The Most Important Gift- 5 Keys to Teaching Our Children How to Handle Difficult Emotions
One of the most important gifts you can give your child is the ability to access and regulate her emotions. A child that can manage difficult emotions is more likely to succeed and enjoy life. She does not cower in the face of difficult emotions, and knows how to use them as information. Also, she has access to the full spectrum of the emotional palette, which also includes joy, healthy pride, and excitement. So, how do you impart a healthy attitude towards emotions?
Below are five keys to helping your child deal with difficult emotions as she grows up under your care. They will come in particularly handy during these more trying times while kids are having their own emotional reactions to the global crisis.
If you’re like many people, the points below are not necessarily easy to carry out. Many of us grew up in homes that feared emotions, where the mantra was “don’t share your difficult feelings here”. Many families encourage only positive feelings in their children. In many homes, anger is not an emotion you express. Loss is not an emotion to share. “Let’s keep things joyous and positive”, “You’re fine, that’s not a big deal!”, “You’re overreacting”, “I don’t see what you’re so mad about” are common sentiments. These are familial attitudes towards emotions that are passed down through generations and are even part of our culture that often applauds working hard and just bearing it! Hopefully, you’re reading this post because you know that avoiding emotions is not the way to go.
So what should you do to stop the unhealthy transmission of the fear of emotions? Here are 5 ideas:
1) Develop comfort with your own emotions-
Embrace emotions rather than fear them. See them as part of the human experience. When you allow your own emotions, your own suffering, you are connected to the human race. Acknowledge your own emotions when they occur, and offer yourself the compassion you deserve. Be a model to your children for how difficult emotions are handled. This doesn’t mean that you let your emotions dictate your life, or that you express strong emotions in front of your children. It just means that you are comfortable having your own emotions.
2) Show interest in your child’s emotional life and listen to her feelings–
When your child is having an emotional reaction notice it, and approach your child with EMPATHY, even if their reaction is inconvenient to you. If you approach your child with empathy (most of the time), your child will grow to trust that you understand them and have their best interest in mind instead of experiencing you as someone who will ignore, resist, or distract them from their strong emotions. This also means allowing your child to be angry with you, or disappointed, or critical etc. Try to understand where they are coming from, even if you disagree, or even if it’s impossible for you to offer the child what her emotions are telling her she wants.
People are often afraid that if they give their child’s emotions air time, the irrational feelings will take over. That does not have to be the case! You are just trying to understand their point of view- you make sure not to lose your own, more adult perspective. In fact, the child needs you to remain calm and strong while they are having their emotional storm. If you empathize to the point of experiencing your child’s emotions, this can be very scary for the child. The safety, and calm assurance that they sense in your presence is precisely what allows them to break down and get to the other side of their emotion. (Spoiler Alert: if you’re that safe person for your child, they’ll keep their big emotions inside all day and then wait for your attention in order to finally have their feelings.)
3) Bask in the afterglow of the deepened connection between you and your child, and delight in the sparks of creativity that ensue–
After your child has been upset for a while, and she is nearing the end of her feeling, she will suddenly notice you and your warm-loving presence! “Wow, you stayed with me through some really hard feelings”, and it suddenly registers.You may want to say something to convey the closeness that you feel, or extend eye contact, and loving touch, if it feels that your child is receptive. (Do not force it upon them!). Children are surprisingly creative with their declarations of love and appreciation, and you can follow their lead, especially since the form this takes will depend greatly on your child’s age.
Beyond the deepening of the connection, your child may also suddenly have bursts of insight, creativity or enthusiasm. It may shock you how they go from feeling terrible, to playing happily, or even tackling a new project that had previously seemed impossible.
4) Take action based on the emotion, if necessary–
Once the emotion is expressed, it’s important to decide whether an action is necessary. Often times, your child’s emotion just needed air time, and the emotion dissipates just as quickly as it appeared. Other times, action may be necessary. Perhaps there is a problem that needs solving. Your child may want your help in problem solving, or not. In fact, after working through their feeling, they may muster the courage and ingenuity to solve it on their own. It can be a great relief once a course of action is decided upon. Here are some examples of actions taken after an upset: talking to a friend to mend the relationship, talking to a teacher about a miscommunication, reaching out for help to a therapist, finding a constructive outlet for anger, changing a certain habit, or family rule.
3) Know when to LABEL your child’s emotions for them, and when not to–
Emotions can be overwhelming. When having feelings, you are tuning into a physiological and emotional experience. During the experience, your child needs to be held (either literally or figuratively speaking), loved, and listened to thoroughly. They do not need you to try to talk them out of the experience- they need you to accompany them through it. If your child accesses a feeling, and you immediately narrate what they’re experiencing, you may get it wrong and you may inadvertently take your child out of the feeling too quickly.
After the intensity of the emotion has faded, and the child has access to their prefrontal cortex (thinking) again, talking about the experience and labeling the emotions can be very helpful. At this point, you’re giving your child the vocabulary to be able to describe an important part of their life experience- now they can begin to reflect on their emotional life. In this fashion, they build neural circuitry between the emotional parts of the brain, and the rational, thinking part of the brain, as Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson describe in their book “The Whole Brain Child”.
How were emotions experienced in your family of origin? How are they experienced in your family now? Given the current challenges of the pandemic, do you and your kids have access to their feelings about it all?
I’d love to hear more about how you have been managing your own and your child’s emotions during this time.