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How to Tap into Your Child’s Emotions at Every Age

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Do you ever treat your children’s challenging emotions like a bug you spot in your home? If it’s flitting around you, you might swat at it feeling annoyed. If it’s a small bug, you could squash it. “Stop it. You’re fine,” you might say when your daughter is buzzing with worry. Or if it’s a larger bug, you might fear and run away from it or bring out the poison to kill it. In reaction to your child’s anger, you might yell, “Go to your room!” or “I just can’t right now!”

But what if we thought about emotions instead as a musical instrument? Indeed, if the vocal cords are the instruments of the body, emotions are the musical instrument of the heart, mind, and spirit. There’s no school requirement directing us to train our children on a musical instrument but if we do, it offers them a new voice for self-expression. The same is true for emotions. If we specifically train our children in how to identity, name, interpret and use their emotions, then they will learn a new language for self-expression. This language is one that doesn’t stifle, shove down, repress, and then explode, but rather helps them understand why they are feeling what they are feeling. Even in challenging moments, children can practice ways of responding to those feelings – or “notes” -- in ways that do no harm to themselves or others. Ultimately, children who learn that emotions are vital messages from their core and practice healthy ways of responding grow their own sense of well-being and are capable of developing and sustaining healthy relationships.

In fact, understanding how emotions operate in our family can add to our trust and sense of connection with all family members. The purpose of feelings is to make sense of what’s going on inside of us and around us. Feelings give us quick feedback to use based upon our past experiences. This plays out as our young child reacts with shame and guilt when they touch the handles on the oven because, through experience, they’ve learned that the oven is dangerous and their actions are a “no, no.” Feelings can be highly confusing for adults and children alike in that:

  • They are complex. Our children can feel a mash-up of emotions at once and sometimes, conflicting.
  • We can hide emotions or mask them with other feelings (like anger to mask hurt), burying them from others and sometimes, from ourselves.
  • Emotions are contagious. The anxiousness a Mom feels as a child takes a scary risk is also felt by that child. So too, we can “catch” our child’s emotions as we empathize with them. And vice versa for our kids.

Just as children develop cognitively, they also develop emotionally at each age and stage. In my new book, “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers,” I offer an age-by-stage guide to children’s social and emotional development with specific ways parents can support that vital learning. Caregivers learn to consider the roles of feelings in family life and how they might deal with their own big feelings that arise in parenting in healthy ways to become a model of emotional intelligence.

Here are a few emotional developmental milestones, and how parents can support their children at each stage.

Ages 4-7 Emotional Development Highlights:

The young child’s opera can be highly dramatic. One moment your young daughter becomes angry, indignant, and upset. “She took my toy!” And when her friend hands the toy back, she can switch notes just as fast feeling happy, playful, and satisfied. This drama, paired with the need to move and quickly change attention (lacking focus on anything for extended time) can exhaust a parent or educator. Yet, this is a magically creative time when children are open to making new friends, discovering new skills and abilities, and connecting deeply with you.

How to Offer Support:

Cultivate a Feelings Vocabulary. The phrase “name it to tame it” truly works. Yet, our young children do not yet have the words to articulate the sensations inside of them particularly when there’s a strong mash-up of feelings. So, offer feeling language and ask if it’s true for them. “You look angry. Is that right?” Practice with other family members too. Avoid the pitfall of saying “use your words” when a child is upset since it’s not a reasonable expectation while the young child is still in the early stages of learning connecting body and mind sensations with a feelings vocabulary.

Practice What to Do When Upset. Build on your young child’s sense of pretend play by enacting what they could do in reaction to upsetting emotions. Pretend together you are experiencing a challenging emotion whether it may be frustration or worry or hurt. Then, ask “how do we know what we are feeling?” Talk about the body feelings associated with examples like crying when hurt or feeling shakiness when worried. Then ask, “what can help us feel better?” Include your “name it to tame it” practice. “I feel worried,” so that your young child learns that asserting her emotions to others helps her seek understanding and is a positive step toward feeling better. Then, “what else can we do? Can we hug a bear? Or hang out close to a friend or adults where we feel safe?”

