How to Help Your Kids Navigate Feelings
Written by Lindsay Sealey
I talk to parents all the time about how to help their children feel their feelings. The trendy word for this is self-regulation but I simply call it emotional navigation. Parents will tell me about grocery shopping meltdowns, playroom tantrums, and streams of tears when their kids don’t get their way. These moments can be such a big deal and even ruin a day! They can also be moments to learn about feelings and develop physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language development, and communication and general knowledge (EDI).
I gently coach parents to first, not take their sons’ and daughters’ feelings personally and to second, know that the starting point for helping our kids develop a healthy emotional life is to be the example. Parents may know what research tells us that it is important to feel then express our feelings. They also may know that there are countless feelings, each one a little different, and that feelings follow a path - as in, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. No feeling lasts forever; nor should it.
What care providers may not know is that mastering your emotions can not only lead to more emotional flexibility and deeper more meaningful relationships, as with an increase in health and happiness, but also less stress and aggression (https://ideas.ted.com/try-these-two-smart-techniques-to-help-you-master-your-emotions/). Doing your own personal work when it comes to feelings can, in turn, teach your kids how to deal with big and small feelings alike. This learn and teach connection may make you think twice about using damaging phrases such as: “Boys don’t cry” or “You are being a drama queen”. If emotional health and balance is the goal, let’s explore together the ways we can achieve this goal!
5 Tools to Try to Develop Your Emotional Skill Set and to Help Develop Your Child’s Set as Well.
1. Connect to your feelings and share them. Check in with yourself often to see how you are feeling (not what you are thinking - big difference). Are you happy, hopeful, or calm? Maybe you are irritated or angry? Learn to know the difference. Then go deeper. Where in your body do you feel that feeling and what is the accompanying sensation? Do you have a buzz of energy running though you or do you have butterflies in your stomach? I’ve learned that we need to make the time to pay attention to our feelings (this can mean putting our phones down and pausing from scrolling through our social media feeds) to be more present and in the moment.
Your kids need to know their different feelings too. A great tool with kids is to have a poster of feelings they can choose from, or a feelings doll they can pick from a basket. One family I worked with chose to put up a large poster in their kitchen. Every day after dinner each member of the family got to draw their feelings on the poster and share. This normalizes feelings and can make talking about feelings a shared experience. “See,” your kids will think, “even mom and dad have sad or bad days!”
2. Change your thought, change your feeling. Try to figure out why you are feeling what you are. Often, feelings are instant but the result of a thought. If you think, “What a great day this is going to be”, you’ll likely feel excited. By contrast, if you think, “I am so nervous about my meeting today”, you’ll feel worried and unsettled. The tool is simple: change your thought, change your feeling, putting YOU in charge of your emotions.
Kids often don’t have the cognitive capacity (yet) or the language (yet) to express themselves. They want to be in charge too and we can help them. Let them lead you! You could try playing with them (without any devices) instead of talking because through play they often re-enact their feelings with dolls and stuffed animals. With open curiosity and wonder you can ask questions such as, “Why is your dolly feeling upset?” Or “Why is the rabbit so lonely today!”
3. Teach the feeling by walking through it yourself. Once you know the feeling and you can clarify the why, think about what you need to express that feeling. It can be as simple as smiling because you are proud of an accomplishment or as complex as carving out time to journal, talk to a good friend or partner, or even see a therapist.
Feelings take time to process, and we need to provide ourselves with the safe space to do so. Then, when you are ready, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for you to talk about your feelings to show your children how it’s done. “Today I was feeling frustrated with myself - I couldn’t solve my work problem. So, I took a few breaths and a break. I went for a walk around the block and guess what? I had an idea - an even better way to solve my problem. Then I felt so pleased!”
Walking through your process of feeling and dealing helps kids know what to do when they experience this feeling (albeit a different situation). Explicitly teaching the steps of how to work thorough a feeling means they will be less likely to avoid, ignore, or suppress their emotions. Implicitly they will know “this is how I deal with my feelings”. You may even hear them copy your steps: “First, I breathe and then I take time to think. Next, I name and share my feelings.”
4. Learn to let the feeling go. Once you’ve expressed yourself or had your moment, choose to release it, and keep going. So often, we choose to ruminate, and we get stuck on a thought and a feeling. This is neither helpful, nor healthy because it prevents the release we need, forward movement, and new experiences.
Children get caught too in a feeling, especially when they are big feelings like sadness or anger. They easily become fixated on the feeling, and they can’t get out of this wave! Ask them to imagine each feeling as a balloon and when they are ready, they can let go of the balloon and watch it float away.
5. Be ready to show your feelings. Whether you are elated you just figured out how to update your computer or disappointed a friend just cancelled your lunch plan, practice being open about your feelings. We know kids are always watching us, absorbing everything we do and speak. In the book The Danish Way, authors Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl, remind us of this important fact: “Children who are consistently told how to feel and behave will not develop in the same way as those who are acknowledged and allowed to express their full range of emotions. They may become disconnected from how they truly feel...” (p. 85). That is to say that whatever we experience, watching a funny Netflix episode or seeing a fight at a restaurant - when we react appropriately - laugh at the humour, feel shocked or empathetic when seeing an altercation, kids are matching our feelings with their internal barometer. With each match, they are learning to trust their own instincts and connect with their true feelings. When we either don’t react at all to what we see, or we react in a way that is confusing, they learn to doubt themselves. Bottom line - show your feelings so kids feel and trust their feelings.
If feelings are the internal gage of how we are doing, and if feelings are valuable resources for us to know what we need, let’s help our kids know and express their feelings in healthy ways. I’m not saying the grocery shopping meltdowns, playroom tantrums, and streams of tears when your kids don’t get their way won’t happen. I am saying when kids have a better sense of control of their feelings, they are less likely to be big moments that last forever.
Lindsay Sealey, BA, MA Ed, is the author of the award-winning books Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years and Rooted, Resilient, and Ready now available on Amazon and Audible. She is the founder and CEO of Bold New Girls and Brave New Boys and an instructor with Udemy.