Children experience life unfiltered. Their emotions can appear fast and furious, then switch suddenly. Our children learn how to handle their difficult feelings by watching how the adults in their lives weather our storms. Parents can model how to accept all feelings as legitimate. Children need to learn healthy ways to express their feelings so they can move towards letting difficult feelings go.
Whether it’s anxiety, depression, broken relationships, loss, or school performance, children travel the emotional landscape in ways that challenge even the calmest of parents. It can be very stressful to raise a child who feels so intensely. Parents may want to be the calm in the storm, but often we become part of the storm ourselves.
What parents need is a toolbox of skills we can access when these storms hit. When the winds start to rage, parents can reach into this toolbox and pull out helpful words to calm our child. Knowing what to do can help to keep parents centred and in control of our own emotions, and that’s exactly what our children need most.
Let’s delve into some common situations and see what tools we can use to help our children in an emotional storm.
Acknowledge and Validate
“What’s the big deal?” “You’re overreacting.” “Calm down!” “That’s enough!”
The intensity of the child’s emotions often seems overblown. Parents try to deescalate the situation by telling this to our child, often in a state of overwhelm themselves.
Or have you seen this...
“Oh, it’s okay.” “Don’t be sad.” “Don’t cry.”
It’s really the same thing, just in a nicer way.
When parents tell a child to push down their big emotions, it invalidates them. It sends the message that they should not feel big, that their feelings are wrong.
But they are not wrong. Their feelings are real. And our child knows it.
This makes our child feel like we don’t care about their emotions. And since children can’t tell the difference between their emotions and themselves, children may translate this to, “you don’t care about me.”
Invalidating children can over time lead to feelings of shame and resentment on the part of the child. Some youth learn to repress their feelings, which ends up being expressed in other unhealthy ways.
But what about this?
“You seem really upset. Are you disappointed you didn’t get invited to the party?”
“You’re frustrated with your sister. I get it.”
“Are you sad? Dad’s been away for awhile and I know you miss him.”
Help your child learn to name their feelings and build their emotional vocabulary. Withhold judgment of feelings as being good or bad. We don’t have to agree with their feelings to validate them.
This doesn’t need to be an extensive process. The more we do it, the easier gets.
To practice, try identifying your own feelings. Draw connections between your thoughts and actions. Your child will learn that feelings tell us there is something we may need to do--some action we need to take to solve a problem.
When we accept all feelings as okay and we can express them in healthy and safe manner, our children will build resilience and emotional intelligence. Sometimes just feeling heard and understood can be enough for a child to move on from the emotional storm.
Be the Lighthouse
When your child is sad about a broken relationship, we feel sad and struggle with them. When they are angry and hurl insults at us, we may feel angry and yell back. When they are stuck in frustration that life doesn’t seem to be going their way, we are frustrated that they just can’t snap out of it.
When we join our child in their emotional storm, we’re both hurtling through the wind. We want the storm to be over as soon as possible. We are now both in despair and our child may have even less hope of getting out.
All emotions are okay. Stand back and let feelings be.
Try to be an observer rather than a participant. This requires parents to employ our own emotion regulation skills. Take a deep breath and find our calm. We are the lighthouse and our child is the ship in distress. Let our calming light guide our child through the storm.
“I am here and you are safe.”
“Let’s take a deep breath together.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What do you need from me?”
This tends to have a balancing effect. It communicates that we believe they will find their way through their emotions.
Parents who do this find themselves less burdened and more helpful in supporting their child’s growing emotional well-being. If we notice ourselves getting triggered by a particular emotion, this may indicate we have some personal work to do.
Develop a Sense of Agency
It’s hard to take responsibility for negative emotions like sadness, fear, anger, and frustration because we may believe it is wrong to feel them. We often feel a need to blame a person or event for these feelings.
We might think it’s our fault our child struggles in new situations and we blame ourselves for exposing them too much or too little when they were younger. Or in an effort to uplift our child’s disappointment with not making the team, we may blame it on bad luck or a coach’s bias.
Blame can be tricky because it may feel better in the interim to displace responsibility for our child’s emotions. It also teaches our children that their feelings are not theirs to control.
Children need help developing a sense of control in their lives. Parents need to allow their children to make some decisions for themselves. We can help our children connect actions with outcomes. It does not require blame or punishment. It pushes us out of helicopter parenting.
Perhaps our children make some mistakes and experience natural consequences. Maybe their choice leads to a positive experience and our child’s self confidence is strengthened. This is not permissive parenting; this is coaching for agency.
What would it look like if our children were encouraged to assume responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviours? A sense of agency is essential for both parents and children to feel in control of our lives. Personal agency enhances our stability and grows our resiliency.
If you are a parent, you are familiar with your child’s emotional storms. If you have more than one child, you will know that your children may experience their emotions differently. If one of our parenting goals is to raise children with emotional intelligence and resiliency for life’s inevitable storms, then we need to be their coaches.
All emotions are okay and need acknowledgement and validation. Shine a light without getting on the boat. Help your child connect emotions with thoughts and behaviours so they can be in control. When we practice this ourselves, we are better able to help our children.
If one of our parenting goals is to raise children with emotional intelligence and resiliency for life’s inevitable storms, then we need to be their coaches.
What would our family life look like if our goal were for everyone to feel good about themselves rather than “happy”? Let’s aim to get more comfortable with the tougher feelings so we can help our children bravely venture through their storms believing they will come out on the other side.