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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Teaching Kids Emotional Literacy Is No Cake Walk

By Jessica Guerrieri

Most sane adults feared them, but I adored them: middle schoolers. They were my favorite students when I was a teacher. 

Maybe because in my heart I sometimes still feel like an angsty, preteen girl myself. I vividly remember the visceral awkwardness of school dances, when my 11-year-old, 5’ 11” frame stuck out in the crowd like an ostrich in a chicken coop. But along with the discomfort, there was the excitement of curiosity and newfound freedom.

As a teacher, I had the enormous pleasure of chaperoning these same types of dances. I became the observer of a sea of turbulent emotions, hormonal heartbreak—and body odor that had the power to peel wallpaper. It was an up-close and personal view of the preciousness of preteens’ utter insecurity, juxtaposed alongside an unwavering confidence that they were the sole-knowers-of-absolutely-everything. Duh.

Now, a decade after I first chaperoned those dances, I am sitting center stage as I watch my girls figure out the dance of their own emotions. What began as Elmo singing little songs about the meaning of happy and sad has quickly morphed into me trying to explain the complexities of jealousy, fear, and joy. I don’t want my daughters to be afraid of their emotions—it’s the most important lesson I want them to learn. The irony of this, of course, is that I’m actually afraid of how I will cope with the inevitable tsunami of kid-feelings that I know is only just beginning to emerge.

My therapist has assured me that I am exactly the right person to empathize with these stamped copies of my childhood self. But my patience is definitely tested. As a teacher, my exposure to my students’ ups and downs was limited; as a mom, all my good hiding places are no longer a secret.

But when it gets hard for us, I go back to my teacher days and the tumult I witnessed on the middle school dance floor. I remind myself of the lessons our feelings teach all of us: without sadness, we can’t discern joy; without fear, we wouldn’t know bravery. I know that, together, my daughters and I will learn to navigate the world of strong emotions—all while I have the honor of watching them dance to their own beat.

Jessica Guerrieri is a mom and a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. Find her at and on Instagram and Twitter @witandspitup.