Ages 8-12 Emotional Development Highlights:

Children are more trustworthy since they’ve internalized the rules of school and family life and are engaged in shaping their own rules with their friends more frequently. They are joining a Motown band as they are eager to keep step with their peers. At the beginning of the major body and brain changes that move them from a magical thinking child to a more logical thinking adult, these changes can create a sense of heightened sensitivity and vulnerability. Our children will quickly pull away and even become embarrassed by us in front of their peers as they try and assert independence. Yet, they’ll just as quickly run to your arms when upset and need comforting. This can be a confusing time so preparing our children with some coping strategies can help them, especially when we are not there to guide them.

How to Offer Support:

Engage Child in Imagining Best Self. As your pre-teen’s self-awareness gains more clarity, she or he may, for the first time, be able to envision a future best self. Dream together about what is admirable about that person and how she might emulate choices today that fit with her future ideal self.

Making Meaning, Reinterpreting, and Building Empathy and Compassion. As your child is growing in their social awareness, they are also becoming more self-conscious as they feel judged by peers. Often pre-teens can misinterpret a friend’s glare or a peer’s snub as a direct attack on who they are when it could be that person is having a bad day. Offer alternative ways of making meaning of any given social worry or problem to help your child to learn that there are many ways to view a situation not just one. Then, find empathy and compassion. “She didn’t acknowledge you in class today. Do you think she was feeling bad herself? What could be going on for her?”

Ages 13-17 Emotional Development Highlights

While joining and wanting to feel a sense of belonging to the marching band of peers and larger youth culture, teens are also deeply engaged in defining their own voice. But it’s a process, not an event. It takes time and they will continue to feel vulnerable as they find their place in the world. There’s a creative tension or dissonance that defines the teen years — fighting for independence while highly dependent upon you still, wanting deeper friendships and exploring romantic partnerships but scared of rejection at the same time, focusing on the rewards of risks but struggling with consequential thinking (what happens if I choose this?).

How to OfferSupport:

Discuss Self-Talk. The inner critic can become a loud voice in the teen years. While a teen will be highly responsive to acting in accord with the inner critic - “don’t talk to her! She thinks you’re an idiot!” - she may be unaware of the voice and how influential it can be in her life. So, chat about the voices inside including the supportive mentor who represents the ideal imagined self and how that person can guide her to her best version of who she is. And when she hears from her inner critic, she can invoke Harry Potter’s response to a boggart (a shapeshifter that takes the form of a person’s fears) and say, “Ridiculous!” Follow the inner mentor instead.

Find Healthy Outlets for Upset. In a calmer moment, talk about what makes your teen feel better when they are angry or hurt. What options could they explore to deal with their big emotions? Do they like to write? Perhaps journaling could be helpful. Do they like to get outside? Maybe a walk in the park could help. Maybe he’s a music lover. Why not listen to a favorite song to either more deeply feel the emotion or change the mood?

Discuss Stories of Others’ Choices and Outcomes. Whether from the local news or a story from a neighbor, talking about choices and their outcomes, and alternatives to those choices and outcomes, can provide valuable rehearsal for teen in responsible decision-making skills. Adults can look ahead and see that if a teen gets behind the wheel driving after several beers, they are likely to get in an accident. However, our teens may not think through to that conclusion. Teens are highly motivated by figuring out complex social dynamics. Frame it as a curiosity not as a cautionary tale and your teen may stay interested.

When we understand the critical role emotions play in our children’s development, we need not squash them when those feelings challenge us. Instead, we can help train them at various ages and stages to listen to their heart and respond in ways that will be healthy for them and others. They’ll cultivate a sense of well-being, competence, and confidence as they learn how to cope with their big emotions. In turn, they’ll also realize they can turn to you as a trusted support. Now that’s truly creating harmony between parent and child.

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