*First published on Medium.com on October 29, 2020
It can be hard to tolerate anger, sadness, jealousy, selfishness, shyness, or other challenging emotions and behaviors our children express. Find out why it is so important to not just tolerate them, but embrace them.
When children express big and negative emotions, it can be very upsetting, triggering, embarrassing, and overall frustrating for parents and others, especially since it’s not always clear how to respond and how to help. We usually just want it to stop as quickly as possible. When children have tantrums in public, or even when a child doesn’t say hi to someone, we can feel that they are being rude, then scold them. When a child doesn’t want to share, we can become indignant that they are not being kind to others. When a child protests bedtime, we find ourselves doing anything and everything possible to get them to comply. When a child is sad because a friend moved away, we try to cheer them up and remind them of all of the other friends that still live nearby, wanting to restore them to their hap
py selves as soon as possible. We try to bring them back to that state of joyful well-being we enjoy so much, but should restoring them to their happy selves really be the goal? Might I suggest a better goal: help your child become aware of their emotions, process them, and learn strategies to cope with how they feel. Once all of this happens, their happy selves can truly and
authentically shine, but only when they are ready.
Tuning into How Your Child Experiences Your Presence
What we might label as negative feelings and emotions, such as anger, sadness, jealousy, or rejection, are a natural part of the human experience.
We move through them at every life stage, especially during times of high stress. As adults, we witness children experience these emotions for the very first time. We are with them as they learn to recognize and manage the big feelings that seem to overwhelm their minds and bodies. As our children acquaint themselves with these new feelings, we want to be very mindful about how we teach them to cope, and how their overall attitude toward feelings — in themselves and others — develops.
Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash
Do you show disapproval when your child shows shyness? Does irritation or frustration arise when you see that they are angry? Do you express worry or anxiety when they are sad? Do you jump to disappointment when they are jealous of a classmate or don’t want to share?
When children express strong opinions, feelings, or desires, it’s important to note what messages they are receiving from the adults around them. We want to teach children that it is normal and okay to feel all of their feelings and emotions, from the negative ones to the positive ones. We don’t want them to think there is something wrong with them or shameful about their behavior when they experience these reactions. We also don’t want them to feel rushed to get over the feeling because others simply cannot tolerate anything but happiness.
We want to teach them how to handle their emotions, from the negative to the positive. We want them to become aware, mindful, and resilient.
How do we set them up for social-emotional success?
First, show them that you love and accept them even when they are out of control or struggling. This is called being with. If you demonstrate for your child that their big feeling is normal, this allows them to focus on their experience of the emotion itself, rather than spiraling into shame, or the worry that something is terribly wrong with them, or that their relationships are in jeopardy as a result of their feeling or behavior. We want them to feel confident and assured that it will pass, that it is just a matter of time, together you can handle it, and everything will (eventually) be okay.
The goal is to show them that they are not alone with their emotions. To feel unconditional love and support, even during the hard times. Ultimately, this will lead to experiencing the adults in their lives as understanding, empathic, respectful, and tolerant people, which in turn puts them at ease and provides good modeling.
Second, we want kids to learn how to identify their feelings. For example, what do anger and sadness actually feel and look like? What happens in your body when these feelings come up? What kinds of thoughts come to mind? Children can learn how to identify their feelings, but they need to be taught how to do this. When children are young, we want to sit with them while they are experiencing a feeling and name what we are observing. We need to tune into them and show them how to tune into themselves. Guy Hernandez, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and host of Therapized Podcast suggests starting this process by teaching kids how to recognize positive emotions first, “aim to identify the observable responses in body language (i.e. smiling, laughing, etc.) then explore the internal bodily sensations…” Once a child has “demonstrated the understanding of identifying the pleasant emotions and how they manifest in the world, we move toward the more difficult big emotions such as anger, fear, worry, guilt, shame, and so on.”
Once children become more aware of what they are experiencing and what is happening in their bodies, we are ready to help them name it. This gives them the tools to communicate their inner world to others. When they are in school or other social settings, being able to communicate how they feel will be even more necessary. Developing this awareness and language also teaches them to recognize and understand what others are feeling, which helps them develop empathy and the ability to mentalize.
Third, we want kids to learn great coping strategies. How do we teach this?
Adopting healthy coping strategies starts with co-regulation, then becomes self-regulation. Co-regulation is defined as warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching, and modeling children need to “understand, express, and modulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”
These warm and consistent interactions happen in their relationships with their parents, caregivers, teachers, siblings, and other adults. As children are consistently engaged in co-regulation, they develop self-regulation skills. According to Understood.com, Self-regulation “allows kids to manage their emotions, behavior and body movement when they’re faced with a situation that’s tough to handle.” Through co-regulation, children may learn to use breathing techniques, take a walk, mindfulness, listen to music, dance, talk about their feelings, distract themselves, get a hug, or any other strategy to bring calm to their minds and bodies. Once the mind and body are calm, they will regain access to the logical part of their brain and be able to engage in conversation about what happened. It is impossible to reason, process, or analyze anything when we are still dysregulated, this goes for children and adults alike!
Lastly, now that the child is calm and regulated, they may be ready to discuss what happened. This is where we help them develop their self-awareness skills and capacity for self-reflection. What triggered the big feeling? What behaviors resulted? Did they notice their body sending “warning signs” that the big emotion was escalating? Can you help your child reflect on what they did to return to a state of calm? Go over the pros and cons of the coping strategy, did it work for them? What other coping strategies might we try next time?
This is how we want to respond to “big” or “negative” emotions in children. We want to embrace them and use them as opportunities to connect and teach healthy and adaptive ways to behave. Engaging in this repetitive pattern of interaction with your child will set them up for success when it comes to overcoming challenges, tolerating stress, building resiliency, and cultivating strong and healthy relationships with others.
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