One of the most valuable lessons you can teach your child is to identify and manage their emotions. Doing so shows them that experiencing a range of emotions is normal. Kids who learn healthy ways to express and cope with their emotions show less behavioral problems. They feel more competent and capable.
“Being able to talk about emotions sets the foundation for healthy problem solving and conflict resolution,” said Sarah Leitschuh, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in helping families develop healthy ways to communicate about and cope with emotions. These skills also help kids to maintain healthy relationships right now and as they get older, she said.
Sometimes, however, parents teach or model the opposite to their kids: They inadvertently create a space where a child feels uncomfortable expressing their emotions, Leitschuh said. Parents might say, “That’s not a big deal” or “You shouldn’t be sad” or “You should be happy” or “Stop crying.”
They might not “give a child their full attention when they’re trying to share an emotion.”
Also, when a child expresses their emotion inappropriately, parents might miss the opportunity to teach them a healthier alternative, she said. Instead, they might jump right into the punishment. This can be confusing for kids because they might assume they’re being punished for their emotion—not the inappropriate behavior. (That’s why it’s helpful to let your child know that the consequence is given for their behavior, not for how they’re feeling.)
Teaching emotional regulation to kids isn’t easy. It’s tough especially if you’re not so comfortable experiencing and expressing your own emotions. But it’s something you can do, one strategy at a time. Below, Leitschuh shared five straightforward suggestions for helping your child identify and manage their emotions.
Help your child recognize emotions every day.
When you see your child experiencing an emotion, help them to label it “in the moment,” Leitschuh said. Help them explore what might’ve triggered their emotion. Point out emotions that other kids might be experiencing, too, she said. You also can share your own emotions with your child (without burdening them, of course), she added.
Read books about emotions to your child.
Children’s books are filled with wisdom. They put simple but meaningful words to powerful concepts. Leitschuh suggested checking out this page, which includes kids’ books about exploring emotions, coping with anger and navigating different fears.
Look to shows and movies to jump-start discussions.
While watching your child’s favorite show or movie, Leitschuh suggested asking questions to help them understand a character’s emotions: “What do you think this person is feeling? Have you ever felt like that? What could make the person feel this way?”
Teach your child coping skills.
“I encourage parents to help their children build a variety of effective coping skills that will work for their child,” Leitschuh said. The coping strategies that will be effective will depend on these factors, she said: family; the emotion they’re experiencing; the setting; and the available resources. That’s why it’s important to teach your kids many strategies.
For instance, teach your child positive self-talk. If they’re anxious, your child might tell themselves: “I can do this.” “I am going to be OK.” “I know how to cope with my anxiety.” “Everyone makes mistakes.” “I can ask for help.” “My family loves me for who I am.”
Other strategies include: counting to 10; asking for a hug; listening to music; using a stress ball; and talking to someone your child trusts.
“Experiment to find which strategies are most effective for each child,” Leitschuh said. She also stressed the importance of practicing these coping skills regularly—before they’re needed—and to model them yourself.
Brainstorm creative ways your child can express their emotions that might be more comfortable or natural than only talking about them, Leitschuh said. This might be expressing emotions through “art, writing, physical activity, play [and] music.”
Being in tune with our emotions is being in tune with ourselves. It helps us to better understand what we need. It helps us in communicating and connecting with others. Again, which is why it’s an incredible skill we can teach our kids and practice ourselves.