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Helping children navigate difficult emotions

Updated: Aug 26, 2021

Emotional processing is a challenging task for anyone, no matter their age. As adults, we sometimes find that we a not equipped to emotionally process a situation like losing a loved one or facing the aftermath of a traumatic accident. Some of us lean on our friends and family, and others seek out therapists to make sense of what has happened.


In the same way, expecting our children to always be on their best behaviour and tantrum-free is unrealistic and simply unfair. Children are not tiny adults, even if they may seem older than they are. You may think it's tricky enough to be a parent, but it is also essential to know that we play a crucial role in our child's ability to persevere when the going gets tough. Researchers have found that when parents emotionally "coach" their children, they adapt to challenging circumstances much more readily. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to recognise emotion, identify and name an emotion, and manage emotions in a way that is adaptative and rooted in empathy for others. Emotional intelligence is something that is learned over time.


So, we've put together three ways you can start emotionally coaching your child.



1. Model


Children learn the most through their environment and their experiences. They repeat the things you say, and most importantly, they tend to "copy" your behaviour. Practice naming your emotions as they happen around your child. For example, if something has made you angry, start by identifying the feeling. Then do a breathing technique to calm yourself down. When you have settled down, talk about the incident, express what made you angry, and now that you're in a calmer state of mind, point out how you will go about responding to the situation.


You've now set an excellent example and framework for managing one emotion. It shows your child that it is possible to experience a whole host of emotions and deal with them in an appropriate manner instead of letting a feeling take over and be a driving factor in your response to a situation.



2. Practice


As with anything, practice makes perfect. When your child is beginning to display an emotion, identify it and reflect on it. A good example is dealing with frustration. For example, your child is working on a task, and if they begin to become frustrated by the task, point it out and reflect on it. You can say, "I can see that this puzzle is making you frustrated because you want to finish it." It will help develop your child's own ability to recognise this emotion, understand why they are experiencing it, and label it in the future.


Your child will continue to experience emotions that are intense and on both ends of the spectrum. They are and can be equally overwhelming. As a parent, you will also need to discern between discipline or using the moment as a teaching opportunity. If you're out in public and your child throws a tantrum, you might want to soothe them to avoid stares; however, you will find you get an even bigger response from your child more often than not. Use it as an opportunity to teach your child instead. What would be the most appropriate way of handling their feelings? During a tantrum, try to limit the "talking" you do to your child and avoid asking why they're acting the way they are. Instead, allow them two minutes to experience their feelings uninterrupted. Then tell them that you will both count to 10 to stop crying. When they've calmed down, gently acknowledge their feelings.


As a parent, you have to accept that your child will experience some very negative emotions. They are not going to behave logically all the time. And the truth is, even we as adults are not 100 per cent happy all the time, and that's ok!



3. Respond


You can "catch" your child just when they're about to experience an episode, as you know your child the best. You know the triggers; you understand how they are when they're tired and starting to be cranky. Label those emotions, reflect on those emotions presently with your child and work together with your child as they are dealing with the feeling to know that they are not alone. Being solution based around emotion teaches your child to move past and start responding productively to their situation.


Reinforce when your child puts in effort in dealing with their emotions appropriately. Going back to the example of your child working on a task, you can say things like, "I love all the effort you have put into this "activity"! You've been trying to figure it out, and it looks like you're almost done! Great job!"


Emotional intelligence requires children to use a part of their brain that is still developing. Your child does not have all the "equipment" needed to control their impulses, identify their emotions, and express their emotions. Our home environment is the primary influence in shaping the way we respond to things. When you work with your child, you empower them to build on ways to handle their emotions well.


If you would like to speak to a qualified Play therapist to learn how your child could benefit from play therapy, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation today or take our quiz!


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