Despite popular belief, emotionally intelligent kids are not immune to bouts of anxiety, anger, and other big emotions. And when those emotions strike, they can do so with a force that leaves both you and them feeling confused and helpless. I know this from experience. My husband and I always joke that our daughter was born anxious. We realized quite early that situations that other kids found “normal” were nerve-racking for her. Almost every change was accompanied by clinginess, tears and bouts of eczema. After speaking to specialists and “reading everything”, we placed all our bets on emotional regulation. We taught her to identify her emotions, talk about them, and find a way to deal with difficult situations. It worked. She gradually identified coping mechanisms she could use against anxiety and we breathed a sigh of relief.
Numerous studies have linked behavior such as tantrums, meltdowns, extreme anxiety and even aggressive behavior such as hitting and biting to an inability to manage emotions appropriately. Knowing your child’s emotion-driven behavior is normal helps, but having the tools to help him cope with those emotions when they strike is even better. Teaching your child to identify and manage emotions means giving him important tools to navigate life.
Why fostering your child’s emotional intelligence matters
Gottman’s studies on emotional intelligence have shown that kids taught about emotions are better able to adopt strategies to eliminate disturbing stimuli. For example, emotionally intelligent kids are more likely to know when to walk away from unpleasant situations, or they are able to select activities to engage in to calm their anxious or angry feelings.
The available evidence suggests that children who are aware of their emotions and know how to express them in a socially acceptable manner:
- Perform better at school,
- Have better social relationships,
- Are more likely to consider that they are in control of what happens to them,
- Are less likely to display behavior problems.
- Are also more likely to be school-ready and happier than kids unable to manage their emotions.
First things first: Teaching your child to identify emotions
The first step toward strengthening your child’s ability to manage strong emotions is to teach her to identify different emotions. But this does not mean teaching her to suppress emotions. Rather, it is about teaching her that emotions are normal – they are all around us – and she can control how she reacts to them.
It is not until they are about age 10 that children begin to be fully aware of their emotions. That said, emotional intelligence researchers have found that your child can be taught about emotions from as early as age three. Making it a habit to put your child’s emotions into words – “I can see you’re sad”, “I know you’re upset because you would have liked to continue watching your program” – goes a long way in teaching her to identify different emotions and putting her feelings into words.
Things to bear in mind to foster your child’s emotional intelligence
1) Talk often, but for short periods: It is more effective to talk about emotions often but for short periods than to talk infrequently over long periods.
2) Picking the right moment matters: Do not try to talk to your kid about emotions when he is in the middle of a meltdown or when you’re tired or upset. It won’t work. The best time to talk to your child about emotions is when you are both calm, relaxed and attentive.
3) Relate discussions about emotions to your child: Talking to your kids about emotions is great. Relating those emotions to specific situations affecting your child is even better. For example, if you’re reading a book about anger, you could ask her what would make her as angry as the character in the book. You could also ask her if she has ever felt the same as that character and what she did.
If your child has difficulty expressing emotions, you can also encourage her to talk about them by asking her how a friend would feel if the same thing happened to him or her.
Using games to teach your child about emotions
Games are a highly effective method you can use to teach your kid about different emotions. Below are three age-appropriate games to foster your child’s emotional intelligence.
Playing memory games is a fun and easy way to talk to kids about emotions.
1) Obtain images representing different emotions. Printable brightly colored cards with animals depicting different emotions are available here. Print two sets of each card.
2) Cut out the images and shuffle them.
3) The first player selects a card and turns it over. He or she then selects a second card. If the two cards match, the player gets to select again.
4) To make the most of “feelings memory”, talk about emotions: Ask your child when he has felt like the emotion shown on the card, ask what makes him feel that way. Ask what he does when he feels that way.
FEELINGS SCAVENGER HUNT
A feelings scavenger hunt can help your child learn about different emotions.
1) Obtain images representing different emotions.
2) Cut out the images and hide them.
3) Make a list of all the emotions your kid needs to find
4) When he finds a card, ask him to name at least one thing that makes him feel like the emotion displayed.
THE EMOTIONS GAME
The “Emotions Game” is a great resource to encourage kids (from age 4) to talk about their emotions. It uses colorful pictures and simple phrases that help kids explore different emotions. This game is guaranteed to get your kid talking about emotions!
