The Best Way to Help Your Child With Difficult Emotions

Your child is hurting. She asked someone at the park if they wanted to be her friend, and they said no. She feels embarrassed, scared, and sad. She doesn’t understand why someone doesn’t want to be her friend.

You’re an attentive parent. You hold her while she sobs. You keep brushing her hair back, kissing the top of her forehead, and telling her that it is going to be okay.

She cries and cries until she stops. You don’t get annoyed at all. You don’t tell her to suck it up. You tell her that you’ll play with her. You play together and then it is time to go home.

This is a good response. It may even be the response that you’ve worked really hard to give. Perhaps you used to find crying weak. Or maybe you used to want so badly to distract her from her feelings. You’d give her candy or throw a toy in front of her face. It has taken a while to get this far—to not feel irritated or stressed by her feelings, to let her have them. You’ve done it.

And you still need to do more.

Always, there is more to do.

What your child needs is called emotional coaching in Dr. Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. This means, of course, allowing your child to have their feelings. But we need to move beyond that. She needs to be taught the tools to regulate her emotions, not just sit and feel them.

For my part, I’ve been excellent at feeling my feelings my whole life. I wear them on my sleeve. And when I get depressed, I plop myself right down on my bed and feel that deeply and non-stop, every moment of it. In fact, I was so comfortable with feeling my feelings that for a long time I just couldn’t muster up any interest or energy to change them.

This wasn’t a bad first step for me. There was a huge difference between when I fought my depression and hated myself for it, and when I accepted it and worked with it.

But after having identified and accepted that it was a problem, I tolerated it.

I could not have done anything else at the time. I did the best I could. I lacked the tools for self-regulation.

You are helping your child to accept their emotional world, which is a great foot to get them started on and far better than not allowing all of the “bad” emotions out in the world. Still, you can teach them more.

These are the five steps Gottman identifies in emotional coaching:

1. Become aware of the child’s emotional

Look at that! You’re already 20% there!

2. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching

30% there? 40% there?

3. Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings

Oh snap, you’re awesome at that one. 50% there.

4. Help the child to find words to label the emotion he is having; and

70% there! I would add that you should help him identify the feelings are in his body, as well.

5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand!

This last part is where most parents in the conscious parenting community slip up.

While Gottman’s work refers specifically to when the children are in conflict with their parents, the work applies universally. We can talk to our children about another person’s limits when they are having difficulty with someone else’s boundaries.

What does helping them find strategies to cope look like?

  • These are good times to practice mindfulness. Whether it is blowing out your finger candles or paying close attention to a tree, this is calming.
  • Talk about positive experiences. Discuss with your child something in the past or future that made them feel good. This doesn’t hide the negative thing that is happening; it allows them to step outside of the emotion for a moment to get a bigger picture of the emotional world they’re in.
  • Walking/jumping. Physical activity calms us down and resets us.
  • Calm jars. Shake these up! I like the idea of designing different ones for different feelings. This can aid young children in identifying the emotions they’re feeling.
  • Story telling. Story telling can bring us outside of ourselves, help strengthen our theory of mind, and transport us. They help us to see things from others perspective and make sense of our behaviors. Read your child a book, or tell a glamorized version of the story that just happened from one or both points of view.

At a young age, you’ll help children to identify their emotions and teach them ways to cope with them. As they get older, you can elicit the feelings from them and ask them how they’d like to cope. Feelings are difficult to handle. The decision-making part of your teenagers brain isn’t fully wired up, so they’re still relying largely on emotions to lead them. They still need your help. You’ll have to validate their emotions and remind them that they have these tools at their disposal for a long time coming.

Practice

  1. Pick one coping technique that you will practice with your child. For now, just one. The comfort of familiarity helps to calm us.

Please leave a comment telling me what other coping techniques you’ve taught your child. Have friends visit this post and tell us their techniques so that we can update the list and make it a resource.

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