As a parent, I know how challenging it can be to see our children experience strong emotions. It's especially tough when these emotions are ones we perceive as negative - anger, fear, jealousy, envy, sadness, resentment. These emotions can trigger our own emotional reactions, leaving us feeling lost about the best way to respond.
Many of us grew up in environments where emotions weren't openly discussed. But as modern parents, we're told we need to teach our children about their feelings to build their resilience. So how can we encourage our children to talk about their feelings?
Research shows kids learn about emotions in four key ways: our parenting, how we explicitly teach them, our behavior, and the family environment. As parents, we play an important role in helping children name, express, and manage their emotions.
The Role of Parenting in Emotional Development
But teaching our children about emotions is often not easy. We might be comfortable teaching our children to recognize when they are hungry, tired, and thirsty, but be focused on stopping children’s sadness, fears, or anger, rather than on teaching about these emotions.
Everyone feels a range of emotions, and the “negative” emotions are not inherently bad. Emotions are signals that are important for our survival and help us to understand ourselves and our world. Children often “act out” their emotions, rather than talking about how they feel.
Embracing All Emotions
When we teach kids that all emotions are healthy, they learn to trust themselves, feel more comfortable sharing their feelings, and view emotions as brief experiences that pass. So, what should we say in the moment?
Start by describing what you see or observe. “You sound sad/angry?” or “You are looking a little quiet.” We often don’t know exactly what our child is feeling. Be tentative and check: “You look frustrated, is that right?” Validate: “That situation was really hard, no wonder you’re frustrated.”
Connecting with Your Child's Emotions
When our child is upset, we don’t need to say much. Try to listen and connect through eye contact and gentle touch. Avoid trying to fix (problem-solve) or distract your child when they are emotional. Support kids to acknowledge and “sit with” their feelings. Older children and teens may learn how to start masking their emotions, so we might only see their challenging behaviors.
Understanding the Emotion Behind the Behavior
Imagine their behavior is the tip of an iceberg, caused by emotions under the surface. Try connecting with their emotion rather than focusing only on the behavior, “You slammed your door, are you feeling upset?”
Parents can explicitly teach kids about emotions. When everyone’s calm (not when you or your child are upset), we can teach kids about emotions. We can start conversations about emotions based on almost anything your child is interested in, a TV show, video game, movie, or book they’re reading.
Using Media to Teach About Emotions
A great movie for starting the conversation is Inside Out. Watching emotions in fictional characters normalizes emotions as a universal experience and helps kids to recognize more subtle types of emotions and different ways to express and manage emotions.
For older kids who’ve become more self-conscious, try having these discussions when not directly looking at them, in the car, or during an activity (walking, kicking a ball, watching a movie together). Some kids open up more at bedtime. Try to listen more and talk less.
Starting a Conversation About Feelings with a Journal
Initiating a discussion about feelings can begin with jointly completing an emotion journal. Exchanging the day's happenings, from both the parent's and child's perspective, can serve as an excellent foundation for discussing our emotions.
Learning from Our Own Emotions
Many of us grew up in families where parents did not teach us about emotions, or they were poor role models for expressing emotions in healthy ways. If this is the case, it’s common to view emotions as bad and unhelpful, and believe it’s not good to dwell on feelings.
As a result, it can be hard to watch our children experiencing strong negative emotions. If you’re feeling triggered by your child’s emotion, it will help to pause. You can leave the room if necessary. It’s healthy to role-model to kids taking a break when we feel overwhelmed.
Modeling Emotional Management
If we make a mistake as parents and act in ways we’re not proud of, this is a great opportunity to model to our kids how to make amends. Explain what you were feeling, that your actions were not okay, and apologize. This gives kids a template for making amends themselves, which is a critical relationship skill.
Questions to ponder:
- How can you better understand your child's emotions?
- What steps can you take to help your child express their emotions?
- How can you validate your child's feelings?
- How can you teach your child that all emotions are healthy?
- How can you support your child when they are upset?
- How can you connect with your child's emotions rather than focusing on their behavior?
- How can you use media to start conversations about emotions?
- How can you model emotional management to your child?
- How can you make amends when you make a mistake?
- How can you help your child understand that emotions are not inherently bad?
- How can you better manage your own emotions?