When Our Feelings Are Like Gasoline

By Kelsie Castro

Emotions and the way our body feels when we are experiencing them, has been a big topic of discussion in both our classrooms this past year. With the younger children, just understanding their feelings and learning to acknowledge them is vital to creating that early foundation of emotional literacy. Through that foundation and opportunities to really feel and connect with their emotions, these children uncover more about what it means to feel a certain way and start to decode, in their own unique way, how emotions feel as they move through their bodies.

In a conversation I had with Calder the other day, I got a first hand illustration of this very idea when he described to me how it felt to be really angry at someone. I had just pulled Calder away from a situation where his anger was making him react physically to another child and was replaying the situation for him when he asked me if I wanted to know why.

Curious, I listened as he shared, 

“When we are frustrated, our stomachs turn to ice, and our hands make fists, and our head turns to ice.”

Hearing Calder’s words I could see the process he went through as he sat with that anger. His description painted a clear picture of how he was feeling and marked a true understanding of emotions like frustration and and how they felt inside his body. Being a child who had already spent a year with us before, it didn’t surprise me to see him so connected to his feelings. He had sat with these emotions many times especially in moments like this following a conflict. He had drawn from that foundational knowledge that our children develop early on, but I wondered had he thought about what happens next?

To add to Calder’s self-reflection I replayed for him what he shared with me about the frustration he felt in his body and added the term “energy” to explain the movement he felt inside. This term is one we had been using with our older children a lot to explain emotions, the effect they have on our body, and how that can easily be transferred to other people or things through different actions. It has been an incredible tool for us as we guide children in reaching the next step in their emotional literacy and has helped many of them connect those feelings they know so well with the choices they make. 

I shared with Calder,

“You know, when you say that what I am hearing is that there is an angry energy in your body and when you get frustrated it starts getting bigger in your stomach, and it gets so big it goes into your hands and makes you make fists and then it moves up to your head and goes into your mind.”

What did surprise me in our conversation was how quickly he picked up on this term and what it meant in the context of the situation he had with Quincey. He immediately responded to my words with,

“Yeah, and then I hit Quincey, and he gets the energy.”

This piece that Calder had so quickly illustrated is something that we have been working even with some of older kids this past year. The idea that our feelings and the actions tied to them have a consequence or reaction is something difficult to comprehend at such a young age and something that most children are actively working on. Describing their feelings as the energy that can be transferred from one person to the next is one way that we’ve been able to clearly illustrate this “natural reaction” that happens when you make an emotionally driven choice.

As a teacher, seeing Calder grasp this concept so quickly and independently excited me and made my mind race with all the ways I could continue this conversation with him. Drawing on some of my past conversations with other children, I encouraged him to reflect more on what Quincey did with the angry energy that had been passed to him. Remembering how Quincey responded by also getting physical with Calder, we discussed whether or not it was okay to get release our angry energy through hitting, kicking, or yelling at people. 

Realizing that doing this only passes that angry energy back and forth between different people, Calder and I started to brainstorm together what other options there were for releasing that energy. He of course came up with his own unique ideas for what we could try. 

“We can just get rid of it like gasoline.”

When he said this I immediately thought he was just being silly but still asked him what he meant. To my surprise he had an explanation ready to go. 

“Like I have a hose in my body, and I just let it out of the hose. My hose is in my stomach, and I have to open a door and press a lot of buttons. But I can open my door and take my hose out and then put the energy into the wall.”

Calder’s response was certainly not what I expected but it still captured the essence of what we had been working with children on all year long; a way to release your emotion without hurting others, and feel what you need to feel but also let it go when you are done. We talked some more about what this looked like (putting his energy into the wall) and how breathing might be a way for him to push that energy out of his body and through his hose. Gesturing me over to the wall he opened the door to his stomach, took out his imaginary hose, and held it up to the wall while he took several deep breaths.

As I watched him in this moment and thought about his response I wondered out loud with him how this technique could help other children as well. My focus not only being on his solution, but helping all children find their own individual outlet for that emotional energy, I started to think about how that might help them better understand how to work through those feelings. 

Without even realizing it Calder reflected my thoughts back to me as he shared,

“Well, other people probably have different hoses than mine. It might be in their mouth or their eyes”

Letting that last thought set in, I thought about all the different “hoses” children may have to release their energy. In my time as a teacher I had certainly seen children express their emotions in a variety of different ways, but I never really had the strong imagery Calder had created to inform what I was seeing. Maybe the children I had witnessed before were using their own unique “hoses.” Or maybe they hadn’t even discovered theirs yet. 

As I reflected on this a little more, I wondered what outlets could children already be using to express their emotions? How are they releasing their gasoline? And how can we as teachers, parents and a community support them in discovering even more ways to feel, release, and reflect on those feelings in a constructive and growthful way? 

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