Helping kids navigate their emotions is a skill that may not come naturally to many parents. After all, we as parents often forget that our children are complex beings who are not born as fully developed “mini-adults.” As a parent, I often wanted my children to either not feel a particular emotion (especially sadness or anger) or to handle their emotions like an adult. Neither scenario represents effective parenting, of course. However, I confess, I tried them both unsuccessfully at various points in my parenting career.
Children are born “hard wired” to express emotions
The ability to effectively express emotions facilitates a child’s survival. A hungry child feels distressed and cries, creating feeling of distress in the parents who attempt to both soothe their child and to mitigate the distress they feel internally. Children are masters at creating the emotions they feel within the adults in their world. This is their first method of communicating and the one which comes most naturally.
While children can effectively communicate their feelings non-verbally, they are not born with the ability to manage emotions or express them verbally. Labeling emotions, managing their intensity and expressing emotions appropriately are all skills that must be taught and parents serve as the first and primary teachers. So, how does this learning occur
Helping children identify what they are feeling
The first step in “managing emotions” is accurately labeling feelings. Nicholas stomping his feet and angrily yelling “no” when asked to get ready for bed is his nonverbal expression of emotions he may not have the words to accurately express verbally. Parents who meet his behavior with “stop it” label the emotion as inappropriate and wrong.
Parents who respond, “It looks like you’re angry things aren’t going the way you expected,” give Nicholas language to match his internal experience. Nicholas now knows his feelings match the word “angry.” Helping children accurately label emotions takes time and requires remembering children act out what they are feeling, not because they want to misbehave, but because they don’t have other ways to express what is occurring internally.
Learning to manage impulses
Once a child learns to label what they are feeling, they still need age appropriate, socially acceptable ways of “managing” feelings. Feelings create intense urges that can be difficult to resist acting upon for both adults and children. The skill of managing impulses instead of acting upon them is hard work and requires parents to coach children until they develop the internal ability to coach themselves.
When an adult becomes angry about a boss’ decision at work, they coach themselves with self-talk like, “yelling at the boss might get me fired so I had better not yell” or “take three deep breaths and think about what you want to say.” This internal self-talk helps put emotions in perspective, lower emotional intensity, and determine how to express the emotions. The more intense the emotion, the more important the self-talk!
Talking about choices and consequences
Children need reassurance that what they are feeling is okay and they have choices around how to act upon their feelings. “Mommy gets angry when things don’t go her way, too” validates and normalizes the feelings. Following validation with, “What could you do to help with the sad/angry/scared feeling?” invites the child to generate possible action plans.
If Emily is angry and sad that her friend played with someone else at recess, she might generate the following options as the only options for handling her anger and sadness:
- Never play with her again.
- Hit her.
- Stay home from school tomorrow.
Asking Emily, “What do you think will happen if you choose _____?” (one of the three options) provides space to look at potential consequences for these choices.
Helping to generate other options and then look at the consequences of those options helps Emily expand her repertoire. Emily may not believe she can “tell her I’m hurt” and will need coaching and role-play in order to see this as an option she can effectively use.
Learning to identify, label and express emotions requires the same patience, teaching and practice as math, French or any other school subject. As the primary teachers in our children’s lives, we as parents should engage in this important work with our kids early and often.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.