At Brookwood, we are constantly thinking about how to create spaces and environments in which children can thrive. As such, our annual 4 to 14 Speaker Series event provides a venue in which experts can engage with parents, faculty and other members of our community on topics related to parenting elementary school kids. Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist specializing in play therapy and parenting skills. He is the author of The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears and all of his work - with children, parents, couples, and families - has pointed him towards using a playful approach that builds connection through fun, play and empathy.
As educators and as parents, we know that children need to take social and physical risks in order to build confidence. By allowing toddlers, then preschoolers, then school-aged children to climb on higher-and-higher play structures, they learn how to distinguish between what feels safe and what feels dangerous. One of our greatest concerns is how to protect our children. Our instinct is to stand underneath the monkey bars saying, "Be careful, be careful, be careful." But is this actually making our child safer? Will they recover faster from a broken arm, or from being timid and fearful their whole lives? Sometimes, we need to take a step back and say, "Are you paying attention to where your feet and hands are?" and let them climb. At the same time, telling our children there's nothing to be afraid of doesn't really help them know what to do next. Children express worry. The question remains: how can we find a balance between validating their emotions without exasperating them?
On November 2, Dr. Cohen joined us on campus to share valuable and actionable insights on the topic of childhood anxiety. Here are a few examples from Dr. Cohen's speech to consider:
Tuning in - Much like we can tune into a radio station, we can also tune into the same wave-length as children. Starting in infancy, babies match our facial expressions. A smile is met with a smile. As children grow, we can continue tuning into their moods. Are they happy? Do they want to play? Are they hungry? Did they have a challenging day? What kind of verbal and non-verbal cues are they expressing? The more we tune in, the more we understand how or why our children are expressing certain emotions or reactions. This kind of tuning helps provide context and guidance for how we, as parents, can support children as they navigate complex or challenging emotions.
Signs of safety - Children look to their parents for emotional education. If a child is anxious, he or she sees life through a filter of danger. How can we help them see past this? Saying things like "I'm worried about that too, and this is what I'm doing about it" provides a point of connection and a shared understanding of emotion. If after talking about those feelings, you still have 'extra worry,' you can share what you do next to calm down - perhaps it's splashing cold water on your face, or taking a walk. Acknowledging a child's feelings and providing support in the form of 'you can handle this, and I will help you' is a powerful tool.
From Dr. Cohen's perspective, the opposite of worry is trust in the power of relationships. Whether we realize it or not, everything we do as parents is about building connection. And at Brookwood, knowing the whole child is central to our approach to teaching and learning.