As parents, our main job (other than keeping our children safe and alive) is to prepare them for life without us. We need to teach them life skills so that they can become more and more independent. If our children can be independent, functional, and helpful members of society, we have done our job. But many of us overlook the emotional aspects of this independence. We focus on physical independence, teaching physical skills and chores. But we forget to teach our kids how to communicate their emotions. We forget to teach them how to handle their feelings independently. Open and honest communication with them is key to this.
Communication between you and your child is key to every aspect of parenting, but in this particular blog I want to talk about how it pertains particularly to teaching your child to communicate and process their own emotions. Talking things out with a parent is the first step a child will take in thinking things through for themselves.
Young children better understand their emotions when you help them communicate.
Young children don’t always have the vocabulary to express their feelings. They don’t have the words to tell you what’s upsetting them, but they need to express their feelings. This is when tantrums and meltdowns happen. To alleviate a tantrum/meltdown, or avoid it all together, you can communicate with your child.
Talk through what is going on so they can learn how to better communicate their thoughts and feelings. Ask who, what, when, where and why questions to find out more. And for very young kids, ask pointed questions, “Are you hungry? Are you sad that your brother isn’t sharing? Do you really want to use the red cup?” By asking questions you can start to build your child’s emotional vocabulary so that eventually they will use the words to describe what they are feeling.
Then, after you have discovered their feelings, talk them through ways they can get through it. Whether it’s playing with something else to be patient, or just calmly voicing their dislike in something so that others understand, kids need to first be coached through their emotions before they are able to do this themselves.
Older kids might not fully understand their emotions either.
Similarly to the young kids, older kids might not have all the vocabulary (or even understanding) of their emotions. When kids are young, we tend to over simplify our emotions into happy, sad, or angry. But as they grow, their emotions become more complex, and they need help and guidance to understand and navigate these emotions.
Anger and sadness are usually “symptom emotions” for deeper feelings such as jealousy, disappointment, resentment, betrayal, or anxiety. Once again, talk through what is going on so they can learn how to better communicate their thoughts and feelings. Ask who, what, when, where and why? Really listen to them without judgement, allow them to communicate with you and just simply gather information at first.
After you have helped them to identify and understand their feelings, you can begin to give advice on how they can get through it. I hope you have noticed that I keep saying “get through it” rather than saying “fixing the problem, or feel better”. Many times in life, emotions are not fixed easily or just switch to being all better. Emotions are complex and often linger, so learning to work through and deal with your own emotions is a key life lesson.
When giving them advice on how to work through their feelings, give them examples of a time when you were in a similar situation, or felt a similar way. Share the tactics you use/used to cope with those particular feelings. When you open up about your emotions to your child you are doing several great things:
-Help to give validation to their feelings
-Help them not feel alone
-Give them a sounding board for solutions
-Give them a feeling of security and safety to ask for help
Open and honest communication can happen anywhere at any time.
Talking can be done literally anywhere you are. I love to have good long talks with my kids in the car! They can’t get out, and even if they don’t talk back, I know they can hear me. But these car talks are usually more broad topics rather than dealing with specific issues. If your see your young child starting to have a tantrum/meltdown, have a talk immediately. Or as soon as you notice something is off about, or bothering, your kid, take them aside and have a chat!
When having an open and honest conversation with your child it is important to remain non-judgmental of their feelings. If you are critical of the way they are feeling, they won’t come to talk to you in the future. It is important to be sincere in your own feelings and empathy for them. Also, it is best if you can have these conversations one-on-one. Sometimes when you have young kids, one-on-one alone time is nearly impossible to come by, but if you can, make it happen. The one-on-one time will convey their importance to you, it will make them feel safer in talking, and it shows that they have your full attention.
Remember, before they can identify, understand, process and work though their emotions independently, they need to be taught and guided. Open and honest communication about emotions with your child is the first step in them learning to work through their emotions independently.