First steps in self-control: Helping your child identify their emotionsWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
When you think about your child’s development, where are you investing your efforts right now? Are you anxious to see progress in potty training? In reading? In math? As parents, we tend to fixate on our child’s progress in mastering easily measurable life skills and academics. But given the opportunity, Focus on the Family Canada’s VP of counselling, Wendy Kittlitz, advises parents not to be distracted from another top priority: their child’s emotional development.
"To really equip a child well for life," says Kittlitz, "parents need to give their child a voice. That means parents need to help their children identify their feelings, manage those feelings well, and express their needs in ways that are healthy, respectful and direct."
When a child is not equipped with such skills, they risk moving into adulthood as an emotional Peter Pan – someone who resorts to childish behaviours like sulking, whining and throwing tantrums to influence others. They’re also more likely to struggle with intense emotions that so easily become destructive. Gary Chapman, in his book The Five Love Languages of Children, gives this warning:
"It may surprise you that the primary lifetime threat to your child is his or her own anger. If your child does not handle his own anger well, it will damage or destroy him. The mishandling of anger is related to every present and future problem your child may have – from poor grades to damaged relationships . . ."
Building self awareness
With so much at stake, parents will want to step up to the plate to help their child manage his or her emotions well. The problem is, we have no idea how to swing the bat. We know what the end result looks like: a self-controlled young adult who is able to respectfully express their feelings and needs, manage their anger, show forgiveness, negotiate compromises, and resolve conflict. In the here and now, however, we wonder how to move our child closer to that same emotional maturity, a part measure of "the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13).
Kittlitz has advice that helps demystify the process for parents. As an important first step, Kittlitz recommends that parents focus on nurturing their child’s self-awareness with respect to his or her emotions. "Make it your goal," says Kittlitz, "to help your child reach a place where he or she is able to pause and self reflect, even in the grip of intense emotions, then constructively answer two questions: What am I feeling? and What do I need?"
In this article, we’ll look at some strategies you can use to help your child tune in to their emotions and answer the first question, What am I feeling? But before we go there, let’s cover some basics.
Rules of engagement
When it comes to tutoring your child in managing their emotions, the quality of the guidance you provide can make an enormous difference. For you to be most effective as your child’s coach, it’s important that you follow some widely recommended ground rules for healthy discussions around emotions:
- Understand that emotions are not right or wrong – including those that don’t look pretty in a photo frame. The apostle Paul affirms this in Ephesians 4:6 with the statement, "In your anger do not sin . . . " According to Paul, anger only precedes sinful behaviour; to experience anger as an emotion is valid and neutral.
- You’ll need to consistently prove to your child that it’s "safe" to share their emotions with you. Whenever and however your child reveals their feelings – through tearful whispers or angry outbursts – it’s important that you remain calm and respectful, keeping your own feelings and responses in check.
Never pass judgment on your child’s feelings or try to "talk them out of it." Phrases like "That’s a silly thing to worry about," or "Big boys don’t cry," belittle your child’s emotions. Instead, respectfully validate their feelings using phrases like, "I’m sorry that you’re so sad. That would make me sad too."
Above all, you want to let your child know that their feelings are normal, and that you want to hear about them. And when all is said and done, try to ensure your child never regrets that they shared their emotions with you. (Note that we are discussing feelings here, not inappropriate behaviour resulting from poorly managed emotions.)
Connecting with feelings
As already mentioned, a child’s early steps in self-control involve learning to correctly identify an emotion and give it a name. Don’t be deceived by how elementary this may seem. Without help, many children aren’t able to connect the dots between how they are feeling and the label for that feeling. And without a label for something as difficult to describe as a feeling, your child can’t begin to talk about and make sense of that feeling. Consequently, you can’t begin to help your child manage how he or she behaves in response to that feeling.
