Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Teaching Children about Positively Coping with their Emotions

{This article is strictly my non-professional, non-degree holding opinion. Seek professional help in diagnosing your child for overly-emotional behavior if necessary. I am simply a mother of 4 who almost has her degree in Early Childhood Development, and who reads A LOT of books and articles on childhood development and parenting. This article is a culmination of many things I've learned through classes, textbooks, articles, and through personal implementation in my home.}

*Warning- this is a long post as it is a topic that is very dear to my heart! But there are free printables at the bottom and a TON of very informative and liberating information in this post that I KNOW could benefit your family and even you personally as an adult, so I urge you to take the time to read it:)

This is a topic that I find is often overlooked in childhood development. Unless you have a child who is Autistic or have a "Montessori" approach to raising your kids, this probably isn't something that you have thought about before... in depth.
Come to think of it, I think it's fair to say that this is a topic that many adults could also benefit from!

Teaching children to regulate their emotions in a positive way is probably
 one of the most important things you could ever give them for their future selves and their future relationships. It is important to note that you MUST let your child experience sadness, anger, frustration, and other emotions that are typically labeled "negative". There is nothing negative about feeling these emotions. They are raw, human emotions that must not be suppressed! They only become negative when you don't have a healthy way to express them.
All parents want their children to be happy. And many parents struggle watching their children get sad, frustrated, or upset. Maybe they lose patience in struggling with an over emotional child and send them to "time-out" or send them to be alone in their rooms. Maybe they downplay the child's emotions and try to overshadow them with "my problems are bigger than yours"... or "there are children starving in Africa!" or "you don't see jimmy crying over this!" or maybe they give in and give the child whatever it is they want. In all these scenarios the child will eventually calm down... but the root of the problem was not solved and therefore the behavior WILL exhibit itself again.  And worse, in many of these situations what the child actually learns, is to suppress their feelings.

Let's talk about what happens when children are taught that it is best to be happy all the time and that crying and getting upset only gets them in trouble.... or in other words... taught to suppress "negative" emotions.
When children have to hold in and suppress natural, raw, human responses to outside stressors major internal confliction can result and in some cases can even lead to physical ailments such as being prone to anxiety, depression, or even Conversion Disorder. This is especially true in children between the ages of 10-18.
Even children who come from really great, well-meaning families with a lot of love and support can learn to suppress their feelings simply because they themselves don't personally like experiencing "negative" emotions and never learned how to cope or get through them. This will typically lead to a child who is quiet or reserved, an overly sensitive child who cries or gets upset easily, or a child who is secretive and whose usual response is, "I'm fine." even though you as a parent know they are not.
Young children will throw a lot of tantrums, or may exhibit seemingly overly sensitive behavior by crying over everything.

Sow how exactly do you teach positive emotional coping skills? It's actually easier than you may think! And it's never too late to start.

Young children typically know 3 basic emotions: Sadness, happiness, and anger. So all other emotions they experience often get miscategorized into one of those 3 basic feelings. For example, When Jimmy wants Daddy's attention and Daddy is otherwise detained, Jimmy eventually acts out with anger. But his true and correct emotion is probably that he was lonely, feeling neglected, or frustrated that Daddy wasn't listening... or maybe a combination of those feelings. Or when Jill cries because her Mother is doing her hair in the morning, she is more than likely not sad, she is probably frustrated from perhaps the lack of independence, or maybe anxious about the end result and how it will end up looking. Even happiness can be misinterpreted as odd as that sounds. Feelings like: proud, loved, excited, or confident could all also be described as feeling happy to a child.

Teaching young children the many other emotions they could be feeling is liberating for them!

