How to Help Children Handle Difficult Emotions
As human beings, we are faced with difficult situations of varying magnitudes throughout our whole lives. How can we build resilience and self-confidence in children so they can manage their emotions successfully all the way into adulthood?
How to Tell if Your Child is Struggling
Before you can be able to help your child deal with difficult emotions, you need to be able to tell when they are having them. Children often struggle to express their emotions clearly, and are unlikely to come to you and tell you verbally that they are unhappy. Instead, they are likely to ‘act out’ in various ways that are different to their usual behaviour. Some children experience changes in sleep patterns or appetite. They may struggle with school work or fall out with their friends.
Other signs can include a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, separation anxiety, lack of energy and emotional outbursts such as crying, shouting or tantrums.
How to Handle a Child’s Emotions as a Parent
Even though we aim to support our children in every way possible, it is easy to make a mistake with our kids when they are at their most vulnerable. A child might throw a tantrum because they need our help, and we may react badly by losing our tempers ourselves. It is very important to react to your child’s problems as calmly as possible, as this will provide a model for them of how to behave.
Even if you don’t feel calm, try to act like you do, as becoming angry will only make the experience harder for both you and your child. When you speak, keep your voice level and even, and act deliberately and slowly. Stay close to your child so they know you are there, and wait out the tantrum.
Once the worst of the storm is over, use the following tips to help your child deal with the emotions they are experiencing.
Use logic to make sense of their feelings
Telling your child to ‘stop crying’ or ‘calm down’ will not help them through their emotional outburst, and is likely to make things worse. Demanding that your child be rational won’t work, but rather will make them frustrated and prolong their tantrum. Instead, wait until they become calmer by themselves. If necessary, pick them up and take them to a quieter place, especially if they are having an outburst in public.
Offer your child empathy, and verbally acknowledge that you understand they are feeling sad, scared or in pain. As they relax, ask them to explain why they are upset and guide them through the story until you find out what triggered the meltdown. This teaches the child to be able to investigate and deal with their own emotions, something that will help to build self-confidence when interacting with the wider world.
Encourage mindful breathing to help them become calm
When people are very upset, their breathing becomes erratic. This can quickly lead to feelings of panic, which makes difficult emotions feel even worse. Encouraging your child to focus on their breathing will help them to relax and calm down. This will diffuse the situation and bring their emotions back into balance.
At a time when your child is not having a tantrum, practice mindful breathing together. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, resting your hand on your tummy so you can feel it rise and fall. When your child is upset, encourage them to do this breathing with you, and keep going until they feel calmer and more in control. Being able to be self soothe in the midst of tumultuous emotions is a powerful tool.
Give feelings a label
It’s important that you allow a child to fully explore the feelings they are having. You should encourage them to work through a problem and cope with their feelings around it, rather than simply removing the problem in an attempt to make them happy again. Good parenting means training your child to be resilient and able to handle difficult times with emotional maturity. If you try to fix everything yourself and insulate them from all crises, you’ll make life harder for them later on.
Labelling feelings helps children get to grips with what they are feeling, and why. For younger children the names will be basic, such as angry, sad and happy. As children get older, these terms will be more specific and defined, such as anxious, frustrated or disappointed. Identifying and naming feelings is an essential part of learning to cope with them.
Offer unconditional emotional support
When your child is struggling with a difficult emotion, the best thing you can do is be there by their side. Don’t attempt to fix the problem, or try to distract them out of their emotions with treats or toys. Instead, give them a hug and acknowledge that you know how they feel. Be with them and allow them to talk through their emotions: this helps them resolve their traumas and make sense of what has happened to them, however big or small it may seem.
When they are feeling better, tell them how proud you are to see them handling their emotions maturely. This will further encourage them to react appropriately when things are hard.
The best way to help your child handle difficult emotions is to offer support, without attempting to fix the problem yourself. Encouraging your child to learn self soothing techniques such as mindful breathing will enable them to calm down quickly, before logically working through what triggered them to become upset.
By talking to your child about the feelings they are having and labelling them correctly, you will enable them to recognise what they are feeling and why, and what steps to take to enable themselves to feel better. Plenty of hugs and affection will also go a long way to showing them that it’s safe to feel their emotions, and that they will soon pass, and all will be well again.