We have opportunities throughout our day to help our children better understand their emotional selves. Toddlers, for example, are as close to ‘mood swings’ personified as shifting from the sunshine and giggles of one moment to the torrential anger and sobbing of the next. In fact, even past our toddler years, we shift from one emotion to the next based on events, interactions, thoughts, and disposition. Recent studies actually show that when your child is showing their emotional self is the perfect time to teach your child the lessons that help them develop emotional intelligence. But how do you do that? It’s not as difficult as it sounds.
Firstly, always listen to your child with empathy, and make sure the way you talk to them reflects that empathy. Always treat your child’s emotions like they’re important, even if you think they’re just going to shift moods in another five minutes. Your child needs to feel like his emotions are valid, and like you understand them. A good way to do that is to approach a situation with, “It’s really (frustrating, sad, hurtful) when X, isn’t it?” Replace X in this scenario with whatever is upsetting him. This is called using validation. This is as opposed to the common parental response, “That’s no reason to be upset.” This ends up minimizing your child’s experience. Often when minimized we feel misunderstood and you child may show you stronger versions of the emotion in efforts to be understood.
Another thing to do is to repeat his emotions back to him in slightly different words, to show your understanding and maybe even to give your child a new way to express that emotion. I call this the rule of 7s. This means that in any given experience where you are talking about emotions, you try to use the appropriate emotion word 7 times. (i.e “Wow, that sounds so difficult. It must be difficult for you when you feel that people don’t listen to your ideas. It makes you really upset……so upset. Its so hard to feel ignored.”)The more he learns how to express his emotions, the less he’ll feel he need to resort to dramatic venting behaviors. Once you’re sure you understand what he is saying, use stories from your own life to relate. For example, if your son is upset because his father got a new job and isn’t home as much, tell him a story about how your ‘Daddy’ worked a lot, too, and how your parents made you feel better. This helps your child understand that everyone has these same feelings that he or she is having, and it also helps them feel more ‘grown up’. Try not to take away his pain by saying “its all going to be okay,” rather allow your child to feel the emotions that he is feeling.
Keep in mind that talking through emotions works with kids just the same as it works with adults. So instead of punishing your child for a tantrum, which might stop the behavior but probably upsets him even more, try talking to him about it. Why does he feel this way? What emotions are behind it? Tantrums before doctor’s appointments are a good example of this. He may be throwing a tantrum, but it’s likely because he’s scared. Talk him down from the tantrum, and discuss what it was that he was upset about to maybe help him be more emotionally mature about it in the future. If you child has trouble articulating the emotions behind his actions, go ahead and help him understand himself better by saying something like, “It seems like you are scared. That makes sense to me…..I get scared when I go to the doctor too.” You also have an opportunity to share with your child how you manage your own emotions. This might sound like, “I get scared before going to the dentist, by I just tell myself…It’s going to be okay. I can read a magazine there. I know that Dr. __ is there to help me.”
Instead of presenting alternative options to your child’s negative or rash behavior, give him the opportunity to think it through himself. Say, “I know that you’re upset about (event), I know you can make a better decision then (negative behavior). Let’s think about it together and see if there is a better way.” Posing thing like that makes him think about the scenario, whereas otherwise he could quite easily let your words go in one ear and out the other. If he can’t think of anything, you can give him some options, like talking out emotions with the person who upset him (“I get mad when you X.”) or simplified ways to manage anger (“counting to ten”). You can even put your child in the position of observing you talk about his experiences with another person. This allows your child a chance to borrow your problem solving communication in a future situation.
Finally, you want to make sure you’re setting a good example in your own words and behaviors. If you’re teaching your child not to use yelling to manage his emotions, that means you can’t yell either. If you’re teaching him to use “I feel (emotion) when you (activity).” statements to express negative emotions, use that same format when you’re upset with him. It will sink in much faster if he sees his parents doing the things that they’re telling him. Make sure, too, that when he’s expressing emotional maturity, you praise him for it so that he feels good on a personal level about the way that he’s behaving. This might sound like, “You should be proud of yourself (insert specific details).
Don’t wait–you can effect emotional growth in your child. If you are feeling troubled by your child’s emotional development, we can support you and your child’s growth. Let the therapists at The Family Guidance & Therapy Center help you. Call us today at 619-600-0683.