One thing every parent with an “emotional child” must know
One of the most widespread myths about fostering children’s emotional intelligence is that emotionally intelligent children no longer struggle with big emotions. But as many parents who have had to deal with highly emotional kids know, trying to establish ‘what works’ to calm anxiety or other big emotions is treacherous terrain. After months of appearing capable of dealing with her emotions by herself, our daughter would have episodes of anxiety and her reactions would often vary. On some days she would find something to calm her anxiety, on other days she would not, and the vicious cycle of worry would start over again, requiring us to step in to help her come to terms with her anxiety. The thing is, the relationship between “anxiety” and “coping mechanisms” is not always straightforward. What works today may fail miserably tomorrow, and what your child chose to successfully calm a specific anxiety-provoking situation may have strictly no impact in a different anxiety-provoking situation.
No parent today can feign ignorance about the power of emotions over children’s behavior. Children’s emotional intelligence skills matter now more than ever. But here’s the thing: giving your child the tools to deal with an anxiety-provoking situation does not mean that his anxiety will cease to exist. What it means is that there will be fewer episodes of paralyzing anxiety; fewer, not none. Because the truth is, some children are born worriers, and their anxiety never really goes away. Others will struggle more with anger. That’s just the way it is.
A Greek philosopher once said that “the only thing that is constant is change”, and this seems particularly true in childhood. Sparked by major changes such as changing schools, shifts from preschool to grade school, changing teachers, changing homes, changing or starting new activities and so on, your child is likely to struggle with big emotions. Because change is fraught with uncertainty, and it is not always easy for a child, even when that child has some degree of emotional intelligence, to know how to deal with that anxiety alone.
While dealing with your child’s big emotions can be nerve-racking, it helps to remember that anxiety and anger are among the most common, and most recurring, emotions children struggle with, sometimes well into adolescence. Also, it helps to know that most cases of emotional behavior in children are normal, and this is how to tell whether your child’s behavior is normal:
- It does not interfere with her normal routine
- She is not overwhelmed with stress or anger
- Her feelings seem legitimate (it is possible to identify what triggers them)
- Her bouts of anxiety/anger/frustration are short-lived
- She does not get emotional about everything but rather, a few specific things
Here are three strategies that will help when big emotions strike
Strategy 1: Provide support
Talking about the anxiety-/anger-provoking situation is the most important thing you can do to help diffuse your child’s emotions. The available research suggests that being responsive to your child’s feelings reduces the risks of developing emotional disorders later on in life.
More importantly, listening to your child and asking questions that make her talk about the situation helps him see the situation from an objective perspective. Questions such as “What are you most afraid of” can help give you a base on which to build your support.
Strategy 2: Don’t invalidate his emotions
None of your child’s worries are too little to ignore. He needs to know that it’s normal to worry, or to feel frustrated, or to be angry, and that everyone has those feelings sometimes. Talk about the situations that makes you anxious or angry and tell him how you deal with your feelings. Let him know that emotions are normal, but that they can be managed.
Strategy 3: Give her the tools to deal with big emotions
Telling your child “it’s going to be okay” will not help calm her anxiety. What she needs are tools she can gradually apply by herself to deal with difficult situations. The more often she applies specific practices, the more those practices will become daily habits.
It has been said that we are all slaves to our habits, and your child is no different. The thing with kids is that while they may associate certain emotions (for example anxiety before their swimming class) with certain coping mechanisms (for example drawing), they will not necessary associate a new anxiety-provoking situation (for example changing schools) with the same coping mechanisms. Some kids are able to do so, the majority are not. This means that on many occasions, your child will have to learn new coping mechanisms to deal with new situations. When our daughter was anxious about shifting from pre-school to grade-school, one of the coping mechanisms that worked was talking about what she would do immediately she arrived in school (we did this every day for weeks): who would she meet that she already knew, how the school worked; what she would be expected to do; the type of exercises she would do, on so on. This was a mechanism she had never used before.
The good news is that age-appropriate tools such The Emotions Kit can help provide you and your child with the resources (cards, games, worksheets, tools, etc) you need to foster your child’s emotional intelligence. This extensive collection of resources is designed to help you communicate with your child about emotions.
When is it time to seek help about your child’s anxiety?
Unfortunately, emotionally-driven behavior in children can point to more serious issues requiring the intervention of a specialist. Here are some of the red flags to look out for:
- Reactions disproportionate to the situation
- Anxiety/anger that never seems to go away
- Emotions related to situations in the distant future
- Emotions that affects your child’s everyday functioning
- Paralyzing fear that something will happen to him or her
The thing to remember about raising an emotionally sensitive kid is that how you react to different situations shows your child how to react. Remaining calm, supportive, and offering solutions even when it gets difficult can help your child increase her coping mechanisms in the face of difficult situations.