Children need us to take care of their basic physical needs in life- food, shelter, and clothing. Once we have met their physical needs we need to take care of their basic emotional needs –the need to feel loved and secure. By giving children all the things they need, physically and emotionally, we can help them feel safe and strong, and they will thrive.
Children have a wide range of emotions they begin to experience every day. For young children these newly felt emotions can be overwhelming. The intensity of their emotions, not understanding that feelings come and go, and not having a name for their big emotions can leave children feeling insecure and afraid. When emotions are out of control behavior is too.
The ability to regulate emotions develops as children grow. Helping children understand, accept, and regulate their emotions is a key factor in their feeling loved and secure. Your interactions with your child, including how you manage your own emotions, how you respond to his or her needs, and if you name emotions and validate children’s feelings, all affect how children learn, understand, and feel about their feelings.
Managing our emotions is a key step in helping children learn to manage their own emotions. As parent’s we need to act like grownups. Yelling at children, not recognizing, stopping and controlling our emotions, and having our own adult tantrums doesn’t teach self-regulation. Children copy what we do more than they listen to what we say. Trying to see a behavior from the child’s perspective, understanding that your child is experiencing a problem and not trying to cause a problem can help us be more emotionally generous and remain calm. Biting your tongue, turning away if necessary, taking some deep breaths or repeating a positive parenting mantra in your mind are ways to help parents keep calm. When my children were younger and I was learning to stay calm when behaviors were challenging I would sing quietly to myself over and over the song, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” This became my parenting mantra that allowed me to manage my emotions.
Be a role model. Think about how you manage your own emotions and make changes if necessary.
Have empathy for your child and respond positively to their needs. Acknowledging the feelings and stating the needs behind the behaviors you see going on helps kids feel understood and know that their needs and feelings are important. Being empathetic and responding positively to children’s needs does not mean agreement with all their feelings and certainly does not mean being permissive and allowing misbehavior to continue. It means acknowledging the feelings behind children’s wants or needs without criticism or judgement as an important first step to setting limits on unwanted behavior. For example, you can say, “I see you are so frustrated because you are trying to reach your snack and your brother is in the way. I understand you are hungry however we do not push.”
When you can, and as often as you can, be empathetic and respond positively to children’s needs.
Naming emotions helps tame emotions and encourages emotional expression. When kids are young it is important for parents to describe their own emotions using simple words like, “mad, sad, glad, and scared.” These are the four primary emotions covering most of what young children understand about feelings. When we label emotions we show children that it is okay to talk about feelings and encourages them in time to share their own feelings. From a young age we want children to know that all feelings are okay. There are no wrong feelings. No matter what they are feeling if children have a name for what they feel, they can begin to tame/control how they feel, and behavior will change. It is important to help children find the right words, phrases, or pictures to describe their feelings. Reading books about feelings, creating a list of emotion words together, and looking at pictures of people showing different emotions are great ways to start building an emotional understanding and vocabulary. Young children love to make up words. Helping your child create fun and colorful words to describe how they are feeling (example HappyYappyDoo) is another engaging way to get kids comfortable talking about emotions.
Validating feelings allows children to own their feelings and see them as being real. It is common for parents to tell children what they feel and don’t feel. For example, if a child is afraid to go to bed and says, “my room is scary”, a parent may invalidate their feelings when saying, “your room is fine, there is nothing scary in there” as they are pushing their child to go to bed. Children have their own realities and feelings which may be different from our own. Helping children take care of their feelings means accepting their emotions and validating their feelings, as these are the feelings that are real for the child.
Emotions are meant to be felt and expressed. How parents choose to interact with children when it comes to feelings goes a long way in helping kids understand what they are feeling and how to take care of their feelings. Our responses, our words, and the care we offer at emotional times becomes internalized by children. Our actions can either help or hinder children in developing their ability to tune in to, care for, and generally be compassionate towards themselves and their emotions. It takes years of us supporting kids for them to build these internal connections around feelings. When we treat children with dignity, when their feelings are valued, respected and welcomed, children grow up feeling safe and strong and they will thrive.