Tools for Handling Emotions

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I recently started reading How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King to get some ideas for how to talk more effectively with my 3 year-old twin sons. 

I have been so inspired by what I have read so far that I wanted to share some it with you in a series of posts.

Today, I want to share some key points I took away from their chapter on Handling Emotions and, in particular, the importance of acknowledging feelings:

As adults, we can’t behave right when we don’t feel right. And our children are no different. If we don’t take care of their feelings first, we have little chance of engaging their cooperation. All we’ll have left going for us is our ability to use greater force.

When our feelings are acknowledged, we feel relieved: She understands me. I feel better. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe I can handle it.

Acknowledge Feelings with Words

“It can be so frustrating when train tracks fall apart.” 

“Sounds like you are disappointed about porridge for breakfast. You’re in the mood for something different.”

The next time your child says something negative and inflammatory, follow these steps:

  1. Resist the urge to immediately contradict her.
  2. Think about the emotion he is feeling.
  3. Name the emotion and put it in a sentence.

In most cases the intensity of the difficult feelings with diminish dramatically. Pleasant feelings can’t come in until the difficult feelings are let out. If you try to stuff those difficult feelings back in, they will marinate and become more potent.

When a child has a meltdown, as a parent it can seem baffling that something so trivial could result in such rage. However, a child’s emotions are just as real and important to her as our grown-up emotions are to us. The best way to help a child “get over it” is to help her go through it.

We are providing our children with a crucial vocabulary of feelings that she can resort to in times of need.

Once a child’s feelings have been acknowledged, she will then be more receptive to our explanations. All feelings can be accepted, even if some actions cannot.

Acknowledge Feelings with Writing

“You really want that underwater Lego set. Let’s write that down on your wish list.”

Seeing their feelings and desires written down can be very powerful, even for pre-readers. Carry paper and pencil when you go out so that you can write down everything your child wants on their “wish list.”

It is satisfying to a child to have a physical list of his desires. And you can keep it on the fridge and refer to it when holidays and birthdays come up.

It is important to note that you are not saying that he will definitely get the thing that he wants, but you are acknowledging his desire and how he feels when he wants something.

Writing down wishes is an effective way to avoid a tantrum, without spoiling your child.  

Give in Fantasy What You Cannot Give in Reality

“I wish we had a million billion more hours to play.”

“I wish we had our own keys to the toy shop…We could go inside and play with all the toys!”

Sometimes a child wants something that it is impossible to provide. Your first impulse is usually to explain why she cannot have her heart’s desire. That’s the rational approach. However, a child in emotional distress in unlikely to be soothed by well-reasoned discourse.

An excellent tool for moments like these is to give a child in fantasy what you can’t give in reality. 

Acknowledge Feelings with (Almost) Silent Attention

Often our children (and our spouses) just need us to listen to them. It is helpful to listen, responding with an empathic nod of the head, facial expressions or “Mmm.” It is important that these are genuine empathic responses – reach inside and find that emotion.

We can help our children find their own way through their feelings. The gift we can give them is to not get in the way of their process by jumping in with our reactions: advice, questions, corrections. The important thing is to give them our full attention and trust them to work it out.

One final thought: resist the urge to ask questions of a distressed child

Even gentle questions can feel like an interrogation when a child is in distress. He may not know why he is upset. He may not be able to express it clearly in words. He may feel as though he needs to justify his feelings.

By making a statement instead of asking a question, we accept the feelings without requiring any justification. You don’t have to figure out the cause of the feelings in order to empathise. You can say, “You seem sad.” “Something upset you.” Or even just, “Something happened.” This invites your child to talk if she feels like it, but also gives comfort if she doesn’t feel like talking.

Zac Newman is the founder and director of Newman Tuition, an award-winning network of qualified tutors, recommended by The Good Schools Guide. He is a qualified teacher, mindfulness coach and public speaker with a background in NLP, psychotherapy and counselling. He is passionate about supporting people to improve their well-being. He is a founding trustee of Hamakom, a mindfulness and meditation charity. He is the father of two gorgeous boys and husband to a loving wife.

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