Helping children identify and regulate their emotions is arguably one of the most crucial responsibilities of a parent. We all feel happy, sad, angry, and scared sometimes. It’s totally normal!
This is why teaching children about emotion very early on is so important. Instead of trying to protect your child from every negative emotion, you should be embracing them and teaching them all about why they are feeling that way and the best ways to get through it.
We do a lot of this teaching at Cornerstone Academy and would like to share some tips on how to help children with their emotions. But first, why are emotions so important anyway?
Why Are Emotions Important?
Emotions tell us how we’re feeling, and that’s important. They’re like our body’s way of talking to us. They can be big or small, and they come and go. When you’re happy, you might smile and laugh. When you’re sad, you might cry. These signals help you and others know what’s going on inside you.
Learning to manage emotions, especially as a child, is a complex process. “Emotion regulation calls on so many skills, including attention, planning, cognitive development, and language development,” said Pamela Cole, Ph.D., a psychologist at Penn State University who studies emotion regulation in early childhood.
There are many factors that contribute to how children learn to manage their emotions, including genetics, environment, personality, and even how tired or hungry they are (yes, being hangry is a thing!). Children who are taught or learn to manage their emotions are more likely to do well in school and get along with others.
As you read through these tips, you may notice that some of them are geared towards how we as parents can be better about our children experiencing different emotions and not just about how our child is reacting to a situation.
Understanding & Managing Emotions
1. Identify Emotions and Ask Why
When you really think about it, most games that we play with infants have to do with teaching emotions. Think about peek-a-boo for example. When you move your hands away, you immediately show the baby the emotion of happiness and excitement, which they repeat back.
While this is a great start, you can continue to evolve this game as kids get older. Making faces in a mirror is a great way to show kids all the different emotions. When you make a happy face, say “HAPPY!”, then make a sad face and say “SAD”. This adds the next layer to your child learning more about the emotions that they experience.
The key early on is to start to identify these emotions. Give their feelings a name. Are they happy, sad, angry, or scared? This can help you understand what’s going on. Ask them to think about why they feel this way. Did something happen at school, at home, or with friends? Understanding the cause can make it easier to deal with the emotion.
2. Validate Their emotions. Don’t Dismiss Them.
As your children grow older and are able to communicate better, it becomes crucial to acknowledge and engage in conversations about their emotions as they arise. This can definitely become difficult when you hit that “toddler tantrum” stage, as oftentimes your child might be freaking out for no reason, but those are the times to really focus on what they are feeling and how to manage it.
For example, if your toddler is having a tantrum, instead of telling them to “knock it off” or that “it’s not a big deal”, approach them calmly and ask what they are feeling. “Are you feeling angry? Why is that?” “Are you feeling frustrated? Why is that?” Having these conversations calmly shows your child that they are not in trouble or that there is nothing wrong with having that emotion.
As they continue to get older, continue to work on different emotions and the appropriate ways to manage them. There are always new reasons why your child might feel happy or sad, so you always need to be working on the best ways to work through things.
3. Stay Calm and Take Deep Breaths
If we didn’t stress enough how important it is to stay calm, this is your extra reminder to keep calm! Dealing with your child’s tantrums can be challenging when it comes to modeling good behavior. If you feel like you’re losing control, take a moment to breathe and calm down before addressing the situation. Step away to another room and return when you feel calmer.
If they are too worked up to answer, just sit calmly as they work through the emotion. Once they are calm enough, ask again what they are feeling. Additionally, when you or your child is upset, taking slow, deep breaths can help calm you down. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Try it—it really works!
4. Teach Appropriate Ways to Express Emotions
A key component that needs to be worked on with kids is the expression of the emotions they are feeling.
The best example of this is, of course, the temper tantrum. Most parents are familiar with the stage of angrily kicking, hitting, and screaming that almost all kids go through at some point. What is frustrating for most parents is that a child can get set off by almost anything, from hitting their toe to their goldfish cracker breaking.
We’ve talked already about helping your child identify the emotion that they might be feeling, but now it’s time to work with them to properly manage that emotion.
In the case of a temper tantrum, giving your child alternative outward expressions is key to making sure they aren’t doing things that hurt themselves or others. Some good examples of alternate expressions are big deep breaths, squeezing a stuffed animal, or coloring hard with a crayon. The sooner you can get your child away from “damaging” expressions, the better.
After the emotion has passed, it is a good idea to review it with your child. Go back to what made them upset, validate that emotion, and discuss how they expressed it.
- “Was it a good idea to hit yourself?”
- “Was it nice to kick your sister when you were upset?”
- “What were better ways that you could have approached that emotion?”
This, among other questions, lets your child continuously improve on managing their emotions and see that there are better ways to express them.
What we tell parents is that your child’s emotions are facts. The reason why they might be feeling happy or sad could seem a little silly to you, but to them, it’s their whole world.
5. Check Your (Parents’) Expectations
Sometimes emotion management starts with you, the parent. It is important not to have unrealistic expectations for your child’s behavior, especially when they are genuinely scared, sad, upset, or stressed.
When children, or even adults for that matter, are afraid or anxious, they might not be able to successfully self-regulate like in low-stress situations. In highly stressful situations, children need more adult support. For example, if your child is nervous or scared about starting school, don’t just expect them to get over this nervousness right away. Helping console your child by encouraging them and also telling them that it is okay to be scared can actually help.
Teaching your children all about emotions and managing them early on will help save you a lot of trouble later down the road.
One more important note to remember is that your child is normal. All kids go through ups and downs and will have good days and bad days, but keeping calm as a parent and doing your best to work through things with your child will have the best results and help them master emotional management later down the line!