Kids may say the darndest things, but when it comes to expressing themselves, they have an uncanny knack for letting everyone around them know exactly how they feel. While it’s good to be in touch with emotions, there’s a learning curve to regulating feelings and knowing what’s socially appropriate. Experts weigh in on how to help kids manage their emotions. See what they had to say below.
Move from meltdown to mindfulness.
Most parents have a sixth sense for when a meltdown is about to erupt from our own kid. And despite previous experiences, our reflex response can range from trying to stifle our child’s emotional explosion (especially in public) or escalating the anxiety of the moment by over-reacting. Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist and author, recommends that parents take a moment to gather ourselves and to use a meltdown situation as a mindfulness teaching moment. “When our child has calmed down, it is helpful to explain to them that feelings, even intense emotions, come and go,” says Dr. Firestone. “Our emotions pass through us like waves, building and building until finally they reach their peak, crash, and subside. We can’t choose these feelings, but we can decide how we will behave when they arise.”
Learn to see beyond anger.
How parents and caregivers react to a child’s emotions have a direct and lasting impact on the development of the child’s emotional intelligence, according to experts. When a child is angry or acting out, rather than dismissing those feelings as something that’s simply negative or bad, it’s important to help children learn to manage their anger responsibly. “When we’re willing to stop and notice the deeper feelings of our anger, we find hurt and fear and sadness,” says Dr. Laura Markham, author and founder of Aha! Parenting.com. “If we allow ourselves to feel those emotions, the anger melts away. It was only a reactive defense.”
Remember that crying is OK.
Helping kids develop healthy relationships with their emotions requires building their emotional awareness and healthy coping skills. This includes understanding that crying is a normal response to being overwhelmed by strong emotions. While some children may cry more than others, parents shouldn’t confuse emotions with weakness. “Sometimes parents are embarrassed by overly emotional kids,” says Amy Morin, a licensed social worker. “A father may cringe watching his son cry after losing the baseball game or a mother may usher her daughter out of dance class at the first sign of tears. But crying isn’t a bad thing. And it is OK for kids to have intense feelings.”
Know the difference between feelings and behaviors.
Learning to express emotions in a socially appropriate manner is a major milestone for most kids, and parents and caregivers play critical roles in supporting this development. One important transition for children is understanding the difference between what they are feeling and how they are acting upon those feelings. “Tell your child that she can feel any emotion she wants—and it’s OK to feel really angry or really scared,” says Amy Morin, a licensed social worker. “But, make it clear that she has choices in how she responds to those uncomfortable feelings. So even though she feels angry, it’s not OK to hit. Or just because she feels sad, doesn’t mean she can roll around on the floor crying when it disrupts other people.”
Practice makes perfect.
Practicing positive behaviors in a neutral environment before an emotional outburst occurs can help kids understand how to manage overwhelming feelings. “Use role play to help your child work through different upsetting situations,” says Katie Sadowski, a board-certified behavior analyst. “By practicing and talking about different upsetting situations that could possibly happen, it can help your child be prepared to deal with a future upset.” Sadowski recommends encouraging your kid to independently work through as much of the problem as possible before jumping in with help or guidance.
Reduce or remove triggers for upsetting behaviors.
For kids whose emotions and outbursts may seem to be “out of control,” parents and caregivers can help alleviate the problem by reducing or eliminating triggers to a child’s upsetting behaviors. “Triggers are based on how we are wired, and also are often programmed in early childhood by the ways our parents and families behaved and responded to us,” says Debbie Pincus, therapist and creator of The Calm Parent. “Seemingly inconsequential things can ‘set us off.’ The same is true for your child.” Pincus encourages parents to gain the self-awareness of what triggers we possess, and help our children gain the self-awareness of their own triggers—then to avoid the triggers.
Read a book or watch a movie together.
According to Dawn Huebner, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety in children and their parents, and the best-selling author of eight books on the topic of managing emotions, sometimes the best approach to teaching is to encourage creativity. Reading books about emotional control with your child can serve the dual purpose of spending quality time together with the added bonus of imparting useful life skills. Additionally, watching movies like Inside Out and My Neighbor Totoro with your child can open up opportunities to talk about difficult topics like loss, grief and anger.
Model appropriate behaviors and reactions.
Children mimic everything that they see around them, including emotional responses, so it’s critically important that parents and caregivers model the appropriate behaviors and reactions that we want our children to exhibit and possess. Resisting the immediate urge to punish or yell when a child is behaving badly will help to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Instead, experts encourage parents and caregivers to help children feel safe enough to feel their emotions, even while limiting their disruptive or destructive actions and behaviors.
Feature photo: Jessica Lucia via Flickr