The ability to understand and manage your own emotions is key to social competency; it predicts not only the quality of your child’s friendships but also their emotional wellbeing and even career success. Whilst some children seem very skilled in this area; others find it much more difficult and often exhibit challenging behaviour when they experience ‘big’ emotions.
These are my top five strategies which every parent can employ to help their children manage their emotions, even through those challenging toddler years.
Teach them ways to communicate their basic needs
Research has shown children who are taught the basic ‘signs’ to communicate when they are hungry tired, thirsty, and bored exhibit fewer of the typical ‘terrible-twos’ behaviours. As they are better able to communicate, and then have their needs met, these children are better able to cope with the challenges of everyday life. Contrary to the popular myth children who are taught sign language do not have delayed speech, in fact their speech is often more advanced and complex than their peers.
Always respond to the emotion behind the behaviour
This can be very hard to do when your child is rolling around the aisles of the local supermarket but remember your child is behaving that way for a reason; they may be bored, frustrated, hungry, tired, or a multitude of other things. I’m not saying you allow your child to behave inappropriately, what I am saying is by responding to the emotion which is driving the behaviour, you are much more likely to get a positive outcome. So do this by acknowledging how your child feels in that moment, highlight their chosen behavioural response is not appropriate, and offer them alternatives. For example, “I can see you are feeling frustrated because we seem to be taking a long time to do our food shop and you’d much rather be at home playing, but screaming and shouting is not how we tell people we are bored. You could instead ask me how much longer will we be and then we can make plans about what we’ll do once we get home.”
Expand their emotional vocabulary
Children acquire their emotional vocabulary from their environment. Whilst they pick up the basic emotions quite quickly, such as happy, sad, cross, and excited, they don’t typically expand their emotional vocabulary onto feelings of jealousy, worry, and frustration as we don’t’ often label these in ourselves. Children learn more from what they see then what we say, so if we don’t use an extensive emotional vocabulary with our children they are unlikely to acquire the skills themselves. So, do not be afraid to verbally label your frustration when you are stuck in traffic, or feeling jealous of a friend who might be going somewhere lovely on holiday. The key is to also state positively how you will manage these emotions, for example, by listening to the radio in the car to distract you from the traffic, or day dreaming of your own future holiday somewhere nice.
Try to offer choices when you can
This won’t necessarily deal with an emotional meltdown as it’s happening but it might prevent a future emotional outburst by empowering your child and making them feel as though they have some control over their life and environment. Whenever you can, offer your child options as this helps them see the connection between their behavioural choices and the outcomes in their life. For example, ask them whether they want peas and carrots with their evening meal or peas and pepper, do they want to brush their hair before they brush their teeth or afterwards? The key point here is your child is still doing all which you ask, you are just giving them a sense of autonomy over their environment, and teaching natural consequences to their choices.
Help them make better choices rather than punishing them
When emotions do get the better of your child remember to acknowledge the emotion behind the behaviour, explain calmly that the choice they made wasn’t the best in the situation and help them by giving them more suitable choices next time. Don’t get into a mindset of punishments, as these come from a place of anger and frustration; instead focus on natural consequences to their behavioural choices. If your child has a complete emotional meltdown about going to bed and it takes you 30 minutes to restore balance then a natural consequence is that they get 1 bedtime story instead of 2-3, if they fail to get their coat or shoes on ready to leave for school on time then a natural consequence is they have to apologise to their teacher for being late.
In my experience, whilst many of these strategies may seem time consuming and difficult to administer in the moment your child is losing the plot emotionally, you are in fact laying the foundations for a much easier, happier, more confident child. It’s time most definitely well spent and will reap rewards in the future not only for you, but, more importantly for your child, who will be emotionally equipped to deal with anything which life throws at them.
Article by Dr. Maryhan Baker