As the mother of four children, ranging in ages from 1 to 16, on any given day I might be faced with temper tantrums, angry stumping, door slamming, or the silent treatment (typical among teenagers). Helping my children appropriately manage and express their feelings is an important part of my day-to-day parenting. In fact, emotional regulation is essential for children’s overall wellbeing. As parents, we can teach our children to handle their emotions in ways that validates their feelings, while fostering healthy interactions with the world.
Emotional regulation is a fancy term used to describe the ability to process and express a range of emotions, and react in appropriate ways in emotional situations. Emotional regulation is often conceptualized as a set of skills that can be taught and learned. The ability to appropriately handle emotions can impact children’s social, emotional and cognitive development. For example:
Children with good emotional regulation skills:
- Are able to experience, express and manage a range of emotions
- Adjust well to transitions and new situations
- Engage in appropriate behaviors in response to emotional situations
- Show a high tolerance for frustration
Children with poor emotional regulation skills:
- May exhibit a limited range of emotions
- Have difficulties coping with stressful experiences
- May engage in outbursts of negative emotions
- May show aggressive or ego-centric behaviors (depending on their age)
- Are less socially competent, in general
- Are often less successful in school — they show difficulties learning, and are less productive in the classroom.
Parents as Teachers: The PIE Approach
Parents can effectively teach their children to manage their emotions by helping them toprocess, identify and appropriately express their emotions. I call this the PIE approach. Over the years, I have found it to be quite helpful.
The First Step: Help Your Child ProcessHer Feelings
How many times have you asked your school age child, “how do you feel about that…?” and gotten a completely blank look? Often, young and older children (including adolescents) are unaware of their feelings because they fail to appropriately process their reaction to an emotional situation.
You can help your child get in touch with his feelings by asking questions like “What did you feel when your friend made fun of you in front of the class?” or by offering: “I would have felt angry if my teacher had hollered at me that way.” Encouraging children to openly discuss the emotionally arousing situation can also help process what they’re feeling.
Step Two: Help Your Child Identify What He’s Feeling
Identifying and labeling emotions is an important component of emotional regulation. Children who have a large vocabulary of names for feelings are better able to express their emotions using language, rather than behaviors. As early as two years old, children are able to learn names of feelings. The following tips are helpful tips:
- Name your feelings game: Use games or creative ways to teach your child the names of a range of emotions.
- Use your words: Redirect negative behaviors and remind your child to use words to explain what they are feeling and need.
- Suggest phrases: Provide examples of phrases your child can effectively use in emotional situations, such as “I was playing with that toy, can I have it back?”
- Use Books: There are wonderful books that focus on dealing with emotions, for children of all ages. These books offer opportunities to discuss emotions from a safe distance.
- Use Posters with Emotions Faces: These posters help children learn how to recognize other people’s emotions and facial expressions, an important component to identifying emotions in others and in oneself.
Step 3: Help Your Child AppropriatelyExpress His Feelings
Children fail to express their emotions verbally because they lack the vocabulary, or are too emotional to use them, or are afraid of expressing them. Here are some helpful tips and exercises:
- Give permission to feel and express emotions: Children need to feel they are safe in feeling and expressing negative emotions, especially with shy children.
- Show and Tell: Guide your child and show them how they can express their feelings. Use examples, phrases and scenarios.
- Use Art: Encourage your child to draw, color or sculpt their feelings.
- Encourage Writing: The simple act of writing down their feelings is a powerful way to express emotions, especially in older children. Use poetry, song writing or short-stories.
- Be a Role Model: As with everything else, parents are powerful role models to their children. Practicing responsible emotional management is a fundamental part of teaching your child the life-long valued skill of handling emotions.
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