“Honor the Feelings But not the Responses”: Helping your Child Cope with Emotions

Emotional intelligence is something we utilize on a daily basis. Every child needs a well-rounded emotional education to thrive, whether they’re in class or meeting new friends, and that education starts at home.

Let’s talk about how you can honor and guide your child’s emotions.


Emotional development in children


Emotional development refers to how a child feels about themselves, other people, and the world around them.

Working with a child to recognize and understand their emotions can help them:

  • communicate how they feel,
  • work through big emotions,
  • feel comfortable expressing themselves, and
  • feel understood.

On the flipside, it also helps your child control their behavior independently.

As anyone with a child will know, children may not understand how to express their feelings in a healthy and productive way. This can result in escalation, arguments, and tantrums. But these moments are a crucial part of getting to know your child’s emotionality. Taking the time to work carefully through these difficult moments with your child can really help them learn more about themselves.

Don’t write off their feelings as “acting out.” Your child might want to tell you something, but they lack the language and emotional experience to tell you what. It’s your job as the emotionally mature guardian to help them figure out what they mean, what they want, and how to ask for it.


Let’s consider some example behaviors. 

Imagine your child is playing with another child in the park. You see your child climbing on the slide after you’ve told them not to, so you reprimand them. “We don’t climb on the slide. We could hurt ourselves.” You intervene and stop them from doing the dangerous, off-limits behavior.

A few moments later, your child pushes another child to the ground. Is this an isolated issue? Or could there be more complex emotions at work? Obviously, this is unacceptable behavior, but you should consider the emotions that motivated it before you react. Too quick or harsh a reaction could accidentally tell your child, “You aren’t allowed to be upset. These emotions are not acceptable.”

Pull your child aside, get down to their level, and speak with them calmly.

“You don’t direct feelings of frustration at other people.” They don’t have to apologize for being angry, but they do have to apologize for hurting somebody.

By carefully reprimanding your child for the real problem (the behavior of hurting another child), you can then focus on talking through what motivated them to do that. They may have been embarrassed that they were caught not following the rules, frustrated that they had almost made it to the top of the slide and their sense of accomplishment was interrupted, or confused about why they saw other kids climbing the slide but they aren’t allowed to. You can help your child understand their own needs better so they can express themself in healthy ways.



Big emotion prevention


Let’s redirect our attention from reacting to preventing emotional outbursts.

Outburst prevention involves getting to know your child’s preferences and respecting their agency. For clarity, this isn’t about simply giving in to your child’s every whim. Rather, it’s about making the effort to understand what your child likes and dislikes to make them more comfortable.

For example, imagine your child is playing with their toys right before lunch. From past experience, lunchtime is a hard time of day for your child. More often than not when you say “It’s lunchtime, let’s get ready to eat” your child becomes fussy, stubborn, and upset.

This is a perfectly acceptable response, even for an adult! Transitions can be incredibly challenging for children. They’re having a good time doing what they’re doing, and they feel like you’re taking that from them. 

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if you were in a restaurant and a waiter abruptly came over to your table and said, “You need to leave now. We need this table. You’re done eating.” You’d probably be pretty frustrated and disoriented that the expectations changed so quickly. 

Give your child some time to adjust. Give your child warnings that a transition is coming soon so they can begin to prepare for it. If the time for changing activities comes and they still get frustrated, offer them understanding and a bit of agency. You could say, “I know you are having fun, but I told you it’s almost time to eat. Do you want to eat lunch in four minutes or five minutes?” This can help them adjust to the new activity and avoid a big emotional backlash.

In developing children, the response often doesn’t accurately represent the feeling. What comes across as rage or frustration may be motivated by many other factors. The child doesn’t yet have the emotional intelligence to express themselves clearly, and that barrier can be incredibly upsetting to a child. They’re trying to express themselves in any way they can, and it’s up to us to help interpret what they’re feeling.

Prompt them with guiding questions to find the real cause of their emotions. “Are you sad because we are done playing?” “Are you upset because you’re hungry? You can ask if you want a snack.”

You can turn these moments into learning experiences for them by giving them the tools to be understood. This gives them greater insight into their emotional experience, and they can start examining their own behaviors and reacting to their needs independently.

Emotional independence is the ultimate goal!


Modeling good emotional regulation


A child is constantly absorbing their environment. They’re always trying to model their behavior after the examples they have available to them, and their caretakers are a big part of that education.

This cuts two ways. If they’re in an emotional environment where Dad regularly yells when his favorite football team loses, the child could learn that it’s okay to shout when they don’t get what they want. If Dad speaks calmly and doesn’t raise his voice, the child can learn how to emote more appropriately when experiencing negative feelings.

For an impactful emotional education, focus on making your emotional responses consistent. Consistency can help the child learn faster than if your responses vary every time they do something.

Imagine your child just drew something, and they want to show you. Naturally, you’d be excited that they created something, so you praise them. But one day, perhaps you’re really stressed with work. You’re in the middle of an important phone call, and your child wants your attention again. They keep pulling on your sleeve to show you their new drawing.

Your child doesn’t understand that you’re busy and stressed. They’re just excited to show you something they’re proud of. Just as you’re asking them to regulate their emotions, you can do the same for yourself.

Take a moment away from your call to praise your child, and then perhaps redirect them. “Thank you for showing me, I really want to look at it with you. Do you want to hang it up on the fridge? I’ll be there in a couple minutes and you can tell me all about it, okay?” 

Emotions are a complex part of our lives as parents of young children, but by meeting your child halfway, you’re giving them the tools they need to develop a healthy relationship with their own emotions. Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about your own emotions along the way.

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