163: Helping Kids Build Emotional Skills, with Nadine Levitt

Picture of hosted by Penny Williams

hosted by Penny Williams

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Emotional intelligence is a learned skill set. We must teach our kids about feelings — what they are and what they mean — as well as how to manage them and communicate them to others. In her work with children and her emotional toolkit, Nadine Levitt teaches that emotions are trying to help us. They’re messengers. Some emotions are more challenging to feel but they’re all natural and necessary. It’s our job to figure out what the message means and what to do about it.

Tune in to this episode to learn how to talk to your kids about their emotions and teach them the skills necessary to navigate their feelings in productive and healthy ways.


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My Guest

Nadine Levitt is the Founder and CEO of WURRLYedu and the author of the My Mama Says SEL program! She began her career as an international trade lawyer but after 6 years of practice, she decided to pursue her passion for opera and songwriting.
She has performed extensively all over the world with David Foster, Andrea Boccelli, Kiri Te Kanawa, Christina Perri, and Steven Tyler to name a few. Passionate about education, she sits on the national board of Little Kids Rock, is a member of the NAfME Roundtable, and in 2016 led the development of the music education platform WURRLYedu. In this capacity, she has observed more than 400 classrooms nationally. In 2019 she published a children’s book about emotions entitled My Mama Says Inside Me Lives A Village to shift the dialog on emotions, to be simple to understand and empowering. The following year she developed a supporting curriculum for schools that was successfully workshopped in [50+] schools around the country. Connect with her on socials at @mrswurrly.



Nadine Levitt 0:03

That's What emotions do because they take their job really seriously as messengers. And if it's just, they're hitting a wall every time and being ignored constantly, then they're just going to get louder, bring more friends with them, or eventually just go into ninja mode and just explode and it's scary for kids when emotions get that big.

Penny Williams 0:24

Welcome to The Parenting ADHD podcast, where I share insights and strategies on raising kids with ADHD straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author, ADHD a Holic and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started. Welcome back to The Parenting ADHD Podcast. I'm really excited today to be talking to Nadine Leavitt, all about emotional intelligence and building your child's emotional skills and a toolbox that they can use in that regard with their feelings and emotions. Thanks for being here. Nadine. I'm really excited about this conversation, and the perspective that you'll bring to the table. Will you start by introducing yourself? Let everyone know who you are and what you do?

Nadine Levitt 1:21

Yes, of course, thank you so much for having me. So my name is Nadine Levitt. I am the author of a children's book series with toys and things like that. And it's all about social emotional learning. It's called My mama says inside we live in a village. The second book actually is called my mom and said inside me lives a superhero. And this is really just building on the basic concepts that emotional intelligence is a learned skill set. And emotions don't have to be scary. And so my own daughter was having a really hard time, with really big feelings. She's really highly sensitive. And I just didn't find very many resources out there that were both empowering and sort of simple to understand. And so that was the aim with the books to sort of have this be something that can start conversations is both empowering, and simple to understand.

Penny Williams 2:10

Amazing. Let's start with defining emotional intelligence. Because I don't think everybody knows exactly what we're talking about. When we say emotional intelligence.

Nadine Levitt 2:20

That's a funny question. Yeah. So I also have I'm also an education, I should say. And it's the same concept with social and emotional learning. They're like, Yeah, but what is that, really, and the way that I see this emotional intelligence of the skills and also social and emotional learning is sort of the foundational skills that you need to a identify your emotions, and then acknowledge them, be able to direct them, manage your emotions, process them. And that really goes into almost every building block for life. So that goes into relationship building, it goes into responsible decision making, it goes into planning and organization, because it all were hijacked by our emotions, so often. So it's just so so important on a foundational level, to be able to identify, acknowledge and direct your emotions.

Penny Williams 3:09

I love that you brought up that we are hijacked by our emotions, because that is so true for neurodiverse kids and adults really, ADHD autism. Part of the big understanding for me as a parent, was that often my kid was flooded with emotions his emotional brain had taken over. And his thinking brain was not accessible, it was offline. And that really helped me to understand what was going on when I've seen different behaviors, and what he really needed from me. And a lot of that was he needed to build emotional intelligence skills he needed to build the weights that are appropriate to communicate them. He needed to build coping skills and management skills. And that's a really important aspect, I think, is to understand that we naturally can get flooded by emotions, and they can really hijack that thinking brain.

