Sunday, January 22, 2012

5 Healthy Responses to Children's Emotions

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There was an article released in September 2011 outlining 5 healthy responses to a child's natural emotions. The article is fantastic and can be viewed in full here. I would just like to elaborate on the 5 healthy responses mentioned in the article, which are:

  1. Recognize the emotion. 
  2. Increase intimacy with emotion.
  3. Listen for and validate emotion.
  4. Label emotion.
  5. Set limits with emotion.
How do you put this into practice? Let's go through a couple of scenarios.

Scenario One: Your 2 year old daughter is having a tantrum in the store because you won't buy her a specific toy. She is so upset, she begins to throw things out of your cart.

1. Recognize the emotion. What is your daughter feeling at this moment? Anger. Frustration. Disappointment. Just take a moment to breathe and put yourself in her little shoes. 

2.  Increase intimacy with emotion. Empathize with what your child is feeling. No feeling is ever bad, wrong, or unacceptable. When you empathize, you can use this as a moment to connect with your child on a deep level. "I know it can be upsetting to not get what you want."

3.  Listen for and validate the emotion. "I understand that you're upset. I see how upset you are. You really want that toy."

4.  Label emotion. "You're angry that I can't buy you that toy."

5.  Set limits with emotion. "I understand that you feel angry. I will help you with those feelings, but I can't let you throw things." If you need to remove her from the cart and sit on a bench with her for a few minutes (or on the floor), do so. Don't worry about who's watching. You're teaching your child emotional intelligence! 

This lets your child know that her feelings matter, that you understand her, that you accept her, bad feelings and all, and also sets the limit on how to act out her feelings. 

This isn't mentioned in the article, but I will add that it's a good idea to carry a little calm down jar or I Spy jar in your purse, or a tablet and pencil for drawing out feelings, whatever helps your child to calm down, and a stress ball. It's not really about distracting them away from the emotion but rather about validating the emotion and helping them return to balance. I love the stress balls in the link. She can pick out her feeling from the faces on the balls, and then "squeeze her mad out" instead of throwing things out of your cart.

Scenario Two: Your 12 year old son found out that his "best friend" was talking about him behind his back. He had a big fight with his friend. He's visibly upset about the incident.

1. Recognize the emotion. What is your son feeling? Betrayed. Sad. Angry. Hurt.

2.  Increase intimacy with emotion. Empathize with him. Pre-teen squabbles seem like small stuff in our adult world filled with "real" problems, but this is a big deal to him. Acknowledge that.

3.  Listen for and validate the emotion. Talk to him. At 12, you don't have to guess. He can tell you how the incident made him feel. "I hear that your friend really hurt your feelings."

4.  Label emotion. "You're angry that he betrayed you like that, and sad that you feel like you've lost your friend."

5. Set limits with emotion. In this case, unless he's threatening retaliation or doing something inappropriate, there is no need to set a limit. 

I wish it said set limits with acting out emotion instead of set limits with emotion. You can't set a limit on an emotion, it is what it is, all you can do is teach him how to get through his emotions. Of course, if he's threatening to start a rumor on his friend, or punch him in the face, you'll have to set a limit and help him brainstorm better ways to deal. "I know you feel like punching him for hurting you like that. What would happen if you punched him? Violence is never the answer. What might you do to make things right? What would make you feel better?" 

"In the last decade or so, science has discovered a tremendous amount about the role emotions play in our lives. Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and abilities to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships." - John Gottman

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