Imagine learning that anger is a cover-up emotion. That it ALWAYS is covering up a "true" emotion. In fact, it is often called a "secondary emotion" because it is a defense mechanism and used to cover up your true feelings. (I know adults that could benefit from learning that) So now next time little Jimmy is angry you get to skip that whole "mad" step that often lasts a very long time and go straight to the root of the problem. He's upset- but now you know that anger is a cover-up emotion, so what is he really feeling?
*Communicate with him!
*Ask him if you don't know what's bothering him!
*Teach him that anger is a cover up emotion and eventually he will learn to calm down and regulate on his own... even if that isn't until he's an adult.
Imagine what a safe and healthy place his mind will be as a teen and an adult when, even though he is choosing to be angry and exhibit those feelings (because sometimes hormones are hard to control and hormones play a huge role in how we control and show our emotions) he knows that deep down inside he not angry- because you taught him that anger is a cover up emotion, so he eventually assesses the situation and realizes that in fact he is actually disappointed, confused, jealous, or maybe ashamed. When you get to the root of the problem, you SOLVE the problem. Now that he knows he is actually, let's say, jealous... he can take steps to control or rid himself of the jealousy, instead of trying to cope with the anger.
 Imagine learning as a little child what it means to be embarrassed, and that it's OK to be embarrassed! All this time you thought that you were just another form of mad or sad, when in fact you were actually feeling embarrassment!  Or imagine that you learned what it meant to feel overwhelmed. That is a very real feeling for young children that almost always exhibits itself as anger. Telling, and even helping Jill to clean up her messy room might often lead to her showing feelings of anger and frustration. But now you know that anger is a cover up emotion, so maybe she is actually feeling overwhelmed! 20 toys seems like a quick and easy 2 minute clean up to the very-experienced-you, but to little Jill those 20 toys might look more like 200 toys! And when you don't know how to micromanage, in her little mind she might as well be cleaning a house straight out of TLC's "Hoarders". She is experiencing what it feels like to be overwhelmed but doesn't know what that is, let alone how to cope with it other than to cry and get angry.

So how exactly do you teach children the many emotions there are and how to positively cope with them? Communication and being an example is KEY. But let me get more specific:

ALL children could benefit from something as simple as a feelings chart or feelings cards on the wall. When your child cries or gets angry, walk over to the chart and ask them to identify how they are feeling.

These free printable cards by Mr. Printables are cute and simple enough for little ones. You can cut them out and use them as cards, or you could simply print it out and post it on your fridge or your wall.

This Emotions Flyer is better for children who are a little bit older as there are a lot more emotions to choose from. 

You could also create your own by taking pictures of your child's face expressing each emotion. Ask them to show you what "shocked" looks like and then take a picture of their "shocked face"

Whichever you choose, when your child cries or gets upset, lead them to your feelings or emotions poster/cards and start asking questions:
How are you feeling? (if they point to sad or angry ask them how else they are feeling)
What made you feel that way?
What can I do to help?
What can you do to help?
Always end with, "It's OK to feel those feelings. I feel that way sometimes too." And then if they acted out in a negative way discuss how they could positively express those feelings in the future.

Of course the younger children will need to learn what those feelings actually are so a great way to teach that are through children's books, or even by getting their attention when you are feeling that way or when you see others experience them, even if it's in cartoons. Here are a few books I highly recommend. There actually aren't very many "feelings & emotions" books on the market sadly enough which gives you an idea of how overlooked of a topic this is in parenting!

My own children have HUGELY benefited from learning to identify their many complex emotions and how to positively cope with all of them. We use a lot of "how does that make you feel?" statements in my home as I want them to internalize and really evaluate their feelings and what effects them positively and negatively. 
When my 3 year old son draws me a picture, instead of robotically stating, "Good Job! I love it!" I instead say, "Good job! How does drawing that picture make you feel?"
When my 8 year old comes home with a 100% on a math test my statements are usually, "Wow! How does that feel? So studying really hard must have really paid off for you!"
I have a Niece who is incredibly sensitive. She cried over almost everything. I had never thought to relay this parenting advice to my sister until she cried out for help on Facebook. I taught her about this concept and after just 1 week she said nothing has helped more than simply putting up an emotions poster and directing her to it when she cried. She stated she got results immediately and her little one just keeps getting better and better. Now when she cries, they solve the problem instantly and her little 4 year old feels acknowledged, loved, and is learning how to problem solve, identify, and cope with her emotions in a more positive way.

Because of the lack of free printable emotions cards available online, I myself am in the process of creating some. When they are finished in a few days, I will post them on here!

Happy Parenting or better yet, "Emotion Coaching!"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this! It is helping to bridge a gap in our family.