Nadine Levitt 4:06

Absolutely. I think it happens to everyone, by the way, even parents. Mm hmm. It happens to everyone that we get hijacked by emotions and education. I see it all the time. Because if somebody is really scared, whether it's physically scared, or emotionally scared or nervous, often that anxiety can completely cripple you from actually taking any information. And yes, so it's very interesting. So emotions, I think, when you understand them, and when you can process them. It's just a superpower that you can have. And when my kids saw inside out, my daughter came to me and she said, So do emotions control out every move. And I personally love that movie. I thought it was a really great movie, but I didn't think about it from her perspective, how she would see it as emotions control us. And so I really wanted to be clear with her that they don't control us and we don't control our emotions. They come they go. They live inside us all the time. They don't come alone ever So it's not like we're only ever feeling one emotion. They're actually trying to help us by signposting and delivering a message. And we control our actions, our behaviors, our thoughts that go with those emotions. But we cannot control the emotions coming and going.

Penny Williams 5:16

That's so important for kids to understand to, I think, because in our culture, we say that there are some emotions that are negative or unwanted, like anger and sadness. And we have to work really hard to teach our kids that all emotions are good. They're all natural. Yeah, we all feel all of them, at some point,

Nadine Levitt 5:38

Absolutely, somehow more challenging to experience. And the reason that they're more challenging is just, you have the emotions that come with rewards, which is just the dopamine head saying, we want more of this, which is the feelings of in love and feeling confident, or calm and things like that, when you're being asked to change or protect something like anger, it changes hard for everyone. So they're using the alarms to get our attention. And it's a wonderful motivator for change or to for protection. And I think when you look at what else is coming with the anger, or the frustration, or any of these more difficult emotions to process, you have to look at the whole picture. So I like to think of emotions as messengers. So they're signposting something for us. But if we're only looking at one part of that, so you know, you hear a lot of people saying, don't be so frustrated, or angry, which is such a difficult Yeah, I have I sort of my hair races when people say that, because it's just, you can't control it, it's there. But if you say, how are you feeling?

And look beyond that really the loudest emotion that you're experiencing? So the anger or the frustration thing, what else is there? And then you might see that there might be some fear there, of being excluded, for example, there might be some jealousy there, which can be a really great tool for goal setting, you can say, well, what is it that you want to emulate, and somebody, and then there might be some frustration, because you're using a repetitive sort of pattern, and it's not working. So you need to change your patterns, you need to break that habit. So you have to look at all of the emotions that are visiting you, and not just one part of it. And then you can sort of make a plan that works for you and act on it. Because you can control your actions, you can control your emotions that they're trying to help you.

Penny Williams 7:27

Yeah, I'm just sort of floored right now. Because and all the time that I have been very invested in kids and ADHD and autism and learning more, I have never heard somebody say, look beyond the emotion, that's the loudest what else is going on? And of course, we need to do that. And that really is part of what I teach parents is that behavior is communication. And so why is it happening? Why is your child super angry and out of control, maybe, for example. And by asking about those other emotions that are not as loud as the anger, we're sort of doing that detective work that we need to do to figure out what's going on so that we can help them.

Nadine Levitt 8:13

Yeah, in a lot of your podcasts, you talk about empathy and compassion. And it's so true that if you can help guide your kids through by asking them, what else do you feel, and sometimes it's helpful to have a visual, that's why we use the characters and we have sort of these posters and magnet boards and stuff, but you can do it with any which way and you can make popsicle sticks with your kids, and where each one represents different emotions. So if they're nonverbal, or if they're having a hard time identifying what else is there, you can give them a visual, and they can literally just pick the emotions that they're feeling at that time. And what's really helpful often is to get into a habit of doing it not when you're just feeling a really big emotion. But also when you're pretty calm, or just as a practice as sort of a daily check in with yourself. We do that in schools, where it's a minute, a mindful minute, and you check in with yourself how you feeling right now. And you go and collect all the emotions that you're feeling right now. And the idea there really is that we want kids to get used to and adults but get used to identifying more than a few emotions.

