Talking with a child about big emotions may feel complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Children regularly look to parents and caregivers for guidance, especially in tough situations when they’re feeling scared or overwhelmed.
Feelings are natural sensations in our bodies that convey what we need to feel safe, calm and secure. To help kids understand what’s happening inside their bodies, we must connect words to their experiences.
Start using language to describe feelings when a child is young. For example, if a 1-year-old baby is crying while waiting to be fed, you can say “I know, it’s so hard to wait sometimes.”
Perhaps you have a toddler who wants an adult pair of scissors and starts to tantrum. Try putting words to their feelings, such as: “Oh you’re mad, I know you wanted those scissors. A big part, the main part of Mommy’s job is to keep you safe, even if you’re mad at me. It is so hard to want something. I’m here for you and we will get through this feeling together.”
It’s important to work with your child on emotions throughout their entire childhood, including the teen years. This means taking the time to have ongoing conversations about how to handle emotions in a healthy way, which is called “coping.”
Establish Healthy Coping Skills Together
Teaching your child coping skills will not only help them to self-regulate, but to develop resilience in the future when they experience many challenges of life.
Resilience is the capacity to confront and cope with life’s challenges, or to maintain well-being in the face of adversity.
Let’s say your child breaks an object out of anger or gives up when they’re frustrated. Consider it an opportunity to teach your child how to do better next time, rather than shaming them or putting them in a time out. Look for teachable moments to help find healthy ways to cope with feelings.
Regulate Yourself First
We spoke with Dr. Becky Kennedy, who is known on social media as “Dr. Becky at Home.” She is a clinical psychologist who specializes in educating parents. She provides tools to strengthen parent-child relationships, decrease problem behaviors and building a more peaceful home. She offered some helpful advice to parents:
“My biggest piece of advice when you have an upset child is to focus on talking to and regulating your own feelings. What our kids need when they’re upset is not a parent who makes it better, but a parent who can try to stay calm and grounded through that feeling. This is how a child learns that a feeling is tolerable. We, as parents, don’t want to make kids feel ‘better’, we want to help them learn how to tolerate the hard things that come their way. How do kids learn that feelings are tolerable? They learn by watching a parent or caregiver be able to stay calm when they are not. Modeling this for kids helps them to understand that all feelings are both allowed and survivable.”
Parents and caregivers may feel stressed, anxious or irritable when a child is having a tantrum. Dr. Becky suggests saying the following aloud to help calm your own body:
“There’s nothing wrong with me. There’s nothing wrong with my child. I can cope with this.”
Discuss Feelings Openly
If you have a child who is having a hard time regulating, you can help by naming the feeling that they’re experiencing (frustration, angry) and give them permission to have that feeling. Validating big emotions can help kids feel safe and heard.
If you’re not sure where to start, consider saying these things to the children in your life:
“Some feelings may be uncomfortable, but all feelings are healthy.”
“There’s no such thing as positive or negative feelings.”
“I’m here for you and we will get through this together.”
Empowering your child to say how they feel and understand that it is okay to feel that way is one of the strongest ways you can prepare them for difficult situations in life.
By modeling, labeling and practicing talking about your child’s feelings, they will grow in their ability to recognize how they are feeling and be able to confidently communicate in the future.
Lynn Rosenthal is the president of The Center for Family Safety and Healing (TCFSH), which takes an integrated team approach to breaking the cycle of family violence and child abuse.
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