Adoptive parent Michael Monroe offers this poignant testimony to how difficult it can be for children to connect with their feelings, in the absence of a nurturing adult to guide them:
". . . for many of our [adopted] kids, given their histories, they have an overwhelming number of feelings and mixed emotions that they can’t put words to. It’s very difficult for some of our kids to say, ‘I’m feeling embarrassed.’ Some of them don’t have that word. . . . And so oftentimes, rather than being able to express that, rather than being able to identify that, they simply act out. They act mad, even though the root cause of them feeling the way they feel, is one of sadness."1
Here are a few ways you can help your little one practice connecting with his or her feelings:
- From the time your child is two years old, look for picture books that help him or her recognize simple emotions. Supplement this with creative projects. For example, make a clipart poster for your fridge showing various facial expressions, then play a game of trying to guess the emotion behind each expression.
- Make a point of talking openly, and often, about feelings. Model this for your children by identifying your feelings, and inviting your children to consider their feelings. You might say, "Right now, I’m feeling grumpy. I think it’s because I’m hungry. How are you feeling?" Or, "I’m disappointed about that. Are you disappointed too?"
- In his book It’s Okay to Cry, H. Norman Wright suggests a simple way to engage very young children in dialogue about their emotions. Holding up your hand, with five fingers spread, simply say, "Here is one finger for sad, one for mad, one for happy, one for scared, and one for lonely. Let’s see which of these you’re experiencing." If the moment is appropriate you can add, "When you are feeling [name the emotion], what do you want to do? What do you want me to do?"
Peeling back the layers
In anguished repentance King David cried before the Lord, "You desire truth in the innermost being" (Psalm 51:6). But how difficult it can be for us, as sinners, to discern the truth about ourselves – even with respect to our own emotions (see Jeremiah 17:9). One important concept to share with children is that we often experience layers of emotions. Anger, in particular, often hides another emotion that we have not recognized, or are simply unwilling to face, such as fear, hurt or frustration. If we’re wise, we’ll teach our children to look deeper than their surface emotion.
Counsellors Milan and Kay Yerkovich encourage parents to fix a list of emotions to the fridge, as an aid to help children and teens identify and discuss deeper, "hidden" feelings. With a list as a tool, it’s easier to get to the heart of the matter, especially when used alongside questions like:
"You look like you are feeling mad/sad, but I wonder if there’s another feeling hiding underneath. Let’s look at the list."
Or for tweens and teens: "It seems like something is really bothering you. Let’s talk about that this evening. When you’re ready, please pick a couple of words off the list that match how you feel, then come and tell me what they are."
Norman Wright, (to reference It’s Okay to Cry once again), suggests that parents consider teaching young children to say "I’m hurt-angry," or "I’m afraid-angry," or "I’m frustrated-angry." Some other helpful "emo-combos" to consider are disappointed-sad, embarrassed-sad, worried-sad and left-out-sad.
Kids also need to make the connection between their emotions and their physical state. While helping them explore "layers" of feelings, it’s a good idea to teach them to "do a body check" as well as a "feelings check." For younger children, you might say something like this:
"Try not to listen to your angry thoughts for a moment. Listen to your body instead. What is it telling you? Are you tired . . . hungry . . . sick . . . sore?"
If your child can’t identify a physical problem, you might continue with, "Good, your body’s fine. Now let’s check something else: Are there other feelings hiding under the angry ones?"
Effective techniques that help a child talk about their feelings belong in every parent’s toolbox. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this important topic here, but if you’d like more help in this area, Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s book How We Love Our Kids offers loads of wisdom.
Once your child is able to identify and express their feelings – that is, to answer the question, What do I feel? – the next step is to help your child answer the second half of the self-control question: What do I need? This transition from focusing on feelings, to focusing on solutions, is key to mastering self-control. We’ll look at this topic in the next article in this series.
Before we conclude, here’s a quick comment about discipline: Our discussion around layers of emotions helps underscore why it’s so important that we hear our child’s heart cry – their deepest emotions – before jumping in to administer discipline for their behaviour. A child who looks mad may, underneath it all, be desperately sad. That’s a particularly important caution for parents of teens.
1. As quoted from the video When Sad Looks Mad, hosted at Empoweredtoconnect.org
This is the first article in a series on teaching children self-control. Read part two here: Teaching self-control: Coaching your child in constructive reactions. And part three here: Teaching self-control: Guiding your child with discipline.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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