Brene Brown does this amazing. She does a lot of work with emotions, and emotional intelligence, she says you should intimately know at least 30 emotions. And I also agree with that. I think the average number that most people would identify in a given conversation with me has been sort of like three to five Max and that's only because I'm pushing them. So I would love for people to get into a habit of really checking in with themselves and becoming friends with their emotions and saying hello to them even instead of like a high high anger. I often say to kids that it's a little bit like going to a party like a birthday party and if If you say to somebody, I was going to a party and somebody ignored me, or somebody called me by the wrong name constantly, I would get really frustrated, I probably get a little louder. So they noticed me, I might try and get their attention somehow. Or maybe I go into complete ninja mode and say, I don't care if they see me a lot, but I'm going to wreak havoc. Yeah, no, I wouldn't actually do that. But I might do that. But that's what emotions do, because they take the job really seriously as messengers. And if it's just, they're hitting a wall every time and being ignored constantly, then they're just going to get louder, bring more friends with them, or eventually just go into ninja mode and just explode. And it's scary for kids, when emotions get that big.

Penny Williams 10:43

Yeah, I don't think we recognize that. It is scary for kids, when they are intense, and emotional. And so often, they're not in control. At those times they have been hijacked, they have been flooded. And it can be really frightening for them. We see a lot of kids in our population who will come back later and be very apologetic, and kind of shameful sometimes about the way that they acted. And it's really a signal that they weren't in control. And they didn't have the skills yet to manage those emotions and to communicate how they were feeling and maybe in a more appropriate or helpful way.

Nadine Levitt 11:27

Yeah, and there's a lot that we can do, as parents are as adults in the room to guide kids through that, and de escalate, and let them help them process it so that in the future, they can do it by themselves. Yeah. And a lot of that is sort of through these habits. I also find things like coloring, or any kind of activity that you're walking with somebody, or you're doing something, or when somebody I remember my son had a huge, huge tantrum when he was much younger, like he was a toddler. And you know, he still had a gate on his door. And he was just shaking his gait and screaming and crying. And it was very, very scary for him. And I just remember you have to sit with them at that point, and let them feel it and say, I'm not scared of you right now. And sit with them and say, I'm going to help you through this. And I'll be here. And when you're ready to process it. I'm here for you. And I think when you get angry in return, if your child is really having a meltdown, and you're reacting to it, it only inflames that behavior. And it's really hard sometimes as parents, I mean, nobody's perfect. So there are definitely times where it's incredibly difficult not to react, yes. But the more that we can stay calm and help them through it, the more of a lesson it is for them.

Penny Williams 12:53

Yeah, it's critical. It's really critical. And I love that you use the term deescalate. We talked about that a lot, are you co escalating? Are you adding to the fire? Or are you de escalating are co regulating, when we offer that calm, we're actually offering co regulation. We're offering that calmness that our kids can borrow from us as well.

Nadine Levitt 13:17

And confidence by their economic confidence, yeah, confidence in our own abilities to process emotions. And we're modeling that for them in those moments.

Penny Williams 13:26

Yeah. And they need that confidence. I think that emotions well up when we're not so confident, I have anxiety. And for me, socially, I have a huge lack of confidence. And so that anxiety, just wells and roars and those situations, and I have to work on building that confidence that I'm worthy of being there. And all of these things that my social anxiety tells me are not true, and to really sort of have to navigate, even sort of faking some confidence as I was growing up until I had more competence in those situations. But lack of confidence, anxiety really kind of opens the door for it,

Nadine Levitt 14:06

It actually brings up a really good point, though, because emotions come. And then what happens is we have a thought pattern, the story in our head, right, that occurs with the emotions. So the emotions that are visiting us, they come with these stories, and they come because we as human beings, programmed, like our brains are programmed to recognize patterns. And we do that for survival. Like that's a basic instinct. So If This Then That, if the lion comes to the cave, don't go outside, otherwise, I will be dead type of thing back in caveman days, right? And what we fail to recognize sometimes in today's day, is that a lot of those stories that we tell ourselves are actually created with very, very little data. And they're not based in reality. They're based on patterns that we've created for ourselves, and they might come from experience or they might come from Some media movies, or stories that somebody has told us, but they're not based in fact. So the more that we can stay curious with ourselves and recognize that these are the stories that we're telling ourselves, and I really try with my kids to constantly talk about those stories. So it was such a proud moment for me when my daughter said, we were having some kind of a discussion, she said, Mom, are you telling yourself the story right now that I don't care about this. And that's when I knew that she definitely heard me understood that it was a great moment.

