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Helping Our Kids Understand Their Emotions’

A parent comforting their adolescent child

The moment a baby is born every person in the room falls silent waiting in anticipation for that first cry of discomfort. A signal that they are not as content as they were moments before. Somehow that first cry is music to our ears but as our kids grow older we quickly notice our excitement turn to dread and frustration as emotions grow. Just as infants are signaling to their parents that they are having a hard time, our children and teens are letting us know through emotion, behavior, and speech that things are difficult and they may need some support navigating the experience. As parents we try our best to help them navigate those moments but even with many years of practice under our belt we often struggle. The good news is there are some steps to take to help support our kids as they navigate coping with big emotion.

Name It, To Tame It

Dr. Dan Seigel teaches that helping kids, teens, and adults label their emotions is the first step in learning to cope. When we know what type of problem we are dealing with we know what types of tools to use to work through it. Sometimes we can’t, or won’t, find the right words but we can gesture by making a face, drawing a picture, or writing down the emotion we are feeling in the moment. As your child is learning to express themselves you can verbally check in with them on what you’re seeing. For example, it looks like you are feeling very angry and disappointed, is that correct? It’s okay to let them know you’re ready to support them, they may take a few minutes to breathe before they are ready to tell you, rather than show you, what they’re feeling.

Increase Emotional Dialogue in the Home

Emotions are everywhere and the more we begin to notice them during more mild time the less overwhelming they will feel, even when they are full force. Talk about your own feelings. Help kids label the emotions of characters in books, movies, and experiences with peers, by looking at facial cues, body language, and speech. Make emotional check in’s part of everyday conversation and make sure to use the words we mean. Often we only say “mad” when what we are really feeling is a mix of emotion, “mad and sad, disappointed, and frustrated”.

Build a Tool Box of Calm Down Skills

As we first start supporting emotion recognition and regulation with our kids we may have to provide some options of calm down tools. Offer ideas that have worked for you personally and show them how it’s done (deep breathing, squish clay, scream in a pillow, sip cold water). As they begin to build mastery remind them of effective tools they have used in the past and offer lots of verbal praise as they remember to practice.

Manage Your Own Emotions

One of the best ways for kids to learn about emotion regulation is through observation. When as the parent you feel your emotions are starting to boil over it’s not only appropriate, but often helpful for all parties, for your child to see you working to calm yourself. You don’t have to lock the door or shut yourself away from view to work through your emotions.

Remember to Review and Repair

Despite trying to use all the skills above at times we fall short. The great news is one of the best things we can teach our kids about managing emotions is to learn to say sorry and take responsibility for our behavior. For example modeling with a statement like, “I’m sorry I yelled. I’m going to take some calm down breaths then we can talk about what we can both do different next time”, is a powerful teaching tool for making a change when our emotions already have begun to run away from us. Show them how to repair and problem solve together what can be done differently in the future to help everyone manage emotions.

One of the last pieces to remember is that the best tool for improvement is practice. What may seem like failure along the way is really just a chance learn about what does and doesn’t work, for you and your child. Be patient with yourself, you are all moving in the right direction.

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