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Preschool as Therapy: 5 great ideas for adult wellness

1. All feelings are allowed.

lake-143365_1280At my child’s preschool, they have a saying: You have to get the bad feelings out to let the good feelings in. In therapy, we know there are no “bad” feelings. However, feelings such as anger, sadness and hurt don’t feel good, and they need expression. To express your true feelings within the context of a safe attachment relationship is a deep form of wellness.

“When children [and adults] experience an attuned connection from a responsive empathic adult they feel good about themselves because their emotions have been given resonance and reflection.”  1

If the bad feelings don’t come out, they stay in, which can show up later as: insecurity, not trusting or listening to one’s self, resentment, depression, “medicating” painful feelings with disordered eating, cutting, or alcoholism.

Parents can also experience “restimulation” when their child is having these uncomfortable feelings. 2  Restimulation is when a parent finds himself or herself repeating an unhealthy way they were parented (yelling, isolating, walking away from or ignoring children when they are having “bad” feelings) even when they don’t want to be doing this. This is because as a child their parents (doing the best they could) did not hold or listen to them warmly when they needed to cry or express anger. I tell my adult clients time doesn’t exist in the emotional world. So even if you are currently an adult, feelings that weren’t expressed or validated when you were very young are still there. I often work with my adults in allowing their anger, shame, and insecurity to resurface and be seen, so they can start to feel whole again. There is freedom, growth and relief in not having to stuff, hide, please or mask parts of yourself in order to feel loved.

2. There is no bad behavior. There is “on track” and “off track.”

On track behavior includes: learning, growing, curiosity, exploration, messiness, creativity, kindness, exuberance, expression of feelings. Off track behavior is: hurting yourself, hurting others, or damaging property. Children need our help with developing loving limits, as they do not yet have  executive functioning (the front part of the brain that is aware of cause and effect) developed. Executive functioning doesn’t actually complete its development until people are in their mid to late twenties! And so children (and adults who didn’t receive this in childhood) need the support of a loving but firmly clear and non-shaming adult to assist in guiding what is appropriate and what is not; what is hurtful and what is helpful. It is most preventative to build this “scaffolding” (practice assisted by adult) during early childhood while the brain is most plastic, so the child can grow the capacity to self regulate. However, it is never too late.

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child states:

Children aren’t born with these [executive function] skills—they are born with the potential to develop them. If children do not get what they need from their relationships with adults and the conditions in their environments—or (worse) if those influences are sources of toxic stress—their skill development can be seriously delayed or impaired. …and impairs the development of executive function… It is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during the early years than it is to intervene or “fix” them later. [However]Brains never stop developing—it is never too late to build new neural circuits. 3

Adults who struggle with impulsivity, have attention deficit, or impulsive behaviors (disordered eating, cutting, drinking) can also learn to pause and develop this capacity with the help of a loving relationship (therapist) and tools such as those presented in DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), or the 12 steps. Sometimes, medication can also be a helpful or necessary tool. It is never too late to learn and practice executive functioning skills.

3. Connect before you correct.

Preschoolers are traveling through an immensity of learning, so there is lots of trial and error as they learn new skills such as learning to go potty, finger paint, and play with trucks and princesses. Their enthusiasm for learning usually exceeds their skills (poop missing the potty, paint on table instead of paper, trucks and princesses bashing into and breaking each other). Though it can be counterintuitive to adults (who is feeling the love when faced with cleaning up poop all over the floor?), it is essential to connect emotionally with children before correcting behavior.

Look at your child in the eye and tell them “I love you. Accidents happen. I’m going to help you learn to sit on the potty before pooping. I’m here to help! Let’s keep practicing.”

Without the connection, shame and guilt become overdeveloped and the child learns instead of “I made a mistake” that “I am a mistake.”

As an eating disorder therapist, I frequently work with clients in their twenties and thirties who, though they know this intellectually, in the core emotional self do not know that making mistakes is different than being a mistake. And they work very, very hard in their lives to never make mistakes (or conceal the ones they do). Many of them are or were straight A students, and continue to overachieve in many ways in their life, while continuing to feel shameful and inadequate.  We work with the acronym of dissembling SHAME: Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Unlearning shame is possible! Getting a “B+” is OK! One of my favorite quotes in the beginning of my eating disorder recovery 15 years ago was:

Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken and you can fix it. Wholeness lies beyond perfection.

Shame is an unspoken epidemic because it is so rarely spoken. This is why Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability is so powerful and speaks to so many. 4

4. Eat a variety of foods, mindfully.

At my child’s preschool, a snack consists of three food groups. You can choose what to eat or don’t eat. You have to stay at the table and finish chewing what you have put in your mouth, but it is ok to leave food on your plate. I love this! Although the stay-at-the-table-to-finish-chewing is to prevent choking with preschoolers, I like this rule for adults, too, in that it promotes the mindfulness we have so often lost in our busy lives. Moms especially are constantly multitasking, eating while standing up, feeding others and forgetting to feed themselves.

Susan Albers, PsyD in her book Mindful Eating asks the following questions:

Do I tend to stop eating when I am full? Am I nonjudgmental of myself when I accidentally overeat? Do I not multitask while I eat? Am I able to leave some food on my plate if I don’t want it? 5

Preschoolers naturally eat intuitively and mindfully. They choose what they want and they stop when they are full. And, though I haven’t been inside any of their heads, I don’t imagine any of them are leaving the snack table saying to themselves internally “I can’t believe I ate that extra cream cheese. I am such a bad person,” or “I really should have finished checking my email while I ate that apple.” We could all learn a bit from them in trusting the wisdom of our hunger, fullness, and attention to the pleasure and mind-full-ness of eating.

5. Art making is about the process, not the product.

There is a different art activity every day at preschool. Although it often has a theme (currently it’s pumpkins), it is not about the product. The kids are encouraged to explore the texture, the colors, and the movement of the art materials. The adults are guided to keep their comments on the children’s process (“I see you are choosing a lot of green in that area. You are glopping your hands around in that blue finger paint! What does the texture of that clay feel like? Tell me about that red area you were working so intently on…”) not their opinions or product (“I like that!” Or “The roof of that house should be red.”)

So many of my adult clients who enter expressive art therapy have horror stories about how their art teacher or other well-meaning adult made a shaming comment about coloring inside the lines, keeping the grass on the ground, or not making clouds purple. The right brain flourishes when given open-ended space to explore and shuts down when given constriction or directed toward the need to please someone else. As Picasso said:

“Everyone is an artist. The challenge is how to remain one after growing up.”

Just for today, I invite you to allow, even a tiny bit, a “bad” feeing to come out, to practice mindful and intuitive eating listening to your hunger, and to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake. I encourage you to make a shame-free zone inside yourself. When you can’t find this in yourself, invite a safe person in to help. We all need help.  And if we don’t feel, we can’t heal; if we don’t connect, we can’t correct.


This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental illness.



1. Daniel Siegel, MD, and Maru Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out (2003).

2. Patricia Wipfler Building Emotional Understanding: A Course for Parents and Childcare Professionals (2006).

3. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/executive_function/

4. Brene Brown’s TED talk on listening to shame: http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame?language=en

5. Susan Albers, PsyD Eat, Drink and Be Mindful (2008).

Linda Shanti McCabe

Linda Shanti McCabe

Dr. Linda Shanti McCabe holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology and works with women (including pre and postpartum) recovering from food, weight, and body image issues. She holds SoulCollage® groups for women (including pregnant and postpartum) using expressive arts to find and express the many parts of the Self. She blogs at Recoverymama.com.

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