After years and years of teaching kids to “toughen up,” we now know that kids’ emotions matter (as they always have).
An increasing body of evidence suggests that kids do not misbehave because they’re bad. Rather, misbehavior is often a sign that your kid hasn’t yet learned how to express difficult feelings and emotions.
A kid who neither knows what anxiety means nor how it manifests in his body is more likely to go into a meltdown the next time he encounters an anxiety-provoking situation. Another kid will react differently. Biting, impulsivity, aggressiveness, hitting, and extreme shyness are also ways in which kids express their inability to deal with difficult emotions.
Emotions do not only affect how kids react, they also affect how they feel. It’s not uncommon for your child to develop a headache or a stomachache every time she has to go for a swimming lesson or just before school starts, if those are anxiety-provoking situations for her.
Why does strengthening kids’ emotional intelligence matter? Because kids’ inability to manage their emotions can create a domino effect in other aspects of their lives. The available evidence suggests that kids’ inability to regulate their emotions is associated with impulsive behavior, and impulsivity is detrimental for kid’s social, academic, and psychological development. Impulsive kids are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors in adolescence and even in later years.
The good news is that nothing is simpler than teaching kids about emotions. It’s neither a costly process nor does it require the intervention of a professional. In all fairness, however, teaching kids to manage their emotions is a long process and the results are not always visible at first sight.
Evidence suggests that parenting styles predict the development of kids’ ability to control their emotions. In other words, whether or not we validate our kids’ emotions will ultimately have an impact on their ability to manage those emotions well beyond the childhood years. Here are a few tips about everyday experiences you can transform into “emotion discipline” lessons.
What we tell our kids: Don’t cry, it’s nothing
- What we should be telling them: I’m here/Tell me about it/ Crying will make you feel better/Do you want a hug?
We don’t help our children develop their emotional intelligence by invalidating their feelings. You’ve probably noticed that telling kids “it’s nothing” does not make them cry less. Instead of invalidating your child’s feelings, teach him that it’s okay to cry and then show him what he can do to feel better – tell someone, distract himself, ask for a hug – which will help develop his emotional intelligence.
Teasing kids about their fears does not make those fears go away. It simply amplifies the fears and leads to the development of other difficult secondary emotions.
What we tell our kids: What’s wrong now?
- What we should be telling them: I know it’s upsetting. Do you want to talk about it?
Your kid will not know how to express her emotions if she does not know what those emotions are. There are many age-appropriate and easy-to-apply strategies to teach kids about emotions, and it’s never too early to start.
Indeed, the available evidence suggests that even the youngest kids benefit when we take their emotions into account. When we put our kids’ emotions into words and propose appropriate ways to express those emotions, we help them develop their emotional intelligence and teach them that they can manage even the most difficult emotions.
Bear in mind, however, that the strategies that work with your two-year-old will not necessarily work with your eight-year-old. While infants and toddlers often need our intervention to help them adopt appropriate strategies, older kids are capable of and need to be taught to identify effective emotion regulation strategies they can use by themselves.
What we tell our kids: You made me angry
- What we should be telling them: I was angry because…
Yes, you have a right to be angry at your child’s behavior, but you can choose how you react.
Strengthening your children’s emotional intelligence is about teaching them that they too are responsible for their reactions. Put differently, teaching your child emotional discipline is about teaching him that yes, he will “get baited,” but he can decide whether to take the bait or not.
What we tell our kids: Why do you make me yell at you?
- What we should be telling them: I’m sorry I yelled at you when I was angry. I will try and yell less.
Your kid is not responsible for how you react to his or her behavior, you are. We all lose it sometimes and do things we regret, but blaming our kids for our guilt only makes it harder for them to learn how to manage their emotions.
As in many other areas of raising kids, how we react to our emotions teaches kids how to react to theirs. When we shout and engage in “adult tantrums,” we teach our kids that throwing a tantrum is a valid response to emotions. That doesn’t mean that we should always be “perfect” parents. It simply means being able to recognize and apologize for our reactions when necessary.
Ultimately, the ability to understand your kid’s signals and respond in age-appropriate ways that minimize distress can help him develop emotion regulation skills. For instance, some studies suggest that distracting young kids from distressing situations can teach them to integrate “walking away” within their repertoire of emotion-regulation skills and thus help them develop the “self-control of emotion.”
Everyday life provides multiple opportunities to teach kids about emotions. Even simply commenting on emotions when reading a book or watching TV together – “he sure looks angry,” “why do you think she’s frowning?” – can go a long way in teaching your kid about emotions.