our children are experiencing big feelings. If we notice our bodies reacting in a way that tells us we are triggered – tension in muscles, heart beating faster, shallow breaths etc. – we’ll know that we are no longer calm and are more likely to assign negative intentionality to the child’s actions, and may therefore react impulsively. If this is the case:

  1. Find the pause; choose silence and stillness.
  2. Reframe how we see the child. The child is not ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ for crying. The child is dysregulated and needs our help to return to calm.
  3. Ground ourselves. Find a few grounding exercises for your toolbox. Noticing your in and out breaths, bringing your attention back to your immediate senses, or placing your palm on your chest while noticing the rising and falling sensations, are some examples.
  4. Give yourselves some grace and compassion. Just as acknowledging our children’s feelings helps them, we can empathise with our own too. “It’s hard to stay calm when he’s crying. I’m so tired today.”
  5. Tap out. If you need a time out for yourself and there’s another adult who can be with the child, swap places so that you can do what you need to regulate yourself.
  6. Model self-regulation. If there’s no one around and you feel yourself becoming over-stressed, verbalise what you need to do to down-regulate: “I need to calm down. I’m going to take 10 deep breaths.” Find what works for you. Maybe it’s drinking a glass of warm water, or washing your face, or doing some stretches. Saying what you’ll be doing is as helpful for you as it is for your child.

 

What message would you like to send to everyone who is striving to become better parents/support for parents?

There’s no more important work than this. It will be challenging, especially if you didn’t have adults to model self-regulation and co-regulation when you were growing up. Each time you work on your own self-regulation in order to co-regulate with your child, you are rewiring patterns that have been on auto-pilot for many years. For this reason, it will take time, but it will be rewarding when you notice yourself becoming a calmer parent, as well as finding more peace and harmony in your home. Lastly, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.

***

Chapter Zero has a few upcoming workshops for February and March:

The Mindful Nanny: Toddlers
The Mindful Nanny Juniors (4-8 years old) 
Respectful Parenting Workshop Series

Let us also recognise that changes do not happen overnight, and neither do miracles (although we can always hope for one!) That said, we are never alone in our parenting journey, so let us support each other as we enter each parenting phase together.

For more insights about self regulation from a medical perspective, tune in to Episode 2 of ‘My Mental Health Podcast’ series, created especially for parents, teachers, and caregivers working with young children, and brought to you by Temasek Foundation Ltd and NUH’s Child Development Unit.

***

Earlier, Li Ling shared that children learn to become aware of the sensations in their body that they associate with different emotions. According to Lorna Heyge, Ph.D., & Audrey Sillick, the founders of Musikgarten, USA’s leading Early Childhood Education Music Programme, “body movement is a natural outlet for expressing feeling, and is very closely tied to human expression”. Children communicate with body language long before they can communicate with spoken language, and when they move to musical sounds, they are communicating their feelings and perceptions of the world.

Bloom School of Music & Arts offers children from 0-5 years old the opportunity to experience music in a safe, nurturing environment, and with the comfort of their parent’s presence. The small group setting allows every child a turn to participate in the musical experiences, and interact with their classmates and the teacher. It is a very hands-on adventure, and every lesson has familiar and new things to explore, be it songs or instruments.

Most children are naturally interested in music. Children require movement for their development and growth. They take delight in movement, and music helps them along the way.
We, at Bloom School of Music & Arts, want to prepare your children for their own musical journey!

Fill up our Contact Form, to find out our schedules for our Musikgarten or instrumental programmes.

***

After 14 years of working with preschoolers, I notice that children prefer some songs over others. Repetitive songs and action songs are well-favoured.

One song, I noticed, which elicits response is If You’re Happy. There are many versions on Youtube to choose from. I have adapted Super Simple Songs’ version to create my own that children have shown keenness to learn. Keeping in mind that toddlers (age group 18 months to 3 years old) are not fluent in their speech yet, and are learning to verbalise their own emotions, I have combined vocabulary, movement, and the repetitive feature into one song children will definitely enjoy. I have tweaked it over the years, so I hope this song will be helpful for you and your children to (1) learn to put a name to an emotion / bodily sensation, (2) identify how the body feels when feeling that emotion / physical sensation, (3) recognise wholesome ways to express that emotion / their needs.

If You’re Happy

Adapted from Super Simple Songs

If you’re happy, happy, happy,

Smile!

If you’re happy, happy, happy,

Smile!

If you’re happy, happy, happy

Smile, smile, smile!

If you’re happy, happy, happy

Smile!

If you are upset,

You can frown

If you are upset,

You can frown

If you are upset,

You can frown, frown, frown

If you are upset,

You can frown

If you’re sad, sad, sad,

You can cry

If you’re sad, sad, sad,

You can cry

If you’re sad, sad, sad,

You can cry, cry, cry

If you’re sad, sad, sad,

You can cry

If you’re sleepy, sleepy, sleepy,

Yawn

If you’re sleepy, sleepy, sleepy,

Yawn

If you’re sleepy, sleepy, sleepy,

Yawn, yawn, yawn

If you’re sleepy, sleepy, sleepy,

Yawn

If you’re hungry, hungry, hungry,

Rub your tummy (Yum yum!)

If you’re hungry, hungry, hungry,

Rub your tummy (Yum yum!)

If you’re hungry, hungry, hungry,

Rub your tummy, rub your tummy

If you’re hungry, hungry, hungry,

Rub your tummy (Yum yum!)

If you’re scared, scared, scared,

say Oh no! (Oh no!)

If you’re scared, scared, scared,

say Oh no! (Oh no!)

If you’re scared, scared, scared,

say Oh no!, say Oh no!

If you’re scared, scared, scared,

say Oh no! (Oh no!)

If you’re cold, cold, cold,

Say Brrr!

If you’re cold, cold, cold,

Say Brrr!

If you’re cold, cold, cold,

Say Brrr, Brrr, Brrr!

If you’re cold, cold, cold,

Say Brrr!

If you are surprised,

give a shout, Wow!

If you are surprised,

give a shout, Wow!

If you are surprised,

Give a shout, give a shout

If you are surprised,

give a shout, Wow!

If you are excited,

jump for joy, Hurray!

If you are excited,

jump for joy, Hurray!

If you are excited

Jump for joy, jump for joy

If you are excited,

jump for joy, Hurray!

*******

 

Credit:
Beanstalk, Issue 28, July – September 2020
(Musikgarten) Family Music Teacher’s Guidebook and Resource Materials Volume 1: Sing With Me & Dance With Me by Lorna Heyge, Ph.D., & Audrey Sillick

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