Helping kids with their emotions can seem like a daunting task for many parents. I get it.
Between having five kids and raising two of them from trauma out of foster care, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen almost every emotion under the sun. There’s not much that shocks me anymore because I’ve nearly witnessed it all – highs, lows, grumpiness, anger, silliness, fear, shame, joy. And because human behavior resulting from big feelings doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story (shout out to all the hangry people right now!), I’ve learned that it’s important to be curious about our kids’ feelings – and even our own – if we are to better interact with each other.
Given the stress and strain of the last several years of a pandemic, virtual learning, social and political unrest, it’s probably not a surprise that most kids are experiencing elevated levels of anxiety and stress. But thankfully, people are now more open to discuss mental health struggles when it comes to themselves and their children.
The time is now to help our kids understand their emotions and for us to be able to openly talk to them about their feelings, fears, and anxieties. And when they become well-versed in understanding their emotions, studies are finding there are long term benefits such as having better mental health, stress management skills, conflict resolution skills, more responsibility, and resiliency.
But where to begin?
Doesn’t it sometimes seem like kids operate on 3 settings: happy, angry, and unconscious? But kids feel alllllll the emotions, and when they’re little, they don’t often know the difference between being tired and mad, nervous and angry, ashamed and upset, frustrated and furious. If we’re honest, we sometimes don’t know the difference when we’re feeling similarly!
I know I’ve had so many moments when a child has been melting down and it’s been helpful to verbalize, “Hey, you sound upset and angry.” Or “You sound scared right now.” Or “Let’s take a deep breath because you sound so excited your words are rushing together.” Putting words to what must seem like a flurry of yelling, crying, stomping, or fussing helps kids put a name on the mysterious thing going on inside their bodies.
When we ask our kids to stop and think about what emotion they are feeling, it’s a good opportunity for them to become curious about what led them there. I’m always asking my kids to be a detective, whether it’s with finding something they’re looking for or looking for clues as to why they are angry, upset, sad, etc. When a child realizes they can pinpoint the moment leading to their emotion, it may not change the feeling (mad/sad/jealous), but it will give them the emotional intelligence to say, “I started feeling upset when my friend said they wouldn’t play with me any more today. It made me feel sad.” Or “My teacher thought I broke a toy at school today, but I didn’t. I feel upset that she didn’t believe me.”
Stretching that emotional intelligence muscle will help them as they mature and start them on the path to becoming a lifelong learner of their own – and others – emotions and behavior.
It doesn’t do anyone any good to tell someone to stop feeling what they’re feeling. Or to tell them what they should be feeling. For example, how many of you have successfully calmed down when someone told you to calm down? Doesn’t it make you furious?
It’s important when kids are having big feelings to validate them. Acknowledge the fact that you understand why they are upset or sad or frustrated. Starting by validating their feelings can help them feel understood, even if the next step is helping them figure out what to do about it. It goes a long way to tell an embarrassed child, “I totally get why you felt embarrassed being asked to speak in front of your class. I often feel like that when I have to talk to people at work. It makes my cheeks and ears hot, and my stomach feels nervous. Let me tell you what I do when that happens to me.” Or “I understand why you’re crying and sad about not getting to watch TV anymore today. I get that feeling. I love TV, too!”
Ultimately, we want our kids to know that God made them, and He loves every bit of them – including the big and the small feelings! It’s a great opportunity to point our kids to Jesus and say, “let’s ask God to help you when you feel sad. He’s always with you and wants you to know He’s here for you when you’re sad or happy or anything in between.”
We can also help guide kids to take their joy, happiness, gratitude, contentment, etc. to God as a way to praise Him. “Let’s thank God for this happy day!” Whatever they are feeling, God wants to know about it, and loves them no matter what emotion they are experiencing.
As we help our kids name their feelings, become curious about where they originated, validate them, and help guide them to God, it can also help us. What were we feeling when we flew off the handle just now? What might’ve triggered that response? Are we reacting out in anger when we are really just fearful of something potentially happening in our kid’s future? Are we getting snippy with our family because our fun plans changed? Are we feeling ashamed of how we handled a conversation and instead decide that our kids’ rooms are a disaster (I mean, it’s true) and become Hurricane Mean Mommy and demand everyone drop what they’re doing to FIX IT, FIX IT NOW!?
Emotions can be complicated. But they are also normal and valid and worth understanding. As we help our kids mature in their emotional intelligence (ok, and as we also mature), looking deeper at all of our feelings will help us maintain connection. With each other, and with the wonderful, creative, loving God who made us.