Daily Feelings Journal for Kids – Q+A with Dr. Nathan Greene
It was such a joy to get an advance copy of, The Daily Feelings Journal for Kids written by Dr. Nathan Greene. Although we aren’t related, we share a last name, and I’ve been tuned into his work for a long time. Over a decade ago, he was a teacher with Child’s Play NY, and it has been thrilling to follow his journey since then. I’ve loved his articles on gratitude and loss and following his revolutionary surfing and therapy program for adolescent boys, the Surf Circle. His latest creation is this journal for kids to write about, process, and “befriend” their emotions. I was lucky enough to share time with Dr. Greene to learn more about the book, and our conversation is here below!
Dr. Nathan, what a wellspring of inspiration for young people! It is so affirming and packed with the kind of emotional support that gives kids agency and empowerment. You ask kids to listen to their feelings and even become friends with them – so that they don’t shy away from even the most uncomfortable emotions. I also love how you place as much value on those joyful ones as the more challenging ones – like fear and disgust. It is mighty powerful what you’ve made, and I’m excited to share it with the Child’s Play in Action readers! Yay!
About Dr. Nathan Greene
Tell us about your background as a practitioner and as a writer.
Jocelyn, thank you for the kind words about the feelings journal and for reaching out with this generous idea for an interview! It is such a joy to be here. What an incredible community you’ve cultivated and I love the way that you have found another medium with Childsplay in Action to transmit the power of play and bring it with intentionality into more homes and classrooms. Just, amazing!
I have to say that my work years back as an educator with Child’s Play NY really informed so much of the contents within the book. You taught me so much about the incredible power in cultivating imaginative play in children. We know that children are naturally drawn toward play and that it is an incredible medium by which they explore their emotional interiors, learn about relationships, and try on different ways of being in the world.
You do that so beautifully with Childs Play. I know you don’t call it therapy, but there is something inherently therapeutic and growth-promoting in the way that you invite and cultivate play for the children in your program. I tried to carry much of that intention in this book and you played such a large role in teaching me about that at Child’s Play, so thank you!
In answer to your question, a little bit about my background, I am a clinical psychologist here in Oakland, California, where I have a private practice supporting children, adults, and families in psychotherapy. The main focus of my work has been on supporting children and adolescents in the treatment of psychological trauma.
I have a background in education as well and now teach clinical psychology doctoral students at the Wright Institute here in Berkeley, which is incredibly fun. Let’s see, I’m also passionate about thinking about gratitude and resilience and have done some research and writing on those topics. Finally, I co-founded, Surf Circle, a therapeutic surfing program for adolescent boys, which combines surfing and group therapy on the beach. The last one may just be my favorite project!
What is Surf Circle? How did it evolve, and where do you see it going? It seems like the kind of program that should be in every town with a surf!
I love Surf Circle so very much. Surf Circle is a program that arose sort of organically out of my friendship with three psychologists, two of whom were my clinical supervisors and one of whom was my best friend. We were working in a community clinic in East Oakland with children who had endured extreme trauma. there was connection around our love for surfing and in our conversations, we began to realize what an important role surfing was playing in helping us emotionally metabolize the trauma in our lives and clinical work. The psychologists and I saw that adolescent boys we were treating were really struggling with the traditional model of sitting on a couch for therapy.
So, we developed this program in which we meet with a small group of teen boys one Sunday a month out at the beach and give them surf lessons, eat burritos together on the sand and hold group therapy right there on the beach. I could spend all day talking about the program, but what I will say is that it has turned out to be such an incredibly powerful modality to work within. The program connects with boys who otherwise have difficulty accessing therapy and something happens when the boys have this share this (sometimes intense!) experience surfing together that opens them up to speak to the challenges in their lives in a way we do not see in our office-based practices.
It is a small intimate program, but as we connect with the greater surf therapy community and bring surf therapy into the mainstream has a lot of momentum. We are in the process of becoming a clinical training program, have goals to form girls groups, and gender-expansive groups, and hope to become a non-profit org so we can get funding that would expand access to what we are doing.
