Heart Startles

Last week walking home from school, Amelia was upset and telling me about a squabble she got in with her kindergarten classmate. We’ll call him “N”. From the beginning of the school year, Amelia and N had been buddies. Last week, the friendship went south.

“Mom, today at school I got so mad.” -The Original Pigtail Pal, Amelia

“What happened, Smalls?” -Me

“Well, N told me he hated dolphins and that they were awful. He doesn’t really think that. He said it to hurt me.” -Amelia

(for those who don’t know, Amelia loves ocean life the way some girls love Disney Princesses)

“That sounds upsetting. I’m sorry.” -Me

“It hurt my heart.” -Amelia

“Smalls, why would he say that to you? Did you guys get in a fight?” -Me

“No, he just started bossing me. I told him he doesn’t tell me what to think. ” –Amelia

“I’m glad you told N that. What happened next?” -Me 

“He started to say mean things to me and it made me sad. I told him to stop. He isn’t my boyfriend anymore.” –Amelia

“Oh, I didn’t realize N was your boyfriend. What does that mean?” –Me

“It is what N said. He said he didn’t like me anymore and Lily is his girlfriend now.” –Amelia

“I see. Did you want N to be your boyfriend? Or just a friend who is a boy?” –Me

“I just wanted him to be kind to me.” –Amelia

“I know. I love you.” –Me

And then today after school, enjoying a warm afternoon playing on the playground before walking home, the kids were making snowmen and running and sliding around. They seemed to be having a great time, and I was surprised when Amelia came up to me with sad eyes and asked to go home. Our weekend had been busy with her sixth birthday, so I figured she was pooped and needed some quiet time. And then she blew me away.

“…(something mumbled) and I got such a heart startle and it just made me feel so fizzy. It doesn’t feel good, when my heart does that like a tight beeping in a squeeze and it makes me feel like I don’t know what to expect. I got such a bad heart startle today when my friend got in trouble with Teacher because I thought it was me and I’m always thinking about that and it wasn’t like the kind when Tio jumps and and scares me and I scream and my knees shake and I like that kind. This is the kind when my heart tells me there is danger. Like today when N said hurtful things to me about the dolphin flags in my cupcakes. He said it again to hurt me, and then he yelled at me so mean because I knocked over par t of the snowman and he looked so angry and that was a bad heart startle.” –Amelia

“Heart startles. Sweetheart, if someone ever speaks to you in a way that gives you a heart startle, you need to walk away or tell them to speak to you with respect.” –Me

“Or I can just tell Teacher or find you.” –Amelia

“Amelia, I will always keep you safe, but you need to know how to speak up for yourself. If anyone speaks to you in that way like N did today, you either walk away, or you tell them to speak to you with respect. Friends can disagree, but friends don’t give friends heart startles.” -Me

“I didn’t want to do what he said.” –Amelia

“What did he want you to do?” –Me

“He said if I stopped loving dolphins, he would be my boyfriend again. I told him that wasn’t his option. Mom, I love dolphins so much.” –Amelia

“I know you do. You did a good job of telling N that he doesn’t tell you what to think. Amelia, listen to me, a boy never has the right to tell you what to think or what to love. A boy you care about should never give you a heart startle.” –Me

“I know. Daddy doesn’t act that way to you, he never talks to you that way and he never gives you heart startles but he kisses you and says you look nice and he is proud of you.” -Amelia   

“You are right. He is a good Daddy.” –Me

“He is a good Daddy.” -Amelia



  1. Oh my breaking heart. We’ve had this at school as well, but all of ours have come from other girls. “I’ll be your friend if…” I hate that. I tell Big Girl all the time that real friends don’t have conditions. They are just your friend no matter what. I hope that if I say it enough times she will learn that it is true.

  2. Heart startles. I love that term. I also love that she recognized the feeling and knows to do something about it. You are a good mom.

  3. oh my goodness. Your sweet girl. That must have been so hard to hear these struggles that she’s going through. She sounds like a beautiful-hearted & intelligent young lady & what a good mom you are! Holly

  4. Your child is such a clever cookie! And so principled! You did a fantastic job with her.

  5. I read this and I think, “Being a dad to a strong girl is going to get really hard, probably sooner than I think. But there is hope.”

    Thank you for showing me that it’s possible.

  6. Your posts make me cry, but in that “I hope I can be as great a mom to my girls” kind of way. I love you without knowing you, for proving to your sweet girl that she is full of awesome and that she can rule the world! My 4 and 6 year old wore their “full of awesome” t shirts this weekend and it filled me up with hope. Thank you. For all you do.

  7. Oh my! She is an absolutely amazing girl. It broke my heart to read of her heart startles. 🙁

  8. I love her strong, brave heart. My daughter is also lucky enough to have a great Daddy, as am I. Dads make a huge impact on how their daughters look at boys and relationships – kudos to the awesome dads who take that responsibility seriously.

  9. Yep, I’m definitely crying at work. I’m so glad your daughter has the example of a great daddy! Mine does too, but there are so many who don’t… so many who would think it’s okay to sacrifice what they love in order to stay in the good graces of some jerk. Thank you to all the great daddies out there!

  10. Wow … even though I’m years older than Amelia, I can so relate to this. Sadly, we never outgrow people trying to tell us how to think or be. It sounds like she’s stronger than I am though. Maybe I need to take a few lessons from her.

  11. I think sometimes we (as a culture) forget that in order to be a good parent, you have to be a good spouse.

  12. Thank you so much for this post, and thank you to Amelia for this term. Turns out it’s not just little awesome girls who need to hear these things. She gave words to my feelings today.

  13. Such emotional intelligence your daughter has! You are an amazing mama. Tell me, where did you learn how to talk to her in this way about these kinds of things? Are there books that have influenced your parenting? I was raised in a home where you did not talk about feelings, and reading the way you talk to your daughter makes me ache inside for the kid I used to be, wanting so badly to express myself and be accepted. I want to give my kids what I didn’t get as a child, and need all the inspiration I can get. Thank you!

    • Hi Gemma –
      I’ve been working with kids for over twenty years, so over that time I’ve just learned how to communicate with them in a way that respects them and speaks to their heart. I’ve read some parenting books like “Buddhism for Mothers” by Sarah Napthali that teaches a calm and caring approach to child rearing. I think books that talk about emotional intelligence and minfulness would be helpful. I was raised by a school psychologist/Gifted and Talented teacher, so we were all about feelings 🙂

      Honestly, though, you don’t need a book. Just sit there and look at your child. See into his or her heart. Be present. Be still. Be loving. That’s all you really need.

  14. You did an incredible job with your daughter;) She’s such a cutie and she’s clever as hell, too:)

  15. This unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes…heart startles. That is so perfect. I found you through Ado – she recommended your blog on her fb page. I’m so happy she did.

  16. Great child…great parents….:)

  17. Oh, my goodness. Wonderful job helping Amelia and wonderful job with this post. And, wonderful job, Amelia! She is so in touch with her feelings. “Heart startles”? Perfect!

    It’s so important for parents to share these kinds of conversations with one another. Thank you.


  1. […] of swirling, because I had no idea how to really handle it. I knew the steps to take, but I had to talk Amelia down from her “heart startles” from this boy’s eruptions and assure her she was safe at school. She had nightmares, and her […]

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