6 Tips to Make Your Children’s Emotions Your Friend
I often meet children described as having “anger management problems.” They blow up in anger, yell, and scream. They may even get physically aggressive. As I talk with them and their family, I discover these children often have little or no language for emotional expression. As a result, they have no delay, no buffer, between their emotion and their action. They impulsively “act out” any emotion they experience. Anger impulsively leads to aggression. Joy and excitement translate into uncontrollable energy. When these children and their families learn to put their emotions into words and, even more important, learn to connect with one another through their emotion, impulsive acting out often decreases. Self-control increases. Mutual understanding and intimacy grows. In reality, these children did not have anger management problems. They had limited emotional expression problems. Fortunately, parents play a huge role in teaching their children to put emotions and feelings into words. I say fortunately because that means you, as a parent, can help your children learn this skill. So, put on your coach’s hat and get down to the business of emotional coaching with these tips.
- Accept your children’s emotions. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: all emotions are acceptable. Whether your children experience happiness or sadness, pleasure or anger, allow them to have their emotional experience. Accept their emotion. (By the way, the Pixar movie Inside Out does an excellent job of showing the benefits of allowing the experience of every emotion.) Do not judge or evaluate your children’s emotions. Doing so may leave them feeling like something is wrong with them. Simply accept their emotion. Sure, put limits on the behavioral expression of that emotion (“You can be angry, but we do not hit”), but be open to their experience. Allow them to experience all their emotions.
- Explore the emotion and the context in which it occurs. Become curious about your children’s emotional experience. Where do they feel that emotion in their body—their stomach, head, arms, legs? Does it make them feel better or worse? Is it heavy or light? What happened right before they experienced the emotion? What are they thinking? What is the priority revealed in the emotion? Answering questions like these requires you to focus on what is happening “inside” your children, not just their outward behavior. Your goal is to listen and understand their emotion so well that you can completely empathize with it from their young perspective.
- Keep your interaction as conversational and intimate as possible. Avoid lecturing and explaining. Spend more time listening, clarifying, and understanding. If you lecture, your children will shut down. Their eyes will glaze over and their mind will drift. You will have missed an excellent opportunity to connect with them. Keep it conversational.
- As your children begin to calm, encourage them to think more about their emotion. Help them to recognize the priority, need, or desire behind the emotion. Think through possible actions they could take to actually satisfy that need or effectively communicate their priority. In essence, problem-solve an effective response to the situation that aroused their emotion.
- Empower your children with appropriate labels for their emotions. The ability to label an emotion carries great power. A label allows people to express their emotion rather than impulsively act it out. People who can label and communicate their emotions have a better chance at investing their emotional energy in reaching a satisfactory result rather than expending the energy on physically acting out.
- Encourage your children to recognize how their actions impact those around them. Make them aware of the emotions displayed by those who witness their behavior. Gently point out the subtle cues of how others respond to them. This teaches them to recognize those cues independently and adjust their interaction accordingly.
We could list other tips, but these six provide a great start. If you want more information on emotions and your children, read Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, an excellent book by John Gottman.