Giving children coping skills for their emotions is one of the most important tasks of parenting. Children lacking these tools may blame others for how they feel or demonstrate how they’re feeling in inappropriate ways. If a child has no words to verbalize their intense emotions, they’re at risk for being emotionally stunted for the rest of their lives. Emotionally arrested adults lack the ability to self-soothe when they’re upset, or to delay lashing out on an impulse.
The following are 12 tips to give your child tools for handling their uncomfortable feelings.
- Use feeling words when speaking to your child. “Sad” and “disappointed” are feeling words. “What were you thinking?” and “You never listen!” are not.
- Be more curious and less educating. Ask your child to elaborate about their uncomfortable feelings. An example of this is to say, “You seem sad, tell me about it,” not “That’s not a good reason to feel that way.” Don’t shame or scold your child about their feelings, even if your goal is to make them feel better.
- Don’t keep score. “Well, now you know how that feels,” “Well, if you hadn’t …” and “That happened to me and I didn’t feel that way!” are statements that teach kids their feelings are wrong. This may lead to them feeling bad about themselves and becoming defensive.
- Talk about negative emotions being transitory, like the weather, the tides, seasons, or the phases of the moon. Feelings will change; they have to. It’s okay to feel bad. Respect the uncomfortable feeling and remember it will change.
- Get a poster of emojis with the feelings written below each face. Refer to it often.
- Every evening, take turns talking about the pleasant and unpleasant feelings you each experienced that day. Focus on the emotions such as “proud,” “frustrated,” etc., and put less focus on the story or circumstance preceding each feeling.
- Talk about how you handle your own uncomfortable feelings. Perhaps you go to the gym, journal, run, talk to a friend, read, garden, or meditate.
- Help your child write a list of things they can do when they feel uncomfortable emotions. The list may include listening to music, drawing outside with chalk, singing, doing a puzzle, playing a game, writing a letter/email, writing a gratitude list, taking pictures, dancing, talking about it, shooting baskets, hitting a punching bag, skating, coloring, baking something, or making a card for someone. Keep the list where they can use it when they’re upset.
If you handled a situation poorly, apologize and then model forgiving yourself. How you handle your emotions will be your child’s most influential guide.
- Create an art corner with supplies so your child can draw, paint, color, collage, or sculpt clay to illustrate how they’re feeling. “Show me how you feel” exercises can encourage your child to use a creative outlet.
- Help your child start an “altered book.” Buy a secondhand hard-bound book, then glue 10 to 20 pages together at a time so the book has thick pages. Show your child how to cut out magazine pictures and collage over the book cover. Then your child can open their personalized altered book and create a collage, painting, or drawing of a feeling on each page. They can add to this work of art whenever they’re feeling a strong emotion. Be sure to stay curious and interested if your child is young, while giving older children and teens privacy to express themselves.
- Do outdoor physical activities with your child. Such activities may include skateboarding, surfing, soccer, catch, tennis, shooting baskets, swimming, yoga at the park, kayaking, hiking, bicycling, rock climbing, etc. Have your child rate an uncomfortable feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 before the activity, then again after they’ve exercised. Even if they only go from a 9 to an 8, praise them for lowering the negative emotion on their own.
- Volunteer together. Model for your child the inner peace that comes from giving back and helping others who are less fortunate. Activities may include helping at a soup kitchen, taking supplies to a homeless shelter, helping out at an animal shelter, making gift bags to give those asking for help at the freeway off-ramp, going on a house-building mission, adopting an elderly person in an assisted-living home, etc. Make giving to others a regular activity. Participating in generosity and feeling appreciated is one of the best antidotes when feeling bad.
Be kind to yourself if you don’t make the most of every opportunity to teach your child about emotions. You will have many chances before they grow up and leave the home. If you handled a situation poorly, apologize and then model forgiving yourself. How you handle your emotions will be your child’s most influential guide.
For more ideas for helping your child manage their emotions, contact a licensed therapist in your area who works with children and parents.
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