“Don’t be sad.”
“You shouldn’t feel scared.”
“Stop being angry.”
“You don’t need to get your feelings hurt over it.”
“You should be so thankful.”
It’s not uncommon to hear parents addressing their children with comments or corrections involving how a child should or should not feel. This is especially true with emotions many deem “negative” such as hurt, fear, anger, and sadness. Though these admonishments may be well-intentioned, I believe they miss the mark on what human beings are supposed to do. We are, by our very nature, highly emotional beings capable of experiencing a broad range of sentiments. If children are consistently taught to ignore or squelch “bad” emotions, they will likely be unprepared for life. A healthier, more holistic approach is to empower our children emotionally by teaching them to experience and express a wide range of emotions, and help them learn to regulate their emotions when necessary.
Emotional empowerment has five primary stages. Parents can practice each of these stages with their child no matter the child’s age. These are fundamental skills that everyone needs. Developing the ability to identify, express, and regulate emotions is a life-long process, one in which there is always room for growth and improvement. As such, parents can serve as models for their own children as every member of the family seeks to grow and mature.
Stage 1: IDENTIFY
The first stage of emotional empowerment is teaching our kids to identify emotions. Simply put, children need to have a vocabulary for talking about emotions. There are over 250 words for emotions in the English language. As our children grow from babbling babies to talkative kids, their language for emotion needs to continue expanding, becoming richer and more nuanced. This helps them to express themselves to other people. If a child does not have adequate language for their feelings, they are more likely to act them out.
Stage 2: RECOGNIZE
While it’s important for children to have language to identify feelings, they also must learn to recognize emotions as they are feeling them. Teaching children to be aware of their feelings as they are having them provides a springboard for tempering and regulating those feelings as they arise.
Stage 3: NOTICE
Young children often struggle to notice and understand others’ emotions. A little girl may approach another little girl with tears streaming down her face on the playground and wonder, “I’m not crying. Why are you crying?” Yet as children progress through the elementary years, the cognitive systems for processing others’ emotions come online more. Teaching our children to notice and understand the emotional cues of others empowers them to develop empathy.
Stage 4: EXPRESS
Rather than encouraging our kids to avoid or eliminate strong emotions, we can empower our kids with more “tools in their toolbelts” for expressing their feelings in an appropriate way. If a child tends to throw things or lash out physically when frustrated, discussing and offering alternative means of expression will help them to grow through that tendency. Asking the simple question, “What’s a different way to express ____________?” opens up dialogue for re-directing emotional expression.
Stage 5: REGULATE
Though strong (negative) emotions do not need to be altogether squelched, they do sometimes need to be regulated so that they do not take over. It’s normal, for example, for a child to experience some level of anxiety. But if a child’s anxiety hinders them from being able to function in their typical capacity, regulation is required. Teaching our kids strategies such as deep breathing or listening to calming music when upset empowers them to regulate their emotions.
To hear more from Dr. Huston on the importance of resilience and how parents can help their children develop it, make sure to check out the "Navigating Your Child's Education" Podcast, episode "Building Resiliency in Our Kids."