“Boys who cry can work for Google. Boys who trash computers cannot. I once was at a science conference, and I saw a NASA scientist who had just found out that his project was canceled—a project he’d worked on for years. He was maybe sixty-five years old, and you know what? He was crying. And I thought, Good for him. That’s why he was able to reach retirement age working in a job he loved.”
― Temple Grandin
The other day Mareto was getting frustrated with a toy that wasn’t operating the way he wanted. After trying several times, he threw the toy on the floor with an exasperated growl and yelled, “I get mad sometimes!” It might sound odd, but I was so proud of him in that moment. He not only identified his emotions but was also able to verbally express them to me. It was a huge victory with more room for learning.
I love that Temple Grandin quote because I think she lays it out so perfectly for everyone, not just people with autism. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel sad, or angry, or frightened, or excited, or nervous, or happy. Emotions aren’t wrong, even negative emotions. But in our culture we tend to encourage shoving the negative emotions down and ignoring them. We tell our toddlers not to cry or whine or be afraid. We pretend our feelings aren’t hurt when we sit on the bench the entire game. Or, worse, we blame other people and refuse to face our feelings.
Working on emotions – how to identify them and how to respond to them – is a constant exercise in our home. My son used to have two emotional reactions to everything… extreme joy and extreme sadness. He didn’t know how to identify feeling mad, so he just wailed in despair. It was the same reaction for fear, frustration, and disappointment. So, over the course of time we’ve taught him how to identify his various feelings, which is a big step for us. But it’s merely the first step, because learning the tools to respond to our emotions is just as important as identifying them.
Two years ago I remember sitting on the kitchen floor to make myself eye level with Mareto. I attempted to hold my own tears in as I tried to calm him down. He had been violently hitting himself in the face for about ten minutes because he rubbed a little pepper in his eye. Finally I got him to stop and when he collapsed into my arms we both cried and rocked there for several minutes. Mareto no longer hits himself out of anger, pain, or fear. I never want to go back to those days.
Now that Mareto is more verbal, we sing songs (courtesy of Daniel Tiger) and we talk about our emotions and how to act when we feel each one. Instead of throwing toys we walk away, sometimes roar a little, take a deep breath, and count to four. Sometimes Mareto needs to cry and he knows that’s okay. I always ask him if he needs a hug… usually he responds with a nod. We draw faces on the chalkboard and practice identifying their emotions and what to do. Some days we get it right, and some days we don’t. We’re learning together.
I find that the term “differently-abled” applies very strongly here. We likely all struggle to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. Mareto tends to physically overreact to his feelings, and I try to stuff mine deep inside and pretend they don’t exist. I tell my daughter not to be afraid before I remember that fear is a perfectly normal, and healthy, reaction. Instead of insisting she shouldn’t be afraid I ought to be teaching her what to do when she feels scared.
In working through emotions with my children I’m reminded that it’s okay to cry and be sad sometimes. But, like I sing to them, “little by little, you’ll feel better again.” And it’s okay to have fears, but I still have to board the plane. One foot in front of the other, I can’t let my fear control my life. When a rude email makes me angry I can’t fly off the handle or rant on facebook, I need to step away (roar privately), take a deep breath, and take quite a bit longer than four seconds to gain perspective. That’s why we’re learning together… because children (special needs or not) and adults could all use some help in this area.