How to raise an emotionally-healthy child.
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
At some point in their life, every child will experience anger, hurt feelings, disappointment, grief…
Later, there might be heartbreaks, loosing a friend, a pet’s death, not being accepted into a sports team…
The important questions we need to ask ourselves, as parents and carers, are:
‘Will my child know that it is OK to feel these deep feelings?’, ‘Will s/he understand that these feelings are part of life?’, 'Will s/he know how to deal with them?’
'Will s/he spiral down into dark-dark spaces without the tools nor the support?
In the decade I have guided and supported my sons and other children through their many, (MANY!) emotional expressions and outbursts, meltdowns and tantrums, whether:
- they were fighting for a toy,
- refusing to get in the car seat,
- getting frustrated at putting together a puzzle,
- getting the green cup instead of the yellow one,
- breaking something valuable at someone else’s place (yikes!),
- not getting a ‘party bag’
- falling and hurting their knee,
- having to stop playing because it is bedtime,
- not being ‘first’,
- making mistakes,
- being the recipient of someone’s joke,
- finding it difficult to do or learn something,
- disappointment over mum picking them up from school when they wanted dad,
- not having what they wanted when they wanted it,
- birth of a new sibling…
The one thing I can tell you works every time is:
Validating their experience and their feelings and emotions *
This has resulted in them feeling safe, confident in their ability 'to be with' a strong emotion, and being able to move on unscathed, not being afraid of expressing themselves and ultimately feeling empowered.
Our initial tendency, as parents, to want to ‘fix’ things, avoid them all together, wanting ‘it’ to go away, distracting, convincing, cajoling and ignoring, even in the name of ‘protecting’ our children, can be the difference between a child having the self-regulation skills needed in life, or not.
John Gottman, author of Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, says that ‘Emotion Coaching’ doesn’t come naturally to all parents though, and simply loving our child is not enough.
He has found that very warm and involved parents often have negative attitudes toward their children’s emotions when they were sad or afraid or angry.
But if the highest wish of every parent is for their child to be happy and successful, then emotional awareness, and the ability to be with and handle their feelings and emotions, is a must-tool for children to have.
There is also wide acceptance that social and emotional health is the foundation for resilience and mental health. Mental health is a pre-requisite to happiness.
But I understand it can be hard for us to watch our children struggle, and we may want 'to rescue' them from difficult experiences and unpleasant emotions - whether it is them learning to tie their shoelaces or being bullied at school.
So how can we help our children develop their emotional muscles, for everyone's benefit?
FOSTERING EMOTIONAL AWARENESS / INTELLIGENCE
1. Validate what your child is going through, regardless of what you think they ‘should or must’ be going through or feeling.
Articulate an emotion without making assumptions. For example: 'You seem angry’ vs ‘You are angry!’ or if they are upset, instead of saying ‘you’re fine, it’s not that bad’ say ‘that sounds upsetting’.
Verbalising, acknowledging, validating, naming and labelling the emotion has a soothing effect on the nervous system (for children and adults), not to mention a lasting affect on their wellbeing.
Important to keep in mind:
- Denying feelings/emotions doesn’t make them disappear! But acknowledging them can help alleviate them.
- ‘Positive’ emotions don’t act as protection ‘against the negative ones’. They are independent from each other. In fact, both can be useful aspects of growth and development.
2. Avoid giving ‘lessons’ when your child is right in the middle of an outburst.
Most of us would agree that we wouldn’t want our boss or our partner ‘preaching to us’ when we are feeling vulnerable, feeling bad or sad about something that happened at work, for instance. We would much prefer a listening, compassionate ear, yes?
3. Avoid the temptation to use dummies/pacifiers, food, scolding, doing ‘time-outs’ or punishing a child when, and because, they are crying or having an emotional outburst, tantrum, or feeling ‘out of control’.
When our child is going through deep emotions, that's when they need us the most. They need to know that we accept them fully: When they are at their best and when they are at their ‘worst’.
