How to help your child deal with emotions?

Difficult emotions – How to help your child deal with them?

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What’s wrong with emotions?

The fact that children of all ages find it difficult to control their emotions is well known to every parent. In most cases, it isn’t easy for adults either. For children and teens, it is even more challenging.

Why is it so hard?

First of all, children’s brains are still in the process of development and maturing. It is now accepted that the brain develops throughout the whole life. However, the period of the most intense brain growth is early childhood. After puberty, the number of new connections in the grey matter drops. With its development, the brain gains the ability to feel more types of emotions, which is always something new for a baby, a toddler, or a teen. The child first finds out that something new is happening to him/her. Only then can they learn how to deal with it. Since the child has been around for a shorter time than adults, he/she has had less time to tame that variety of feelings.

Still, too few parents teach their children about emotions. If we learn during our young years that some emotions are bad and we should repress them rather than accept them, we may still have problems with our emotional regulation as adults. This may lead to e.g. uncontrolled aggression outbursts such as yelling.

8 basic emotions

It may be easier to accept emotions if we first learn to name them. According to Robert Plutchik’s theory (1980), there are 8 basic emotions: fear, anger, joy, sadness, surprise, anticipation, trust, and disgust. These are the basic ones and that means they are experienced not only by adult humans but also by infants and animals as well. You can read more about this theory in the article by Neel Burton M.D. in Psychology Today.

Plutchik's wheel of emotions
Plutchik’s wheel of emotions shows the 8 basic emotions and more complex ones that can be derived from them.

Some people say emotional states are either positive or negative, but I prefer to call them, after a friend of mine, pleasant and unpleasant. When we are happy, we usually want it to stay like that. When we are sad, we want our situation to change, we don’t accept what is happening to us. Similarly, we feel bad when we get angry. It is important to accept, that every emotion is information that our body sends to us. When you’re angry, it means your body is ready to fight. Anger is energy. It only depends on you whether you use it to yell on your child, or to do something constructive, go for a run or tidy up for instance.

How can we help?

1. Learn your own emotions

Before talking to your child about how they feel, it might be a good idea to think of your own emotions. Try to become more self-conscious, more mindful about what you feel in various situations. You might also try to sit down and think when was the last time you felt e.g. anticipation or disgust, or any other emotion. Remember, you have your years of experience, which your child lacks. Think of your reactions, what you did right and what you could have done differently. After such an exercise, you will find it easier to empathize with your child.

2. Talk about how they feel

Finding the names for emotions is quite a challenging task for a toddler, so they must be helped at this stage. If you make talking about feelings a habit in your family, your children will grow more self-aware, empathetic, and will find it easier to manage their own emotions in the future.

3. Accept the emotions no matter what they are

Make sure, you don’t criticize or assess your children’s emotions. Just acknowledge them and say it’s OK to feel that way. It is OK to correct behavior, but we cannot change how another person feels. What’s more, when we reject an emotion, it stays, but cannot be dealt with. Later on, it will burst out in the most unexpected moment and way. If we, on the other hand, accept an emotional state and feel it, it will pass with time. There are various ways of dealing with certain unpleasant emotions that I will cover in separate posts.

There’s another article (by coincidence it’s also from Psychology Today) about helping kids control their emotions by Laura Markham Ph.D., a psychologist.

Do you find it easy to talk about emotions? Do you have a habit of talking with your children about them? Tell us your story in the comments below. Remember, this way you’re helping other parents, too.

20 thoughts on “Difficult emotions – How to help your child deal with them?

  1. I have 2 very sensitive kiddos. Especially my oldest. I try to just tell them that it’s okay to feel that way but also give them tools to help them move past things like fear, anger, anxiety, etc

    1. Yes, thank you for taking the time to read this post and comment. What you’ve pointed out is very important and unfortunately very few parents have the knowledge and skills to do that. I am going to write separate posts about certain tools to manage various difficult emotions. I hope this will help those who need it and find it important. I am also thinking about a bigger project on this matter, but hush! for now.

    1. I found it useful myself, and that’s why I’m sharing it now. It helped me analyze my own feelings and overcome my emotional problems. Now I’m using it to design activities for my toddler to help him.

  2. This was a beautiful read. Parents should learn to accept and understand their own emotions to help their children better.

  3. Great post Natalia! I wish I would have known this when raising my two boys. My younger son was a handful, and I remember getting upset with him when he had outbursts, and saying it wasn’t appropriate behavior, but never tried to explain to him what he was feeling and how to deal with it. Your post can be so helpful to all parents! Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. This is what many parents of nowadays adults didn’t learn, because they didn’t have the right model. Fortunately, I am observing a steady shift as parents are becoming more aware of various complexities of child-rearing. I want to help them by making this knowledge more accessible.

  4. This is such an important topic. I’m so glad you posted this. Emotional intelligence/skillfulness in managing emotions is a vital life skill. I love the movie Inside Out for teaching this to children, and even adults!

  5. I really like the point to think of emotions as “pleasant and unpleasant” rather than positive or negative! That’s something we’ve tried to do since having kids. Feelings don’t have morality, they just are. We’ve found that lots of Buddhist inspired children’s books are great for teaching this, if anyone is interest. 🙂

  6. This is really good! I never really took into account how children can express emotions and how their brain is still developing! Thanks so much for the insight!

    1. Thank you for your comment and your time. It is amazing how things look different if we view them from another person’s perspective. I myself often forget about it and then someone tells me and then it’s an Aha!-moment for me.

  7. This is such an empowering post. I get very annoyed by people who don’t allow their children to experience certain emotions by stating that they’re children, so they don’t get to act that way or show that emotion. It’s a battle I face in my family where I have to advocate for my son and tell them that he’s only 3 and learning how to show and deal with his emotions. Excellent post.

    1. Thank you. People simply don’t know, because they were raised in the culture of rejecting some of our emotions. When a child cries, we tend to say “It’s ok, don’t cry”. Well, if he’s crying then it’s not ok for him. This is extremely important to talk about it and make people aware and I want to thank you for your courage and persistence in that.

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