Thought Leader Thursday

By Shauna Tominey

Oregon State University

“We’re going to make it… right?”

These were the words I uttered to my daughter as we emerged back into the world after spending the night saying goodbye to our family dog. Cali had lived with us in four different states. She was part of our family through military deployments, career changes, school programs, and through our shift from a family of 2 with a dog to a family of 3. She had been our daughter’s “dog sister,” a special sibling for an only-child to have. Through all the changes and transitions that we had experienced, Cali was a constant.

As we headed to school, there was so much that I wanted to say. I wanted my daughter to know that she was loved, that death was a sad reality that came with life, that it was okay to want to go to school for art day while grieving inside, and that life would continue. “We’re going to make it…” was the best I could muster to communicate all of that in the moment.

Cali’s death wasn’t a surprise. We were thankful that she had lived a long, healthy dog life, but that didn’t make it easy to say goodbye. Saying goodbye came with a flood of emotions and the need for many different conversations. My daughter didn’t want to talk about Cali at school, but she did want her teacher to know what happened. In reply to my email, her teacher wrote that she recently lost her own dog and would give my daughter extra love and care. Just knowing that someone else understood gave my daughter greater confidence to navigate the days that followed at school.

As parents, deciding what to talk about with children and when is challenging enough. This can be even more challenging for teachers, educators, and community members who work with youth in PYD programs. We don’t always know what topics are “safe” to bring up, but we recognize that each child carries stress with them that they may need support to manage.

Stress is a normal part of life. Stress can be positive and help us grow (e.g., day-to-day stress like meeting someone new, visiting a new place). Stress can be tolerable and managed through supportive relationships (e.g., stress from a divorce or experiencing a natural disaster). Stress can also be toxic (e.g., stress associated with abuse or neglect). Toxic stress is damaging. It changes our body’s stress response and comes with negative lifelong physical consequences. What differentiates the positive and tolerable from the toxic is the presence or absence of positive, supportive relationships.

Whether you are a parent, teacher or educator, counselor, volunteer, or support children in another way, consider using the 4-H Thriving Model to help the youth in your life manage the emotional ups and downs and stress they face inside and outside of your program.

Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Practice positive emotionality.
    • Talk about feelings – pleasant and unpleasant. Give youth a chance to share about their feelings (never force sharing though) and share yours too. Did anyone have something happen today that made them feel happy? Disappointed? Calm? You can have these types of conversations any time-even while standing in line or waiting for the next activity. These conversations show everyone has feelings and all feelings are okay!
    • Share stories about meaningful challenges you faced in your own childhood. Think about stories that youth might relate to that you feel comfortable sharing. Talk about how these challenges made you feel and what you did to address them. How did you manage your feelings? Who did you talk with for help?
    • Make a “how we want to feel” collage. Have a discussion with youth about how they want to feel in your program. Together, make a collage of feelings using words and pictures. Ask kids to share ideas for what they can do to help one another have these feelings more often.
    • Create “emotion rules” for your program. How do you want youth and adults to express emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, and fear in your program? Together, discuss the ways it is appropriate to show these feelings. Having emotion rules in place won’t mean that everyone expresses their emotions that way every time, but it provides a path to work toward for children and adults alike!
  • Promote pro-social orientation and a growth mindset.
    • Use stories and books to develop empathy. When telling a story or reading a book together, use the characters’ experiences to practice empathy. Ask questions that encourage youth to think about how characters are feeling, what happened that caused different feelings, how characters acted when they had those feelings, and what they would do if they were in that same situation.
    • Teach emotional intelligence skills like any other skills. Recognize that learning to manage emotions is a set of skills that needs to be learned and practiced. Children and youth learn to label one another as the “mean kid” or “bully.” Help avoid these labels while building empathy and community by teaching youth to see themselves and one another as learners. Point out that we are all learning how to manage our feelings and everyone makes mistakes. We all need to be role models, practice forgiveness, and support one another as we learn these skills.

In small ways, we can integrate the 4-H Thriving Model into our programs to help youth develop skills they need not just to “make it,” but also to thrive.

Many thanks to Mary Arnold for inviting me to share, and until next time.

Shauna Tominey, Ph.D.

Dr. Shauna Tominey is an assistant professor of practice and parenting education specialist at Oregon State University. She blends practical experience with research to develop and evaluate programs that promote social-emotional skills for children and adults. Shauna recently authored the book: Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have With Young Children

Additional Resource: Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood

Leave a Reply