I bet you’ve heard the story about the smart fish. If you haven’t, this is how it goes
(Important disclaimer: I did not write this metaphorical story and I have been unable to find the original version. This is my adapted version after reading one version of the story here):
There once lived a fisherman who would always fish at the same spot. Every day he’d go fishing, and every day he’d catch a fish. But the fish were soon onto his game. They began to notice that every time one of them would bite his bait, he would disappear.
The fish got very angry and decided to hurt the fisherman, but they soon realized that to hurt him they would have to let themselves get caught first. Bad idea. So they decided to come up with other solutions.
As they were looking at the fisherman’s bait, they saw that there was a hidden hook. That’s when they understood that to avoid getting caught, they would have to avoid that hook.
The next day the fisherman went fishing, he caught no fish – none of the fish would bite. He didn’t understand what was going on. How come the fish didn’t bite yet all the other days he had used the same bait and it had never failed to catch him fish? “I know what I’ll do”, he said to himself, “tomorrow I’ll use more bait.”
So determined was the fisherman to catch a fish that he put twice as much bait the next day. The fish were tempted and as they approached to taste the tasty bait, they remembered the hook and swam away.
The fisherman was at his wit’s end. He didn’t know what to think. “I know what I’ll do,” he thought to himself, “I’ll put thrice as much bait.” But even with his new trick, the fisherman was unable to catch any fish. The fish knew that the fisherman was only baiting them.
The fisherman knew when he had lost. He realized that he would no longer be able to catch any fish at that spot. He packed up his fishing gear and changed spots, leaving the little fish in peace.
This powerful story has important lessons for kids and adults alike. Becoming a smart fish is not only about teaching your child to manage difficult emotions, it is also about teaching him that sometimes he has to walk away from difficult emotion-provoking situations.
Teaching your child about emotions
We now know that children who have learned to understand what triggers strong emotions such as anger and anxiety and respond to those emotions appropriately are more accountable, do better socially and academically, and are happier and more successful in life. Fostering your child’s emotional intelligence gives him important tools that he will use beyond the childhood years. But teaching our kids to be “smart fish” is a difficult and long process. This makes sense when we know that even adults struggle with “recognizing and avoiding bait”. Researchers have found that the earlier you teach your kids about emotional intelligence, the easier it will be for them to manage strong emotions in adolescence and adulthood.
Strengthening your child’s emotional intelligence is about helping your child identify different emotions, understand his triggers, and develop a “toolkit” he can use whenever to deal with strong emotions in a socially appropriate manner. While teaching your child to manage strong emotions more effectively will not get rid of all meltdowns, it can give him the tools to communicate more effectively and reduce the frequency and intensity of what we often put down to acting-out.
Teaching kids about emotions: A few things to keep in mind:
- Teaching children to manage and respond appropriately to strong emotions is difficult and takes time. Practice makes perfect. Be patient.
- Some strategies will work better than others depending on your specific context. Fortunately, many strategies exist. Brainstorm possible strategies together and let your child choose the ones that suite her best.
- Talking about strong emotions such as anger and anxiety frequently but over short periods is likely to have better results that referring to emotions infrequently or over-focusing on anger management strategies.
Teaching your child to manage strong emotions: 3 important emotion regulation phases
Phase 1: Helping your child identify emotions
Few children are able to differentiate between emotions without being taught about emotions first. Teaching your child about different emotions is therefore an important phase of strengthening your child’s ability to understand feelings and emotions in herself and in others: How does anger feel like? How do I know when other people are angry?
There are easy ways to teach kids about emotions. Using everyday experiences to comment on other people’s emotions is a simple way to talk to your child about emotions: “he sure looks angry”). Helping her put her own emotions into words is also a great way to foster her emotional IQ: “I know you’re frustrated because you can’t watch your favorite cartoon”. Talking about your own emotions helps nurture emotional intelligence in your child and teaches her that big emotions are normal: “I’m feeling anxious because I have an important interview tomorrow”.
It is important to speak to introduce your child to different emotions when she’s calm rather than when she’s in the middle of a meltdown. Numerous age-appropriate resources such as The Emotions Game can help teach your child about different emotions.
Phase 2: Helping your child understand what triggers strong emotions
Your child cannot learn to effectively manage strong emotions if he does not understand where those emotions come from. Teaching him to identify his triggers is thus an important phase in teaching him about emotional intelligence.
Different activities can help your children learn to identify what triggers his emotion-driven behavior. Anything that can help keep track of your child’s behavior, for example an anger/anxiety diary, is useful to help him better understand his behavior.
Here are some of the things you should pay attention to help develop your child’s emotional intelligence
Offer guidance by proposing what he should be attentive to:
- Exactly what happened?
- How did you feel?
- Rate your anger on a scale of 1 to 10
- How did your body feel (a headache, stomach ache, nervous, sweaty palms, heart racing)?
- What did you do?
Phase 3: Helping your child identify appropriate ways to respond to anger and anxiety
Anger and anxiety are normal human reactions and can even be beneficial. Addressing these emotions is not about suppressing them: it is about teaching your child how to manage them effectively. As far as possible, let your child choose her own calm-down strategy and propose many options to allow her to change if need be. If she’s having trouble choosing a strategy, don’t hesitate to propose something. Remember that the most effective strategies are those that are most in line with her personality.
A calm-down jar is an effective tool which can help your child learn to manage her anger by herself. It is a jar in which you place different activities your child can refer to in order to manage strong emotions such as anger or anxiety.
The more ideas you have the better!
Brainstorm with your child and come up with appropriate and acceptable activities she can engage in when facing strong emotions.
Place the ideas in an easily accessible jar your child can use when need be.
An effective jar should have:
- Visually calming activities: sand-timer, sensory jar, indoor fountain, etc.
- Activities to unwind: Blow bubbles, blow a balloon, color a mandala, read a book, listen to music, etc.
- Activities to comfort: Favorite toys, hugs
- Activities to focus attention elsewhere: Painting, dot-to-dot pictures, whistling, etc
- Physical activities to release tension: skip rope, jump on a trampoline, push against a wall, etc.
- Things to hold or squeeze: Stress balls, slime, etc.
- Oral sensory activities: chewing gum, apples, etc.
The Emotions Kit is an extensive collection of resources that gives you age-appropriate tools to communicate with your child about emotions. It proposes games, worksheets, practical tips, and numerous tools you can easily adopt at home to strengthen your child’s ability to deal with strong emotions more effectively.
Knowing when to seek professional help
Strong emotions such as anger and anxiety are normal human reactions, and building emotional intelligence in your child is not about teaching her to suppress difficult emotions but rather, showing her that emotions are normal. That said, strong emotions such as anger and anxiety can also point to more serious issues requiring professional intervention. This is when to seek professional help:
- When your child harms or threatens to harm herself or others
- When her siblings are scared of her.
- When she hurts animals “for fun”
- When emotion-driven behavior is intense, frequent and long lasting.
- When you fear the consequences of upsetting your child.
- When family decisions revolve around “how your child will react”
- When she breaks and damages things.
- When her behavior consistently gets worse despite your attempts to control her behavior.
- When you no longer know what to do to help