Penny Williams 15:33

That's awesome. And love it when our kids show us that they were listening things to make sense to them, right, they are processing and using some of the advice or lessons that we give them?

Nadine Levitt 15:45

Mm hmm. Yeah, I think that you know, the concept of a scientist brain. And again, it goes with like all of Carol Dweck, ZZ work with, with the growth mindset, which I'm such a huge fan of, but we talk about the concept of you're learning these skills is growth sort of mindset, you're constantly learning. And every moment, you're either learning more, or learning less, but it's not ever staying the same, like so you're either going one way or the other way. And as parents, it's just as much about us learning as it is for them to be learning. Because these are all opportunities when things get challenging. Those are opportunities to learn as a parent and to practice.

Penny Williams 16:24

I think all of us are learning and growing all the time, right. And so we need to accept that as parents, you only think we hold ourselves to way too high of a standard as parents that we can't make mistakes, but it's human, and it's natural, and it's going to happen. And I think our kids need to see that too, that we're also learning and growing. And you know, the more that we talk about emotional skills and feelings, and so if with our kids, they're seeing that, your daughter was seeing that you're human. And sometimes your emotions might get the best of you also.

Nadine Levitt 17:00

Absolutely. I think it's an opportunity to model how you pick yourself up and how you process it from there on once you have the awareness that something else is going on, and that it's going away that you don't like it to go, then how do you pick yourself up? And how do you turn it around? How do you process it. And so I think when you're constantly trying to be perfect as a parent, that's an incredible pedestals a full from one day, I think that we really discrediting our kids when we are constantly trying to be so perfect. And it's so difficult because as, as parents, it's the most important job. And it's the one that we care about the most. We want to make sure that we're really doing a good job with our kids, so that they grow up to be contributing members of society and happy and healthy and you know, you're doing the best that you can. But at the same time, I think that's where having that growth mindset and realizing it's a continuum. It's not a destination, it's a journey. And the best thing we can be doing is staying in that journey. And identifying where we have learning opportunities.

Penny Williams 18:11

Yeah, being really real for our kids, I think is so important. And that kind of comes back to also what you were talking about earlier, where we have to talk about emotions, and that sort of thing, when there are calm moments, like it's something to practice, or to discuss, when everyone is calm. And a lot of times when our kids are super emotional, they're thinking brain is offline anyway, they're not going to be able to sort of process right then was like your son at the gate, he needed time to be able to calm down first, before you could interact in a meaningful way.

Nadine Levitt 18:51

Yeah. Interestingly, though, it helped him calm down, knowing that I wasn't scared. Yeah, because we're all just energy at the end of the day. And so the energy that you walk into the room with often catches to the other person. So you see this a lot with, you walk into a room, if you're kind of grouchy, and you're not, you haven't had to get the best morning. And suddenly you see somebody else reacting the same way. And it's like, oh, no, I don't want. And so I think being really conscious of the energy that you're giving off to your kids, or everybody else in the world is a big piece of that. And so I think not being scared of your emotions, seeing them as friends. And also the other thing that I really like to do is leveraging play, to talk about emotions. So you can do amazing things like arts and crafts. We have a lot of resources on the website for this as well. You can do freeze dancer, like emotional freeze dancing, because there's different pieces to this. I'm actually working on a fun quiz right now, to show kids and it's going to be free by the way. I'll send that your way. But it's this concept of what do emotions look like? So both in ourselves or in other people?

