Taking time to help your child emotionally regulate is investing in their future.
One of the most important things you can give your child is the tools to cope with their negative emotions. Researchers have found that emotional intelligence (eq) is a better predictor of success than iq. Having control of your emotions helps you interact with others, overcome life’s challenges, and chase after your goals. So taking the time to help your child emotionally regulate is investing in their future.
But, this can be challenging. Emotions are overwhelming. And if you didn’t grow up with healthy emotional models in your life, you may feel unequipped to handle your child’s emotions. You may be tempted to yell until they stop crying or run for the hills. But you can’t. Your kids need you to help them.
To break this cycle of emotional illiteracy, you can use these six steps to help your child cope with their negative emotions.
It is very easy to be sucked into your child’s emotional windstorm. But you can’t help them navigate their emotions if you’re struggling to navigate yours. You need to be able to approach their feelings calmly.
So start by taking several deep breaths. Tell your child to take a few deep breaths, too. This will help both of you calm down so you can talk about the situation.
If necessary, step away from the situation for a few minutes. Tell your child that you need some time alone before you’re ready to engage. Then set a timer and go back to the conversation when you are calmer.
When emotions go unaddressed, your kids are all on their own to navigate their feelings. These silent moments allow kids to attach their own meaning to negative experiences. But kids don’t have enough life experience or context to fully understand what happened. Without your help, they can create limiting beliefs about themselves like, “I am unlovable” or “I don’t belong here.”
It’s uncomfortable. Especially if your toddler is screaming. Or your teenager’s experience mirrors your own adolescent troubles. But you need to engage with your kids and their emotions. Even if all you can do in the moment is listen to how they feel.
Oftentimes, not being able to name or describe an experience attaches more negative meaning to it. This problem is especially prevalent for young children. They often lack the vocabulary necessary to explain what happened to them.
Without a label, these negative experiences and emotions become a big, ominous thing that haunts them. Providing children labels for their negative emotions and experiences gives them a sense of power and control over them.
In a marketing class I took in college, we learned a technique called “laddering.” When interviewing research participants, you start with a question. Then you “ladder” by following up their answer with a “why” question related to their response. Then you do it again and again with each new answer.
The point is to dig deep into the participant’s motives, reasoning, feelings, and understanding of the world. You can use this same technique when helping your child navigate a negative experience. Here is a laddering experience I had with my four-year-old last night:
“How do you feel?”
“Why do you feel nervous?”
“Because you’re going to cut my toenails.”
“Why does cutting your toenails make you nervous?”
“Because it’s going to hurt.”
“Why do you think it’s going to hurt?”
“Because it’s going to hurt.”
“Why do you think it’s going to hurt? Did it hurt when we cut your nails before?”
Maybe she really was nervous. But she realized that it didn’t hurt before, and we were able to trim her nails.
Laddering is a great way for you to fully understand what your child is experiencing. Otherwise, you might make assumptions and solve the wrong problems. When my daughter resisted getting her nails trimmed, it could have been easy to assume she was just being defiant. But, after our laddering exercise, I realized she was nervous and thought it was going to hurt. This led me to respond in a very different way.
After understanding what your child is feeling, normalize their emotions. In this case with my daughter, I told her, “It’s okay to feel nervous. Everyone gets nervous sometimes.”
When we experience difficult things, we tend to think we are all alone in our suffering. This makes us feel isolated, different, and wrong. But normalizing your child’s emotions helps them feel less alone. It helps them feel okay about their emotions and eliminates shame.
Examples of normalizing phrases include:
“It’s okay to feel this way.”
“Everyone feels that way sometimes.”
“This happens all the time.”
“You’re not the only one who feels like this.”
“I also feel that way when this happens.”
After helping your child navigate their negative emotions, find ways to encourage them. Negative experiences and feelings can leave your child’s self-esteem a little bruised. Even if you did talk with them about it.
Your child may begin to apply one negative experience to other areas of their life. If they struggle in school, they may think they can’t be successful anywhere else either. If one friend was mean to them, they begin to think all their friends will be mean to them. Encouragement helps them realize they still have strengths and redeeming qualities. It will stop them from applying their negative feelings and experiences to other unrelated areas in their lives.
So find positive things to point out to your child.
If they lost a game, tell them how proud you were that they never gave up. If they failed a test, remind them how well they do in other subjects. If they messed up on stage, tell them how much you admired their bravery.
*Note: This is not telling them to look on the bright side or shoving away their feelings with positivity. You need to acknowledge and validate their negative feelings. Then provide sincere encouragement.*
Emotions can feel big and overwhelming. And with a limited understanding of the world, children may struggle to make sense of them. Your role is to give them the tools and context they need to understand what they are experiencing and feeling. With your help, they can process their emotions and bounce back from negative experiences.
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