Difficulties managing emotions can have long-term impacts on mental health and well-being. Here are five steps that are frequently used by psychologists that you can take as parents to help grow these important skills with your child.
Being able to understand and manage emotions are important skills for children to acquire. Without these, children can struggle to make and keep friends and make use of learning opportunities at school. Difficulties in this area can also have an impact on family life, leading to conflict and arguments.
Last week I talked about how we can understand and help children when they have emotional outbursts (Why is my child struggling to manage their emotions?). This week I wanted to add to this and present five steps you can take to help your child when they are struggling to develop these skills.
But first, lets just take a moment to think about what is needed to be able to manage emotions. First it requires noticing, monitoring and recognising feelings and then managing these in different situations. This does not always mean decreasing negative feelings and increasing positive ones. In fact, denying, ignoring or forcing ourselves or our children not to express negative feelings is not good for emotional regulation.
So how can we as parents help our children to develop these emotional management skills?
1. Show your children how you manage your emotions in a positive way
Our children observe our every move including how we understand and manage our feelings and impulses; this is the key way children learn and develop. If we scream or shout whenever something goes wrong, our children learn to be reactive and act out when things don’t go their way. If we can show them we can remain calm and think about how to solve problems, our children will learn to stay calm and look for solutions themselves. If you child is struggling to manage their emotions, just take a moment to consider what you are modelling for them.
If you are on the whole, able to manage your emotions, it can be helpful a times to share with your child what is happening for you and what you do when you feel tricky emotions. For example by saying "how annoying the washing machine has broken (again) and we don't have any clean school uniform for tomorrow!". This has happened to me a number of times and it is very stressful and really it does make me want to scream (arrgghhh!). But with a few breaths to remain calm I was able to let the kids know there was no need to worry, I would pop into Nana's to get the things washed and dried and all would be ok.
It really is key that we try our best (we are not aiming to be perfect here) to manage our feelings before trying any of the steps below. The strategies below are unlikely to be successful if our children are not living in a positive environment with people with good self regulatory skills. If you feel you would like support in this area, please feel free to reach out for support in my private facebook group or send an email to email@example.com
2. Label and understand emotions with your child as they arise day to day
Be warm and accepting of all emotions including the negative ones. Label and talk about them in the moment. For example "I can see you are really angry right now because your sister went into your room without asking". If your child has moved into flight, fight or freeze mode, use the techniques described in last weeks blog to help them re-engage their thinking brain.
Do not ignore, dismiss, discourage, punish or react negatively to emotions, especially negative emotions. Give your child the opportunity to talk about what is going on for them and then help them to problem solve what to do.
3. If you have noticed a tricky emotion coming up again and again for your child, take time to think more about this
So you have been carrying out steps1 and 2 but a small number of particular emotions keep repeatedly coming up for your child. In my work, I frequently see children struggling to manage angry outbursts, fear and worry. Struggling to manage big emotions like these can have a big impact on children's lives at home and school. In this situation, it is helpful to consider the emotion in more detail. In a kind and accepting way it can help to let your child know that you have noticed that fear, worry or anger (or any other problematic emotion) seem to be making things difficult for them and you would like to help them with this.
4. Separate the emotion from your child
This is a technique that I and many other child psychologists use in their clinical practice. I ask children this question, "If the emotion (anger, fear, sadness) was a character or a thing what would it be and what would it look like?". I ask if children would like to draw it. Recently children have shared pictures of a troublesome tomato, a worry troll, a scary gorilla and a red monkey baboon (that was one of my sons).
Once you have a picture or idea of the character you can now have a conversation with your child about the emotion the character represents. These are the questions I tend to use:
When does the character come?
What do you notice when the character comes? What feelings do you have? What do you feel in your body?
What do you think about when the character comes?
What do you do when the character comes?
Talking in this way allows your child to be seen separate from the difficult emotion. You can then have conversations about the emotion and the resulting behaviour without your child feeling bad about their responses.
5. Develop a plan together to tackle the tricky emotion
Once you have discovered when the tricky emotion comes and how it impacts your child, you can move onto thinking how to reduce the chances of the emotion frequently arising and if it does, what to do. Good plans have two elements. Preventative, designed to lessen the chances the character (emotion) will emerge. Responsive, what to do when your child notices the character (emotion) is starting to make an appearance. To make these plans, you need to use the knowledge your learnt about the emotion from the answers your child gave in step 4 above.
Preventive plan: If you know that certain situations make the character (emotion) appear, acknowledge and accept with your child the certain situations might be tricky. As a parent, it can be easy to say things like "don't worry, it will be okay". It is actually better to acknowledge it might be a challenge, think about it and plan how to manage it together.
Reactive plan: Use of calming techniques for when their character (emotion) arrives (e.g. slow calm breathing, playing pat-a-cake described in my blog last week - Why is my child struggling to manage their emotions?). If your child is aged 8 or below they are likely need your need to do these calming techniques.
If you or your child continue to struggle with concerns about how your child manages emotions, please do not hesitate to reach out for additional help and support. You can join my private facebook group, where there are opportunities to ask me questions and gain advice or send an email to Beck@drbeck.co.uk
Dr Beck x