What do they look like? What do they feel like both tactile feeling, but also how they feel inside? And where do they live? What kind of friends do they have? What other emotions often come with them? What messages do they sometimes bring us? And why do they come to us. And when you have all those pieces, and you can do it in a really fun way, where it's like really fun imagery, cute things that make kids giggle and laugh. Yeah, but the understanding goes into that it doesn't always have to be this heavy, heavy topic. And I think it's just as important for kids to understand what comes with happiness and confidence and calm as what comes with frustration, anger, or jealousy, or rage, any of those things, because they can all be celebrated. And again, it's understanding all emotions, being able to identify them quickly. And knowing what they do to our bodies. And that actually, at the end of the day, we're in control of our bodies. So it's fine to feel angry and frustrated, right, it's not fine to punch somebody

Penny Williams 21:05

Setting those boundaries, and maintaining them still. Yeah, so many of our kids who have ADHD or autism, they really have a very basic sort of understanding of their emotions, it seems so many of the families that I coach, a lot of the work that needs to be done for the kids is to help them build that emotional intelligence because they see, maybe anger, sadness, and happiness, and they kind of see it one way. So if I'm angry, I must be yelling, I must be punching things and slamming things. And because that's what anger looks like, right. And there's so many different decrees and nuances that we have to consciously work with our kids to develop, so that they have those management skills, they are able to be more appropriate in their communication or rate of how they're feeling. So if I'm really frustrated, because this math problem is really tripping me up, and I can't figure it out, versus I'm really angry, because somebody bullied me and shoved me, they're really two different things, right. And often, our kids who are developmentally delayed, really struggled with that.

Nadine Levitt 22:17

And that's where the visual really comes in handy, right? You know, having something where you have a sheet of paper next to you, or like some, as I said, popsicle sticks, so anything like that, we also have some stuffies. So when they grab their angry hippo, Stuffy, and just, it's a tactile thing that they can touch, and squeeze, and so on, so forth, a think having some kind of a visual for kids, that reminds them of a bunch of emotions that they might be feeling. And they can create their own too, because there are so many emotions, it's almost impossible to include all of them. Yeah. And so we really encourage families to think about all the different emotions and let kids decide for themselves who lives in their village. And then just really practice checking in with themselves pulling those characters that live in their village. The more you practice, the quicker they become at identifying them. And then you can help them process kind of where to from here. So once they understand, okay, I do feel frustrated, like and they don't even have to share it. Sometimes it's just about them doing it like do they feel a little jealousy, that's often one that a lot of people don't want to admit that they're feeling it. Or rage is one that often kids would never admit that they feel rage, they just feel angry. So I think letting kids have ownership and who exactly lives in their village. But giving them some suggestions to choose from, I think is really helpful. Because often you're right, they know, like, three or four or five different emotions. And a lot of the literature out there has always said that you're only feeling one emotion at a time.

Penny Williams 23:53

Yeah, that's true. And I think that you're right, there's so many other things going on that accumulate into that big, loud emotion that's taking over. I really encourage everyone to visit the My mama says website, and to shop, the village, as you call it, the characters for the feelings are absolutely adorable and engaging. And you have so many great tools for families to use with their kids there to really help them to start to build this awareness and a way to interact with each other around it too. You know, I think we tend to be scared to talk about emotions. And we so desperately need to with our kids. We need to have those discussions. We need to feel the hard things and talk about the hard things. And you have so many great tools that are available for parents to do that and in a way that I think isn't so scary.

Nadine Levitt 24:52

Yeah, it can be fun. It can be fun. And there's a lot of free resources there to sort of coloring pages. There's some story outlines there. Imagine wonderland.com is going to be where the quizzes. So that's all free.

Penny Williams 25:05

Amazing. I love the work that you're doing and how you're helping kids and families to really feel better so that they can do better. For everyone listening, you can go to the show notes and get the links to the DNS websites, as we've been talking about. Any of the resources that we've mentioned also will be linked up there. And those show notes are at parentingADHDandautism.com/163 for episode 163. And again, I just want to thank you for sharing your time and wisdom with us but also creating these amazing tools for kids and families to use to grow. Thank you so much for having me. And with that, I will see everybody next time. Thanks for joining me on the parenting ADHD podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses, parent coaching and Mama retreats at parenting ADHD and autism.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Thank you!

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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I'm your host, Penny.

Join me as I help parents, caregivers, and educators like you harness the realization that we are all beautifully complex and marvelously imperfect. Each week I deliver insights and actionable strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids — those with ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabilities…

My approach to decoding behavior while honoring neurodiversity and parenting the individual child you have will provide you with the tools to help you understand and transform behavior, reduce your own stress, increase parenting confidence, and create the joyful family life you crave. I am honored to have helped thousands of families worldwide to help their kids feel good so they can do good.

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