Many of us have experienced a child’s meltdown, or inability to calm down after an exciting day. It can be frustrating for parents when a child expresses his or her feelings in less than desirable ways, but with a little know-how, these instances can become teachable moments.
One of the greatest coping skills your child can learn is emotional management. As a child develops, they try to make sense of a myriad of feelings, and learn behaviors to deal with them. Emotions are a normal part of life, and they have the potential to influence our choices, actions, and interactions either positively or negatively. So, how can a child learn to positively express feelings such as sadness, anger, frustration, joy, or excitement? By parental guidance and modeling.
First, teach your child to verbally identify feelings. For example, angry and happy may be easily identifiable, but does your child know a simple word for feeling embarrassed, or worried? Build your child’s vocabulary of feeling words slowly. Start with simple words like sad, mad, or happy, and then expand to more specific words like frustrated, scared, excited, calm, bored, nervous, shy, or overwhelmed. Here are some ways you can help your child’s understanding:
Talk about emotions during everyday routines. Narrate what you’re feeling, what your child might be feeling, and what others might be feeling.
Read books about emotions and point out the various faces the characters are making.
Create a “feelings chart” with pictures to refer to.
Act out emotions. Make angry faces, sad faces, and happy faces.
As your child learns to label feelings, their emotional vocabulary will help them navigate through their days.
Second, teach your child to communicate and act on feelings appropriately. When a child feels frustration, he or she may act out in negative ways, such as hitting, throwing, or screaming. But if the parent has both empathized and helped the child to identify feelings, they can also help the child discover more positive ways of expressing frustration. Let your child know that it is always appropriate to use words and positive actions to show how they are feeling. Teach your child to ask two questions:
1. What can I say?
Teach your child to use “feeling” words. Make it a goal to talk about feelings before acting out in response to them. Your child must feel confident that it is always okay to talk about feelings. Always listen to your child; as you empathize, you will validate what they are experiencing and your child will feel secure in expressing emotions to you.
2. What can I do?
Help your children discover creative ways to respond to their emotions. When they feel frustrated, they may ask someone for help. If they are angry, they might squeeze their fists or stomp their feet. When they’re sad, they may ask for a hug. And if they feel tense, they might step away to a quiet spot and take a deep breath. The possibilities are endless. Let your children come up with fun, appropriate ways to soothe themselves.
Finally, it’s important that you practice these skills when your child is calm. In the midst of a meltdown or tantrum, your child might not be able to access the necessary words to express how they are feeling. But once calm, they may be ready to discuss what happened and how the situation could have been handled differently. Eventually, your child will be able to express how they are feeling before a meltdown escalates.
You are your child’s best support and teacher of positive emotional responses. Your child will need your listening ear, your patience, and your example to learn these skills. If you stay the course, your child will begin to internalize healthy emotional behaviors.
If you have questions related to supporting your child’s development in this area, please contact one of our pediatric social workers.
Laura Mauriello, MS, LCSW, DT