Parents sometimes get so caught up in the physical demands of childrearing (getting kids ready for school, providing meals, making sure homework is done, taking them to lessons, getting them into bath and bed), that they can easily forget that there is a whole other side of parenting that is equally important and that must be attended to: the child’s inner world – the world of feelings. Helping children identify and manage their emotions is a critical task for any parent. So much of a child’s behavior is driven by emotions; frustrated children may become aggressive, frightened children may refuse to cooperate at bedtime, socially anxious children may isolate themselves, and so forth. Indeed, young children are prone to react emotionally to every situation rather than think about what they ought to do. Kids of every age are prone to experience periods of overwhelm or insecurity, moodiness or anxiety. Parents can play a major role in helping kids to negotiate the world of upsetting emotions.
How can parents help children deal with their feelings? Consider the following:
Be Open about Your Own Emotions
Kids feel free to explore and express their emotions only to the extent that they feel their family is open to it. So teach by example. If you feel sad, then express to the family that you are sad: “The ending to that movie was so sad that it made me cry!” If you are angry, assertively (that is, politely but firmly) express that you are angry: “I am really upset that you didn’t listen to me!” When you are feeling anxious, say so: “I’m worried about Grandpa. He fell twice last week.” When children see that their parents are comfortable having and speaking about emotions, they will learn that feelings are just a normal part of the human experience. Parents who tell children to “stop crying” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of” accidentally encourage kids to bottle up their emotions.
Welcome Your Child’s Feelings
Differentiate between behaviors and feelings. You won’t be able to accept all of your child’s behaviors, but you can certainly accept all of his feelings. Let’s say that your youngster is mad at his brother for breaking the tower he was building. The anger is understandable and acceptable. However, punching the brother is completely unacceptable. Anger is a feeling – always acceptable. Punching is a behavior – and behaviors may or may not be acceptable. Is your child whining because he doesn’t like the meal you prepared? Whining is a behavior and one that happens to be unacceptable. Not liking dinner (feeling disappointed or frustrated) is a feeling and is acceptable. Your response can welcome the feeling while correcting the behavior. For instance, “I’m sorry you don’t like tonight’s dinner. I know that you’re disappointed and frustrated – you wanted something else. It is not O.K. to whine like that. Just tell me how you feel in words and I’ll try to help you out.” No matter what your child is feeling, accept the feeling without criticism or correction. This is easy to say but really hard to do. Sometimes your child feels things that you might find frightening. For instance, your child might say things like, “No one likes me” or “I’m so ugly” or “I don’t want to finish my degree. It’s just too hard” Your job in all of these cases is to accept the feelings BEFORE you try to educate the child. “No one likes you? That’s a sad feeling!” “You feel ugly? That’s really hard! “You don’t want to finish your degree? You sound very discouraged.” As the child responds, continue naming feelings as long as possible. Don’t jump in to correct the youngster because that will stop him from trying to share feelings with you in the future. When your kids have angry feelings, teach them the right way to express those feelings. How feelings are expressed is a behavior. Yelling, for example is a behavior, as is talking in a normal tone of voice. Teach kids that yelling, name calling, swearing, throwing, kicking and so on are all unacceptable ways to express the feeling of anger. On the other hand, saying “I’m angry” or “I’m really upset” or “I am so frustrated” are all valid ways to verbally express anger. Teach them to name their feeling and ask for what they want. It is normal for both parents and children to feel frustrated. You can certainly name, accept and validate your child’s upset and frustration. You cannot, however, accept his abusive behavior.
Use Pictures to Help Your Child Identify Feelings
When young children have difficulty articulating what they are going through, it’s best to turn to non-verbal aids. One such aid is a set of pictures depicting the different kinds of emotions. Instead of asking children to tell you how they feel, encourage kids to point at the card that illustrates the emotion they are going through. Parents can also use the cards as a prompt when trying to figure out what their child is feeling. Some parents put a “feeling wheel” on the refrigerator where a child can easily see it and use it to describe what he is experiencing.
Make it a Habit to Ask Children How They Feel
Very few parents take the effort to deliberately help their kids to identify what they are feeling at a given point in time. But there are many occasions when a focus on feelings can help increase a child’s emotional intelligence. Occasions when kids are happy, such as when a playmate comes over, can be an opportunity to teach kids about positive emotions. It looked like you guys were having a blast? Was it fun having Steve over?” Occasions that are sad, such as the death of a pet, can be opportunities to instruct about negative emotions. “I can’t believe that Fluffy died! I feel so sad. How about you? How are you doing?” By inviting open discussion of feelings you make it easy for your children to access their own and others emotions and become emotionally intelligent.