Supporting Emotional Growth in Children: 4 Helpful Steps
Emotions have a bad reputation in our culture. While we are typically comfortable expressing and being around others who are expressing joy, excitement, or a calm demeanor, we see other emotions as unacceptable. We understand that all humans of all ages experience a wide range of emotions, yet we don’t want to see them all, even in our children. Why? Because it pains us to watch our children in distress! (And because we’re tired, overworked parents!) As a family and child therapist in the Washington DC/Bethesda area (and a parent myself), I notice that our adult responses tend to be anxious, dismissive or coddling. Below are some examples of some unhelpful thoughts that parents often have, which are followed by suggestions for shifting into a mode more akin to Gottman’s ”Emotion Coaching”:
Notice how our typical responses are really more related to our own discomfort than the child’s.
- Unhelpful Thought/Belief: “I need to reason with a child who is being irrational.”
- Alternative Consideration: When kids are in a state of distress, whether logical or not, the part of their brain that is able to use and accept logic is “offline.” Your most strategic steps should be to “calm first – use logic later.” You can support calming first by using a calm, even tone of voice, a neutral facial expression, and even slow body movements (nothing sudden or surprising). Consider what you know about your child. Does he like to hold something soft? Does she enjoy drinking from her favorite cup? Does your child respond to open arms for a hug or an impromptu game of catch using a couch pillow? There will be plenty of time to revisit logic once everyone has returned to a calm, even state
- Unhelpful Thought/Belief: “If I give up a little control, it’s going to be a disaster.”
- Alternative Consideration: Like adults, kids of all ages benefit from the feeling of having influence and control over their environment. Also like adults, kids need to “save face.” Dignity develops very early in life. Giving them respect and freedom to make choices builds their feelings of trust, competency, and responsibility. They begin to realize, “I can respect myself because my parents respect me.” “When I communicate with adults, they respond to me in a respectful way, even when I’m not being so pleasant.
- Unhelpful Thought/Belief: “My child will grow up to be weak if I pay attention to all of their crying and worrying.”
- Alternative Consideration: It’s scary to think that your child may not be emotionally strong enough to manage hard situations that come their way. How can we avoid children growing up to be adults who “stuff” their feelings year after year, eventually becoming so unskilled with emotions that it impacts their health, happiness, and relationships with others? We can name and accept the full range of emotions, then support kids in using helpful self-talk and strategies for managing them. If we shame kids when they cry, worry, or are afraid, then we will raise children who will continue to shame themselves into adulthood for feeling emotions that everyone feels. This shame is what often leads to unhelpful, harmful habits.
- ”Unhelpful Thought/Belief: “My children won’t have a good life if they’re so whiney/fearful/stubborn… <insert any other unpleasant adjective>.”
- Alternative Consideration: You can trust that your child will develop because all children have a natural instinct to mature…at their own pace! Also, there are plenty of people who display undesirable qualities, however they manage to have functional lives and experience the fullness of life. Additionally, there is no age limit on when we can shift unwanted behaviors in ourselves. Focusing on the worst possible outcome for being “whiney” is likely to prevent you from responding in a helpful manner.
- Unhelpful Thought/Belief: “This world is tough, so my child needs to be able to deal with tough things.”
- Alternative Consideration: This world IS tough! Consider equipping children for the hard times ahead by accepting our wide range of human emotions, then trying these four steps for promoting healthy emotional development and self-confidence.
Shifting these beliefs can help you to respond to your child’s emotions in a more productive and effective way. Beyond shifting your thinking, here are some useful strategies as you engage with your child:
- Tell yourself something helpful: The first step in managing children is managing adult thoughts and emotions. Think about what you’re thinking! If your thought is not so helpful, say something that is!
-“This is not an emergency: my child just needs my support.”
-“My child will develop because children have a natural instinct to mature. With my support, this behavior won’t last forever.”
-“I can handle my emotions calmly, and that automatically helps my child!”
- Use empathy to validate their feelings and preferences. This will help them to respect themselves, their feelings and value their own opinions.
Example: “I can understand how dark shadows in your room make you feel worried.”
- Describe what you see rather than labeling. Labeling a child using an undesirable description, such as “baby” or “scaredy-cat”, is more disabling than empowering. Instead, describe what you see as a way to promote resilience and appropriate attention to the situation.
Example “I see a shadow over there in the corner. I see you are way under your covers now.”
- Let your child come up with possible solutions. It’s so hard to be patient when you know already know a way to solve the problem! However, when we are impatient with kids, immediately telling them what to do, we miss the opportunity to develop their self-sufficiency and confidence. Their involvement in problem solving teaches that they have valid ideas and problem-solving abilities.
Example “What do you think we could do to help you feel more comfortable for sleeping?”