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