How “The Daily Feelings Journal” Works
OK – let’s get into your book a bit. It is so intuitively organized. I’ll share a page for our readers:
I love this has an open-ended place for dates so that kids can start whenever; it doesn’t have to be January 1st! First, there’s a creative writing portion where you give them a prompt, and they write a short response. Then there’s the Feelings Challenge where you ask them to do a task that requires some bravery or reflection. Lastly, there’s a Smile Tracker, where they write about a time during the week when they smiled. There’s also an emoji-filled mood log for the month. There are even more writing extensions for kids who are ready to go deeper in the back. Did I get that right? How did you come up with each of these elements for the journal?
Yes, that’s right. Truthfully I can’t take full credit for the structure of the book, as the structure came through collaboration with my editor and publisher. But, what I will say is that a lot of intention was put into helping children develop a daily habit of reflection in a manner that is fun and engaging.
The writing prompt for each week explores their relationship with and experiences of a feeling and I intentionally put a big focus on the somatic elements of the experience. For instance, “When you are excited, what do you feel in your hands? In your face? How about your stomach?” So I am really trying to help children come to learn that there are all sorts of signals in our bodies that tell us that a feeling is present. We’re building somatic awareness, which we know as the first step to emotional regulation– you have to be able to recognize a feeling before you can work your way through it. I am hoping to build this awareness in a way that is hopefully fun and engaging!
And journaling is important, but I also wanted to help children bring what they are learning and exploring into action out into the real world, so the Daily Feelings Challenges do just that. Each feeling challenge is related to the feeling they are journaling about that week. Some of these activities are actual therapeutic interventions, like practicing “dragon breaths” as a means to calm themselves down when angry or doing a body scan in which they imagine a white light traveling down their bodies and noticing the sensations at each point.
Other activities are geared toward expressing the feelings creatively, through drawing a character that represents what a feeling like rage feels like to them, listening to three songs they like and identifying the moods of the songs, making a “feelings box” with items that help calm them. And some of the activities are about connecting with others around emotions. For instance, in exploring embarrassment, the feelings challenge prompts the child to ask their parents about a time they felt embarrassed, and this is so important I think, for kids to learn that they are not alone in these very human experiences.
Unpacking and Befriending Feelings
Why is it important for kids to listen and befriend their feelings?
I’m so glad you asked! Very simply, feelings are such an important source of information. They are a built-in mechanism in our bodies that tell us about what we are experiencing internally and about what is going on in our environment. And I think that, for adults and children alike, if we can learn to befriend them, we can live richer, more fulfilling, and more connected lives.
Learning how to listen to feelings and relate to them healthfully is not an easy task, and especially when it relates to what we perceive as “negative feelings” – like fear, sadness, anger, shame, embarrassment, and so many more. And when I say “listening” to a feeling I don’t mean doing what a feeling tells us to do, what I mean is understanding where they are coming from and what they are telling me about my experience.
One of the challenges with difficult feelings is that children and adults turn away from things that don’t feel good, including negative feelings themselves. That is human nature. We avoid what is uncomfortable and do so by ignoring feelings, denying them, distracting ourselves away from them, or acting them out in negative ways.
For instance, if a child gets so angry that they throw a block at another child, that action could be thought of as a way the child feels a mix of emotions so intolerable that they try to rid themselves of them through physical action. The child is not consciously thinking they are doing that, but what happens the feeling becomes so big, they want it to stop and go to the first thing available to them. Then they get in trouble and reprimanded and may have all sorts of other negative feelings stirred up: guilt, rage, sadness. If this happens a lot, a story starts to develop for the parent and a child that “anger is a problem.”
But the anger itself isn’t a problem– it’s a feeling! Anger is a natural part of the human experience and it’s super important… it can protect us, it can be a source of courage, and motivation… imagine how ineffective or vulnerable we might be if we never experienced anger!
Back to the example, what the child did when the anger felt intolerable was the issue. So we need to help the child to learn to recognize the feelings when they arise in their bodies, name the feeling themselves “I’m feeling really angry right now,” see the feeling as a normal response and not a threat, and to access tools to help them feel better.
Dr. Dan Siegel, a wonderful researcher, and parenting expert, coined the phrase “name it to tame it,” which is the idea that a powerful step in helping to calm emotions is to name them when they are present.
And sometimes… as all parents know, we can pull out every tool in our parenting toolbox, but when a child is really really upset, we just may have to weather the storm until they are in a calmer place in which they can take in the support. This is hard to do and it’s important that we send the message we are there if they need us, but kids need to learn that even the hardest feelings will pass.