All feelings are acceptable. All wishes are acceptable. Not all actions and behaviours are acceptable. So while you accept that they may be angry, that doesn't mean you are going to let your child hit you.
4. Be present.
Sometimes you don’t even have to say a word but simply being fully there. Nodding helps too, or saying 'I hear you, I feel you'.
5. Avoid the temptation to try to convince them or pretend to ‘see’ or ‘do’ something to distract them.
Such as saying ‘Oh, oh! I see a bird!' as a way to make your child stop crying.
‘The bird' is not going to give your child the tools to deal with disappointment when s/he is 15!
‘The bird’ might take the form of alcohol, drug or food etc as a way to continue the habit of being distracted by something else, when they are feeling something uncomfortable, strong or unpleasant, because they don't know how to deal with, or 'be with it'.
6. Say ‘I’m here’ instead of ‘what happened?' or ‘what happened!!!??!!!!’
Though our ultimate goal isn’t necessarily for them to calm down, but instead to be there for our child while they express and find calmness when the are ready, their breathing will begin to regulate when they know someone is there to support them.
Once they are calmer children will most likely be willing to explain what happened.
7. Let go of stereotypes.
‘Boys do this and girls behave like that’. Clean slate. Every child is different. Those are unhelpful beliefs.
8. When we need to address behaviour, we can set aside time when everyone is centred to explore/unpack what could have caused the outburst.
These strategies would work with most kids:
After you finish telling it, it might be tempting to want to finish with ‘a moral of the story’ but I mostly don’t, and let them find out and work out how they feel about it all and what they want to take from it.
Healing Stories for Challenging Behaviour is a beautiful, useful book to help in this department.
B) Share genuine times of your own childhood
Each experience will be different of course, but our children can see that we went through something difficult, such as feeling anxious on the first day of school, but here we are: We ‘survived’ in fact, we can laugh about it now, or at least talk about it with wisdom.
C) Act as a 'translator'
When we have been able to identify a sign for our child, share it with them. For instance, ‘I’ve noticed that when you get tired/hungry/upset…your body gives you signs in the form of …..’
or 'whenever you don’t feel or want to play with your brother you can say “mum I need space” and I will help you.’
This can be for anything, and from toddlerhood to teenage years! It's a great prevention tool. For instance, 'let's role play what you can do the next time you feel uncomfortable in a place where you don't know anyone'.
Brainstorm ideas and then try them out. They will help your child 'em-body' them.
E) Humour is a great ally.
As long as it is not done to make fun of the child. Ever.
Remember some ‘issues’ will be more complex than others, and you may have to try different strategies to find what works for your child. Different situations will also call for different strategies.
Easier said that done?
The more you do it, the more it will become second nature. It is also important to be compassionate with ourselves. I’ve been doing this for many years and there are times when I still get triggered, but we keep on learning.
And, when we know better, we do better.
Children with good emotion regulation skills:
Foster ‘desirable outcomes’ throughout their life such as:
- High social competence,
- Healthy peer relations,
- Good academic performance,
- Appropriate school readiness and proper school adjustment,
- Can cope with separation-related emotions and feelings (e.g., anxiety, fear, and frustration due to the separation from caregivers),
- Are more emotionally stable,
- Are more resilient,
- Can focus attention and motivate themselves.
- Behavioural problems,
- Infectious illnesses
And if we truly want to keep the big picture, Daniel Coleman, author of Emotional intelligence, says:
‘Not being able to distinguish anxiety with hunger, puts kids at risk of eating disorders; having trouble controlling our impulses can mean teenagers getting pregnant’; there are suicides, homicides…all the cause of "emotional malaise"'.
In other words, competent emotion regulation is essential for children (and adults!) to live a successful and happy life.
You've got this!
* Feelings and emotions are often used interchangeably (as I'm doing in this blog post). But essentially, feelings are a group of sensations. It may be heat, heart racing, sweating, dry mouth, tummy-ache… The moment you notice all of these feelings going on simultaneously and you give it a name, it becomes an emotion: anger, frustration, fear etc.