This is a guide to show you how to help your children and adolescents deal with their strong emotions.
Unlike reading, writing and math, feelings are not something people generally expect to teach their children about. I imagine most of you will be able to work out some of the ways you learned about your own emotions when you were growing up:
● Your parents would have provided you with some role modelling in the way that they coped with their emotions.
● You would also have learnt through other’s responses to your emotions. Maybe you were encouraged not to cry, maybe when you lashed out you were able to get something you needed or maybe you were comforted when you were in distress.
● Or you might have learnt through television, books and conversations.
The way we learn to feel is complex and dynamic and by the end of this article I hope you will have some ideas about how you can help your child or adolescent learn to navigate their difficult feelings.
Firstly, I think it is important for parents (or just everyone) to understand that not all people experience emotions in the same way. Everyone has a different level of emotional sensitivity. It can be helpful to think of emotional sensitivity as a continuum or scale that everyone can be placed on. Think about your family. Where would you place them on the emotional sensitivity scale. Who do you think feels more strongly and who feels less?
Someone’s emotional sensitivity is not fixed across their lifetime. Most of us can think back to our teenage years and remember being more emotionally sensitive than what we are now. Given that some people feel more strongly than others, it makes sense that sometimes it can be very difficult to understand where your child or teenager is coming from emotionally. We often see different reactions in others to what we might feel ourselves. Sometimes we dismiss “over reactions” in others. But despite a person having a bigger response than what we might have, it doesn’t make it wrong, it just means they feel and experience the world differently to us. Which is ok and even good. If the world was full of people who felt in the same way, it would be quite a robotic place to live.
What I’m trying to say is that if we approach parenting, or even people in general from this understanding, it can help us to be curious about where they are coming from and to see their experience of any situation as valid. It can even help us to help them to understand, tolerate and regulate their strong emotions.
The overall goal of an interaction when a child is in distress is to have the child or adolescent feel comforted and safe to talk about their distressing situation. Ideally, we want them to come to an understanding about the link between their feelings and the situation. We want them to accept their feelings, see how their feelings make sense and feel that someone else understands them too. The following are some basic tips for things that you can try to help your child or adolescent when they are in distress.
● Be genuine. Portray an attitude of openness, concern and curiosity.
● Provide physical comfort if necessary.
● Give them your attention and listen, try to put down whatever else you are doing.
● Try to mirror their emotion subtly. But not so much that they feel bad for making you feel bad. This shows them what they are feeling. It shows them that you get them.
● Label, identify or guess their feelings. With some kids it can also help to talk about what makes you think they are feeling a certain way. This helps them to recognise what is happening with their body and behaviour when they are distressed.
○ “You seem sad”
○ “You look frustrated”
○ “Hey, what’s happening? You don’t seem ok.”
○ “It seems like you’re feeling really sad at the moment, I can tell something isn’t ok because your shoulders are down, you’re not playing or talking like you usually do and it looks like you’ve been crying.”
● Acknowledge and validate their feelings when they do express them.
○ Child: “I’m just really sad.”
○ Parent: “I bet you are, given everything that’s happening right now.”
○ “No wonder you’re frustrated.”
○ “Wow! That’s frustrating.”
○ “That’s really sad.”
○ Even if you do not agree with other aspects of a child’s story or behaviour, they are always entitled to their feelings. Validating their emotion is not the same as validating their decisions or behaviour.
● To get more information prompt with brief summaries and use pauses rather than questions. This can help the child to expand on what they have already said.
○ Parent: “So the teacher asked you a question in math and you couldn’t give her an answer…… (pause).”
○ Child: “And that’s when Jane called me stupid.”
● Summarise by helping make sense of what they have said in terms of their emotions. In your summaries try not to add new things unless you have a really good idea of where they are coming from.
○ Parent: “So when Jane called you stupid you felt embarrassed and sad and that’s when you ran out of the classroom.”
You know your children better than anyone so try to see these guidelines as general; be creative and don’t feel the need to use them in any particular order, or even use them all every time.
Good luck with your practice!
Denham, S. A. (2007). Dealing with feelings: How children negotiate the worlds of emotions and social relationship. Cognition, Brain and Behaviour, 11, 1-48.
Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (2012). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. Picadilly Press: London.
Siegel, D.J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. Scribe: Victoria, Australia.
Share this Post