So a central aim of this book is to help children learn about and explore all of the different feelings they might encounter, so when they do arise, they don’t feel so overwhelmed by them. In doing so, they can learn that feelings have important messages for us about something that’s happening inside of us or in an interaction with a person or our environment that needs tending to.
Parenting Tips for Promoting Feelings in Kids
As a parent, our first impulse is to rush in and fix the problem. It takes so much re-training to pause and breathe and not solve a hard thing. What would you say to parents, like me, whose first impulse is to fix a problem or try to make things “better” for their kids when they are feeling one of these more “negative” emotions.
Yes! It is so hard to see your child in pain. And this instinct to come in and fix it comes from your deep love and protectiveness. But you have an intuitive sense that jumping to problem solving too quickly misses something important here. We of course want our kids to be happy, but trying to fix sadness or frustration for our kids, robs them of the experience of the fullness of the range of human experience and sends them a message that negative feelings are bad and maybe even dangerous.
So my advice for this is when you perceive your child having a negative feeling, first check in with your own feelings. If your kid is fussy, asking yourself, am I feeling really angry or irritated as well? Because like in the airplane, we’ve gotta put our oxygen masks on before we assist others. If you feel like you’re in a calm enough place to support your kid, proceed in helping them with their feeling, but if you’re not, first take care of yourself! Because we all know what can happen when we enter a place of trying to soothe our kids when we ourselves are about to explode.
Then my advice is to be curious with them about what’s happening. Ask yourself “what do I think my child might be feeling where is it coming from?” And try naming it for them. “Diego, it seems like you’re feeling a little angry, is that right?” Then try to name why it might be the case. “Did it make you upset when your sister crushed your tower?”
You might even name what you are seeing in their bodies that tell you they’re angry “I see you are looking down and squeezing your fists,” as this helps them learn to link emotions and the physical sensations that accompany them. And then validate them, “Ya, I’d be upset if that happened too. That’s a hard one buddy.” Finally, collaborate to come to a resolution “What could we do together that might help this feeling?” And then you could offer a hug, see if sister can apologize, help rebuild the tower.. etc.
So we can see that there’s so much opportunity here for the child to learn about a feeling and what to do with it and all of this richness would be missed!
Inspiration Behind the Book
What was the inspiration behind creating The Daily Feelings Journal? Was it what you were observing in your private practice? Or were there even experiences you had yourself as a young person?
As a little kid, I felt feelings strongly and I didn’t know what to do with them. I was a big tantrum-er! My parents were wonderfully patient, and I think I came into the world that way. But over the course of my life through loving guidance from my parents and my own experiences in therapy, I learned that this incredible force of my feelings that led me to tantrum when I was young was also in itself a sort of superpower if I learned how to harness it. So I’ve come to learn myself that feelings contain enormous power and I want kids to be empowered with them.
Your prompts are so creative and never talk down to the young people. It is neat that you even weave in music (like playing a song that makes you happy) and even art (like drawing an emoji to show how you felt that month). What are some of your favorite Feelings Challenges?
I really like the challenges that enlist them as experts and helpers. Having kids reflect on and practice what they would tell another child who was feeling disappointed to help them feel better is one that I really like and I often use in my practice. Because I think it can often be easier to share our wisdom with others than apply it to ourselves, so practicing supporting others can be an entry point to supporting ourselves.
I’m also a big fan of anything that promotes self-love. One challenge, for instance, related to the feeling of pride, encourages the child to think about three things that they love about themself, to stand in front of a mirror, put their hand on their heart, and name these three things aloud. Then they are encouraged to notice how they feel. If one kid does this, I’ll feel like the book is a success.
And I really love the musical challenges…. Playing different songs, dancing in ways that feel right in their bodies and identifying the feelings the songs convey, writing their own songs about feelings and experiences. Music is so powerful.
Best Ways to Use the Feelings Journal
I love the consistency and dedication that this book asks of young people. How do you suggest that parents can best use it and inspire their kids to work inside it as a daily practice?
I think it would be great to encourage your children to engage with the journal each night before bedtime as a way to process and let go of what happened during the day and perhaps dedicate one day/week to the weekly prompts. If your child struggles with writing, I think there could be incredible value in discussing the prompts verbally at the dinner table or at bedtime.
