How to Help Your Child Handle His Emotions

It was a big surprise to us when our second son popped out with fiery red hair. You've heard the rumors about red hair and a temperament to match, no? Well, the rest of us each have brown hair on our heads and probably about average emotional control {whatever that means}. The little one took us on a fiery trip to tantrum land and back almost every day for his first few years.

He simply has very strong feelings about things -- both good and bad. 

And so, out of necessity, I began studying into the idea of self-control and managing one's emotions -- hoping to find a way to raise my spitfire that would turn out better for both of us. The trouble, I soon discovered, is that this generation of parents is finding it harder and harder to translate lessons of emotional literacy and self-control to their children.

  • Human relationships are becoming more and more disengaged with the substitution of email or texting for actual "face time". 
  • Young people are learning social skills from media and technology instead of from their parents. 
  • Kids aren't playing rough and tumble outdoors as much as they are interacting with each other using parallel handheld devices. 

It's a widespread problem, of course, but I decided early to do my best to create an atmosphere of emotional literacy in our home. I decided to do my best to raise boys who can empathize, who can show compassion, and who are resilient in times of stress.

1) Accept your child's feelings, whatever they are. 
Teach your child to name his feelings and develop an awareness of what is causing his behaviors. Not only does this diffuse the strong feelings, it helps the child to learn to solve their own problems before causing an outburst. Simply say -- "You seem super tired and unhappy. Was it a hard day for you?" or "I see that you are very angry with your brother. Let's talk about that some more." 

Don't fear the feelings, whether they are your own or your child's. Feelings are little messengers sent to tell us something important. Sometimes they are alerting you of what you enjoy, sometimes they are recommending that you build a boundary or develop a new habit. When we can successfully name and accept our own feelings, we are more aware of the feelings of others and able to see things from their perspective.

2) Teach your child to explore their own feelings and the feelings of others. 
Start with a vocabulary lesson teaching feeling words -- proud, angry, frustrated, disappointed, surprised, scared. When you see your child exhibiting signs of these emotions, point it out to them. Ask -- "Are you feeling disappointed right now? How can you tell?" Then start to watch the facial expressions of others {the mall, airport, downtown, in books} and describe how they might be feeling. Express your own feelings aloud, even if you are angry because of your child. Say -- "It makes me very upset when you hurt someone. I start to feel angry." By owning these feelings, you are modeling appropriate ways to manage your strong emotions. You are teaching your child how to break free from emotions that threaten to control them.

3) Set limits on negative behaviors. 
As much as we want to support our child's emotional state and help guide them through difficult feelings, we can't allow hurtful or dangerous behaviors. We won't allow hitting. We don't let them slam doors. Some children will need space to vent their emotions before they are even ready to discuss them. A time out is appropriate and pillow punching is a-okay! It's important to display self-control when you are angry too. Put yourself in a time-out if you need to cool down your anger. We can own the feeling, but we can't always act on it. 

Our redhead Buzz is now four years old and much more in touch with his feelings. He will tell me if he is hungry or thirsty or tired and he is starting to realize that these things make his fuse shorter. He watches friends to see if they are sad or having a bad day. He can go to his room and calm himself down, deciding to respond to stress more appropriately. We've spent a great deal of time talking with him about his feelings...guiding him towards self-control and the ability to problem solve. Now we're happy to start seeing results!

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