How to help children manage their emotions in positive ways
How do you respond when your children, or other adults are angry, sad, frustrated, or excited? Our feelings about emotions have a significant impact on how we parent and how we manage our child’s emotions.
In this article, I'm going to share my thoughts about the importance of expressing all emotions and how this can have a positive impact on your children’s behaviour.
Why are emotions important?
All emotions are ok and need to come out. It is very important for us not to suppress them and also for our children to see that it's normal to show a range of emotions. Many studies have shown that internalising emotions can have a detrimental effect on your physical well-being, leading to poor health.
Emotions are our body's compass. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, of the world-renowned Gottman Institute, describe it like this:
“From cross-cultural studies, we know that almost every person on the planet has the same seven basic emotions and these emotions serve an important purpose. They guide us as we create our path through life. What many parents don’t understand is that emotion processing and reasoning are tightly integrated in the brain.
"It is impossible for a person to be reasonable or rational without emotions because the frontal lobes of the brain (part of the cerebral cortex) process both reason and emotions. Reason cannot exist without emotions; the two work in tandem. Reasoning and problem solving require intuition to distinguish what is important from what isn’t, and intuition requires emotion. This means that emotions are necessary”.
How do we help our children to regulate their emotions?
Regulation of emotions comes through understanding them rather than suppressing them. Many children act out their emotions because they don’t really understand how they are feeling, or why they are feeling it.
As adults, we need to help them to gain this understanding and express their emotions in a positive way, or self-soothe. This won’t be instant, but over time they will be able to regulate their own behaviour.
Children need to see that emotions are normal, by us as their parents showing our emotions, in a positive way. So, if we yell when we are angry, or frustrated, it’s likely that our children will do the same. If we share verbally how we are feeling and that we need some quiet time to calm down, they will be more likely to learn that this is an appropriate response.
Helping children to recognise, label and regulate their emotions can start at a young age, using simple words to describe how they are feeling – sad, mad, glad etc. As they get older, and their vocabulary widens, they will be able to use more mature ways of describing how they are feeling.
The challenge many of us have, is that we get triggered by others’ emotions and so try to suppress them. We sometimes feel fear when they get angry and so our natural instinct is to stop them being angry. How we feel about ourselves and others showing emotions is often based on what we experienced as a child and whether our parents dismissed, disapproved, or welcomed our show of emotions.
All emotions are ok, not all behaviours are ok
There is a direct link between emotions and behaviours; an event occurs, this causes us to give it meaning and this affects how we feel. How we feel then determines our behaviour.
So, as an example, you might tell your child they are not able to do something. The meaning they apply is that you are being unfair, and this results in them being frustrated, or angry. They behave in the only way they know how, their learned behaviour, which could be slamming the doors, or trashing their room. This, of course is not ok.
How can you respond?
Try responding with ‘what’, rather than ‘why’. Many of us immediately jump to why: ‘why are you doing this’? Or we tell them to calm down (and we know that no one in the history of calming down has ever done so by being told to calm down!)
Describe what you see and how you feel about it. "I can see that you are trashing your room and that you are angry. Feeling angry about what I have said is ok, but it is not ok to trash your room’.
Being able to label emotions as a child will, over time, enable them to share how they are feeling verbally rather than needing to act out their feelings. Helping your child to recognise and label their own emotions comes through connection, understanding and empathy, alongside setting boundaries and limits.
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