After many years spent teaching kids to “toughen up,” we now know that kids’ emotions matter.
A chorus of voices is saying that kids do not misbehave because they are bad. Rather, misbehavior is often a sign that your kid is yet to learn to express difficult feelings and emotions.
A kid who neither knows what strong emotions such as anxiety mean nor how they manifest in his body is more likely to go into a meltdown the next time he encounters an anxiety-provoking situation. But not all kids react in the same way. Biting, impulsivity, aggressiveness, hitting, and extreme shyness are also ways in which kids express their inability to deal with difficult emotions.
Emotions do not only affect how kids react, they also affect how they feel. It’s not uncommon for your child to develop a headache or a stomachache every time she has to go to a particular activity or just before school starts, if those are anxiety-provoking situations for her.
Strengthening kids’ emotional intelligence matters because your kid’s inability to manage his emotions can create a domino effect in other aspects of his life. The available evidence suggests that kids’ inability to regulate their emotions is associated with impulsive behavior, and impulsivity is detrimental for kid’s social, academic, and psychological development. Impulsive kids are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse in adolescence and even in adulthood.
The good news is that nothing is simpler than teaching kids about emotions. This is neither a costly process nor does it require the intervention of a professional. For instance, some studies suggest that distracting young kids from distressing situations can teach them to integrate “walking away” within their repertoire of emotion-regulation skills and thus help them develop the “self-control of emotion.” In all fairness, however, teaching kids to manage their emotions is a long process and the results are not always visible at first sight.
Evidence suggests that parenting styles predict the development of kids’ ability to control their emotions. In other words, whether or not we validate our kids’ emotions will ultimately have an impact on their ability to manage those emotions well beyond the childhood years. Here are a few tips about everyday experiences you can transform into “emotion discipline” lessons.
What we tell our kids: Don’t cry, it’s nothing
What we should be telling them: I’m here/Tell me about it/ Crying will make you feel better/Do you want a hug?
We don’t help our children develop their emotional intelligence by invalidating their feelings. You’ve probably noticed that telling kids “it’s nothing” does not make them cry less. Instead of invalidating your child’s feelings, teach him that it’s okay to cry and then show him what he can do to feel better – tell someone, distract himself, ask for a hug – which will help develop his emotional intelligence.
Teasing kids about their fears does not make those fears go away. It simply amplifies the fears and leads to the development of other difficult secondary emotions.
What we tell our kids: What’s wrong now?
What we should be telling them: I know it’s upsetting. Do you want to talk about it?
Your kid will only learn to express her emotions if she knows what those emotions are. There are many age-appropriate and easy-to-apply strategies to teach kids about emotions, and it’s never too early to start.
Indeed, the available evidence suggests that even the youngest kids benefit when we take their emotions into account. When we put our kids’ emotions into words and propose appropriate ways to express those emotions, we help them develop their emotional intelligence and teach them that they can manage even the most difficult emotions.
It is important, however, to bear in mind that the strategies that work with your two-year-old will not necessarily work with your eight-year-old. While infants and toddlers often need our intervention to help them adopt appropriate strategies, older kids are capable of and need to be taught to identify effective emotion regulation strategies they can use by themselves.
What we tell our kids: You made me angry
What we should be telling them: I was angry because…
You have a right to be angry at your kid’s behavior, but you are the one who chooses how you react to that behavior.
Strengthening your kid’s emotional intelligence is about teaching her that she too is responsible for her reactions. Put differently, teaching your kid emotional discipline is about teaching him that even she “gets baited,” she can decide whether to take the bait or not.
What we tell our kids: Why do you always make me yell at you?
What we tell our kids: Why do you make me yell at you?
What we should be telling them: I’m sorry I yelled at you when I was angry. I will try and yell less.
Your kid is not responsible for how you react to his or her behavior, you are. We all lose it sometimes and do things we regret, but blaming your kid for your guilt only makes it harder for him to learn how to manage his emotions.
Everyday life provides multiple opportunities to teach kids about emotions. Even simply commenting on emotions when reading a book or watching TV together – “he sure looks angry,” “why do you think she’s frowning?” – can go a long way in teaching your kid about emotions. Resources such as “The Emotions Game” is a fun and sure way to get your child to open up about his or her emotions in a fun way.
An earlier version of this post was published on parent.com