You’ve woven optimism into this book, not in a sacharine way, but as a practice. There’s a lot of buzz/books/blogs about cultivating positivity and happiness. What advice would you recommend for lifting up positivity, without being false?
I’m so glad that you brought this up, because I do believe that there is a danger in leaning too heavily into positivity in a way that prevents us from feeling the whole breadth of the human experience. I firmly believe, and there is research to support, that when we prematurely cut off or push out negative feelings that arise (like embarrassment, sadness, shame etc.) it restricts our ability to experience the positive feelings as well. We sort of turn down the volume on feelings across the spectrum.
My personal experience and my experience supporting people in my practice is that we first have to be with the truth of what is here, acknowledge it and feel it. There is so much grief right now with the pandemic– people that we have lost, events canceled, relationships thwarted– and we have to acknowledge that grief for ourselves and our kids and allow space to feel it. And, there is also so much joy to be found. My experience is that, as the poet Kahlil Gibran points out, joy and sorrow are inextricably linked. When we allow ourselves to feel the hard things it expands our capacity to feel joy as well.
And also, as you know so well, we need to play. Play is so healing and our children are such great teachers to us about the power of play. So enter into it with them in whatever way you can, whether through creativity, movement, dancing, singing, art, visits to the park, time in nature…
Daily Feelings Journal in the Classroom
On the surface, this seems like it is for families, but I also think classroom teachers could use this. I could see this solving some problems for educators and also supporting SEL in the classroom. Are there a few challenges or prompts that you think might make for a great activity within say, a grade school classroom?
I think so many of these prompts and feelings challenges could be adapted for the classroom. One that comes to mind might be having your class write about when they had a conflict with a friend and identifying the feelings that came up. I think when your class comes in from recess and they are all riled up and having difficulty calming their bodies, doing dragon breaths, or box breathing, or the body scan activities. And on the week in which we explore feelings of guilt, the book gives a framework for apologizing. This is a skill that all of us, children and adults alike, could benefit from learning, I believe!
What are other resources you love for kids or parents to help with these feelings?
Oh wow, I love anything written by Dan Siegel, his books are great: “The Whole Brain Child,” “No Drama Discipline,” a great book for adolescents is “Brainstorm.” Inside Out, of course was such an amazing film that brought the message of the enormous importance of our feelings into many homes. And of course Child’s Play NY classes and this amazing blog! But your readers clearly know what an incredible resource this is.
I, of course, love the challenges that get the kids acting out stuff, like practicing in front of a mirror things that make them nervous. I have that game Body Phone where kids “call into their emotions. What are other ways you’ve seen dialogue, role-play help in navigating feeling and perspective-taking?
Yes, physicalizing and practicing is so important. Body Phone is such an amazing activity! I love your creativity here. I am a big fan of “parts work.” It might look like this: “Diego, I know there is a part of you that wants to throw the block right now and another part of you who doesn’t want to hurt your sister.” Let’s talk to the part that wants to throw the block. What is he feeling? Want to say? Need right now.” And then we talk to the other part with similar prompts.
If your child has recurring difficulties feeling overwhelmed by anger, we might even name that experience as a character. One little boy I worked with loved the Avengers. We named his anger “The Hulk” and would talk about when the Hulk would come for a visit. We identified when the Hulk comes out, what his role is, and what he often needs.
This is a narrative therapy technique called “externalizing”. What it does is help us get just a tiny bit of distance from our feelings. That way we can recognize them when they arise and realize that, like in Inside Out. There are a bunch of characters inside of us that all play important roles and have their own needs. There are many other ideas like this, but I encourage educators and teachers to start playing with this concept. Be mindful not to use these characters to shame the kids when the feelings arise. It should be gentle and playful.
Where can people order it and learn more about your work?
The Daily Feelings Journal for Kids is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, and bookstores near you! If you like supporting independent bookstores, I recommend buying it at bookshop.org, an incredible resource I just learned about where you can donate proceeds from the purchase to a small independent bookshop!
Yay! Thanks again, Dr. Nathan Greene, for putting all this great stuff out into the world. I’ll keep track of all you are doing on social. I can’t wait to use this book with my son!
Thank you so much Jocelyn, for your time, enthusiasm, and curiosity. Keep doing the incredibly important work that you do. The world needs it!