BIG Emotions In Little People

As a parent, and counselor, I feel an immense amount of responsibility to teach my children how to manage their emotions effectively.  My hope for my children isn’t that they would be void of struggles, but rather that they would know how to effectively navigate the twists and turns in life.  In short, I desire to raise emotionally intelligent children.

Research has shown that an individual with a high emotional intelligence has greater success in relationships, work, and even overall health.  Emotional intelligence isn’t developed overnight, but rather moment by moment, from temper tantrums to joyful outbursts.  For parents, these moments may be inconvenient or unnerving, but if we view these moments as opportunities to teach we can assist our kids in navigating their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in childhood and into adulthood.  Below are a few questions we can ask ourselves to gauge whether or not we are encouraging emotional intelligence in our children

  1. Can your child identify their emotions?

The first step in managing an emotion is being able to determine what emotion you are actually feeling.  Acknowledging and identifying an emotion provides a context that allows a child to communicate how they feel.  When a child can communicate how they feel, then parents are better equipped to help meet their emotional and relational needs.  Emotions can feel BIG, for adults and for children.  When BIG feelings arise, it’s helpful to be able to pinpoint what is going on internally.  Think of identification as the groundwork for emotional intelligence.

If your child is yelling because their toy broke then you may say, “That’s anger you are feeling”, or if they are in a crying frenzy because a friend said something unkind you might say, “You’re crying because you feel sad”.  These simple reflections allow a child to learn names and pinpoint those BIG feelings.  Again, after naming the emotion then you have a starting point for meeting needs.

My son is 3 years old and my daughter is 7 years old.  Needless to say, we are not strangers to BIG emotions, and sometimes those emotions are overwhelming for my children and even myself.  When one of my children are in the middle of a meltdown the first step I take is in assisting them to name what they are feeling.  I pay attention to their cues and begin to name what I am seeing and as a result my daughter has begun to learn the art of communicating her emotions.  I recently picked her up from school and immediately noticed that she was void of her usual bubbly energy.  I looked at her and asked what was wrong.  My 1st grader began to narrate a series of unfortunate events from the day and then concluded, “Mom, I’m just disappointed. Nothing happened the way it was supposed to today.” WOW! These are the moments I consider a parenting win!  When she was able to name the emotion, it was as if she was able to gain a little control after facing a day where so many things were out of her control.  I was then able to meet her in her disappointment and help her process her experiences.

  1. Can you express empathy towards your child when they are experiencing BIG emotions?

Empathy is a parenting gamechanger.  Let’s discuss what empathy is not.  Empathy is not pity.  Empathy is not a pass for misbehavior.  Instead, empathy is the ability to let someone else feel and know that you “get it”.  You get that emotions feel BIG at times.  You get what it’s like to feel sad, angry, disappointed, jealous, etc.  When your child is overwhelmed by BIG emotions, are you able to take a step back and let them know that they are not alone? When we express empathy towards others, we offer the ability for someone to be seen and known.  Empathy allows us to partner with others, reassuring them in their struggle that their burden can be shared.

Empathy says, “Oh wow, your friend said something really hurtful. I would feel sad, too.”

Empathy says, “I know you don’t want go to bed yet.  You were having so much fun.”

I encourage parents to try empathic statements before correction or redirecting. Empathy may take effort, but I believe the effort provides great benefits. However, I also recognize that this can be extremely difficult when our children may not be able to communicate what is going on internally.

My 3-year-old son is currently the king of BIG emotions, like many pre-school aged children.  At times it seems as if the BIG feelings come out of nowhere and empathy can be so difficult to express in these moments.  Whenever he is in meltdown mode I frequently have to remind myself that this is an opportunity, not just an inconvenience.  I cannot count how many times my boy has cried and wailed because he wanted to wear his tank top and flip flops while it was snowing, or because he suddenly decided that his childhood stuffed animal should be blue instead of green.  In these moments I will eventually correct or teach, but I will first express empathy.    Even in the middle of what seems to be an unreasonable response, empathy can be powerful.  In these moments, my preschooler needs me to assist him in the middle of his experience and not just tell him to “cut it out”.  In these moments, empathy looks like the ability to understand that even as an adult I sometimes have unreasonable responses, and that BIG emotions can be tough to handle.

  1. How do you manage your own emotions in front of your children?

If we want emotionally intelligent children we have to be aware of our own emotions and manage them well in front of our children.  This is called “modeling”.  Modeling is when you intentionally verbalize your emotions to your children and allow them to see your response and how to effectively manage your BIG feelings.  I frequently work with parents who want to hide their emotions from their children in their attempt to be “strong” for their kids.  I also see parents who lay every emotion out there with no age appropriate filter and no healthy way of dealing with their own BIG feelings.  Neither of these methods are helpful in teaching.

Years ago, I was preparing for a business trip that would take me away from my kids for 10 days, which was the longest time I had ever been away from them.  I felt scared, sad, and anxious.  However, I most certainly did not share those BIG feelings with my children. In fact, I opted for the “let’s look on the bright side” method and planned fun things for my kids to do in my absence.  I intentionally made it sound as if they were going to have so much fun without me.  About a week prior to my leaving, my daughter broke down in tears and began to express her own sadness regarding my leaving.  Of course, I nurtured her while she cried, and as I held her she said, “But Mom, you just keep talking about how much fun it’s going to be and I’m just going to miss you.” My daughter’s confession highlighted my missed opportunity.  I had tried so hard to avoid the obvious emotions and rescue my children from feeling sad, but instead I left them feeling as if they weren’t allowed to feel anything other than excitement about my upcoming trip.  Ultimately, my daughter’s words told me that I had let her feel all alone in her sadness.  After she stated her concerns I quickly tried to correct my failed attempts.  I reassured her that I was sad, too.  I let her know that I was scared, too. I let her know that she wasn’t alone.  From that moment on I worked to model my own BIG feelings and allow my children to see me utilize my coping skills and my emotional intelligence.

As parents, we want to raise resilient, intelligent children.  This happens when our kids can regulate their emotions.  Parenting may not come with a manual, but fortunately we can learn as we go.  If you want more information on raising emotionally intelligent children I would highly recommend reading Dr. John Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child.  Remember, none of us have all the answers, and good parenting requires being intentional.

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