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Recently, a concerned mother wrote to us asking, “I’ve been having trouble trying to find a way to explain the ‘uh-oh’ feeling to my 6 and 7 year old kids. Do you have any ideas of how to explain how to feel the “uh-oh” feeling and what to do when they do? How would you explain to a child the difference between that feeling and normal anxiety or shyness? What would a few real life experiences be that I can use?” 

Intuition has often been called the “Sixth Sense” and is based on subtle cues that our unconscious brain has picked up, direct observations, memory, and experience. According to Gavin de Becker, best-selling author of The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift, an international expert in the prediction and management of violence, and long-time Kidpower advisor, “Intuition is always right in at least two important ways; it is always in response to something; it always has your best interest at heart.”

Through intuition, our unconscious mind gives us information that our rational mind has not yet perceived. When we pay attention to this sixth sense, we can often notice and avoid potential dangers before we understand why we are doing this. Our intuition also helps us to notice and take advantage of potential opportunities as well as to make discoveries about how our world works.

Unfortunately, children are often taught to ignore their intuition because their perceptions are hard to explain logically. Also, kids lack life experience and sometimes truly make mistakes in judgment about what is happening around them. As adults, we might negate a young person’s intuition because we don’t understand the reasons for their strong feelings or reactions. If we assume they are wrong, we might pressure them to push their feelings of discomfort aside, instead of paying attention.

Children and adults alike are safer when they notice their feelings and know when, and how, to act on them. For example, after her nine-year-old son went to a friend’s house on his bike, one mother realized that she had forgotten to ask for the phone number where he was going. Thankfully, her son came back after a few minutes explaining, “I don’t know why I came back but I just had a feeling that something was missing!”

A potentially more serious situation happened during a family vacation at a resort where people were staying in little separate houses. A seven-year-old girl was approached by the friend of her older cousin who asked, “Can you read me something?” This little girl was proud of her reading ability. She trustingly went into this older boy’s room, sat next to him on the bed, and started to read aloud the book he handed her. She didn’t understand what she was reading but suddenly got a feeling that something was wrong. She jumped up and said, “My parents will be wondering where I am, so I have to go!” Looking back as adult, she realized that what this boy had asked her to read was pornography and that something bad would probably have happened if she had not left.

Even adults often confuse intuition with anxiety. Personally, my intuition tends to speak up quietly, but relentlessly. In contrast, my anxiety tends to speak up loudly and abruptly. In my experience, intuition urges people to take a positive action of some kind – stopping and thinking about their safest choices, checking things out directly, leaving a dangerous situation, or asking for help.

In contrast, anxiety tends to immobilize people and cause them to get stuck. Common causes of anxiety are fear of the unknown, resentment about being told what to do, worry about being disliked, triggers from past bad situations, and shyness. At any age, pushing through anxious feelings in the moment takes courage and determination, but doing so helps people to grow, learn, develop independence, and stay true to their values.

Whether young people are getting a signal from their intuition or struggling with anxiety, they will benefit from having adult help. If they are not sure in the moment, we want them to pay attention to their uncomfortable feelings and make choices that will increase their safety. If this choice stops them from doing something that they want to do or understand they should do, they can get adult help in figuring out the best plan for handling that specific situation in the future.

These recommendations from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults describe how to encourage children to use their intuition.

1. Pay attention to your own intuition. When does it happen? How do you experience it? Are there times in the past when you noticed it? Did you act on it or not? The more you focus on your intuition, the better able you will be to recognize it as well as to describe how it works for you. Talk with your children about these feelings. Point out times when people seem to using their intuition in your daily life, when reading stories, or when watching movies.

2. With younger children, talk about their “Uh-Oh” feelings. In workshops, we sometimes explain this by asking, “Have you ever had an ‘uh oh!’ feeling that told you that something is not right? You might notice this feeling as butterflies in your tummy, a shiver along your arms, or a big worry in your head. Your ‘uh oh!’ feelings are a way your body has of telling you to be careful and to go get help from your adults.”

uh oh podcast image3. With older children and teens, discuss their “Intuition Warnings” or “Internal Safety Alarms.” We sometimes introduce the subject by explaining, “Intuition is a signal that you feel in your body that can warn you of possible danger. Suppose that you want to do something, or to please someone who wants you to do something, but you get an uncomfortable feeling or even a voice in your head that warns, ‘This feels wrong!’ Or, ‘Bad idea!’ Many people say they notice this kind of intuition as a sinking feeling in their guts, their hair standing on end, or a thought in their minds that just will not go away. Instead of ignoring your intuition, pay attention. Ask yourself if you are sure that the situation is safe. Ask yourself what other choices you might have. Remember that your safety and the safety of others are more important than having fun or being cool. As soon as you can, discuss these feelings with adults you trust.”

4. Help children understand how to recognize their intuition warnings. Ask, “Where do you feel ‘Uh-Oh’ Feelings or your Internal Safety Alarm in your body? Does this feel like a lump in your throat? Or, a sinking feeling in the bottom of your stomach? A shiver along your arms? A creepy feeling on the back of your neck? A thought that keeps coming back to bother you?” Help children identify in their own body where the “uh oh!” feeling shows up – it can be different for everyone!

5. Listen respectfully to children when they come to you to talk about their feelings. Act interested even if their concern seems silly to you. Avoid the temptation to lecture or over-explain. Remember that your positive response will give children the message that you think that their intuition is important. If children are feeling anxious, you want to know that too, so that you can help them learn to manage their anxiety instead of being overwhelmed by it.

Finally, we can strengthen our own intuition as well as our children’s if we notice and discuss times when our intuition is working positively. When has your intuition helped you to find something that was lost? … decide to connect with someone you don’t know? … decide to learn something new? …. reach out to someone important to you? … or to make an exciting discovery? By using this powerful sixth sense, we and our children are likely to have safer and happier lives.

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Published: January 29, 2015   |   Last Updated: May 12, 2021

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.