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Lessons from Circle Time with a 4-year-old

I hope you’re having a wonderful end to your June. I am enjoying time up in Buffalo with my family – it’s interesting how the change of location makes COVID and all of the protocols around it seem like a distant memory (even though we are not leaving home all that much). As many of us start taking summer trips, I’m sending a friendly reminder that COVID cases are rising throughout the country. Support the people around you and yourself: wear a mask, hand sanitize often, and limit your activity. <3

All of this together time with my family has led to a big breakthrough in how I think about communication.

It all started with my 4-year-old niece. Bernie is a DELIGHT. And…she strongly dislikes going to bed, especially when there’s so much activity in the house. One night this week, we hit a new level of resistance. Let’s just say that she was so wired that she ended up running up and down the driveway with my dad at 9:45 until she was finally tired enough to go to bed.

The next morning, her behavior hadn’t improved and she was answering “no” to just about anything that was asked of her. My mom, who has worked in education for 27 years, suggested that we do an exercise that comes from Restorative Justice to help Bernie see the impacts of her behavior.

We did a family circle time. My dad, sister, niece and I sat in a circle with a talking block, and shared our answers to the following 4 questions:

1. What is the problem? (Nothing that it’s important that everyone find consensus on what the problem is.)

2. What are the effects of the problem? How does the problem make you feel?

3. What is it like when the problem doesn’t exist?

4. How can I/we reduce the problem or make it go away in a healing, peaceful way?

The exercise took about 20 minutes. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how much my niece got out of the circle specifically. But my dad, sister, and I were so glad that it happened.

A 4-year-old fighting bed time is a pretty benign problem, but we all were feeling the effects of the previous evening – tired and a little on edge. Sitting together for a few minutes and actually processing our feelings and sharing our experiences was necessary. It felt surprisingly good to vocalize how we were feeling.

Talking about the impacts of the problem helped us acknowledge that we actually were hurting. Discussing what it would be like if the problem didn’t exist connected us to gratitude for quiet bedtimes and led to us discussing new ways that we could all go to bed in more peaceful ways. It was pretty amazing how this honest discussion around a small incident had big effects on how we felt about it.

Reflecting afterwards, I realized that this experience was a perfect example of how emotions can live in our bodies long after a situation has passed. We read horrible news headlines. We are exposed to violent and unkind words. We have not-so-great days and experience hardship. What happens to that energy and emotion? It doesn’t magically disappear. It has to go somewhere.

One option is to let the energy that is stuck in the body fizzle and fade with time. The next morning, we didn’t feel the acute stress that we did when trying to put my niece to bed. While this seems like a solution to the problem, it’s not a true flushing out of the emotion. It’s like leaving a sponge out to dry, the sponge doesn’t disappear, it’s just laying dormant. In the same way, we all had the residue of the stress still in our bodies.

Another option is to honestly communicate what’s happening, how it makes us feel, and what would help the situation. That digestion allows us to actually liberate the emotions. We get to free what’s inside.

Have any shriveled up sponges hanging out in your emotional body? Ask yourself the 4 questions (bonus points if you get another person involved to discuss with you). After you finish the 4 questions – notice how you feel. Welcome the freedom that comes with processed emotion.

What Do You think?

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