How to emotion coach your child through big feelings
Sometimes, children can feel (and act) as if their world is ending. Feelings, physical sensations of emotions can be big, overpowering, and overwhelming. In that moment, your child feels that they can’t cope, and wants your help to escape or avoid the situation.
But if as parents we step in and “fix” up the situation, then our children won’t get the opportunity to learn that they can cope with challenging situations and navigate these big feelings.
Consider for a moment that instead of being problems to be fixed, moments of meltdown were opportunities to emotion coach our children? What if, instead of fearing the impact of big feelings, we viewed them as an opening for us to teach our child a new skill? And, what if the only real way for our children to develop emotional intelligence is to have the chance to experience a range of difficult emotions.
It’s definitely easier to step in and solve problems – at least in the short term. But in the longer term, resilience is only built through facing difficulty.
There are 3 simple reasons why our children need life to throw curveballs at them:
Resilience is learnt. When others solve problems for them, children don’t have the opportunity to learn they can be resilient.Think about your child as a teenager, faced with a difficult decision. For example, perhaps their friends are teasing or pressuring them to drink alcohol, threatening rejection. If this is the first time your child navigates rejection, the stakes are higher than when they were in the playground getting rejected by a bunch of 6 year olds. Learning that if you are rejected by one group that you can join another, or learning that you can tolerate rejection and life is ok… as parents, we would all prefer our children practice and learn how to work with and manage difficult feelings in low stake situations.
Problem solving skills take time to develop. When others solve problems for them, children don’t have the opportunity to learn how to work through or solve a problem themselves. Practice makes perfect. It’s not easy to solve problems and not all problems can be perfectly solved. It’s easier to discover this when you have a supportive parent on hand to empathise.
Confidence and history. Children don’t get the opportunity to learn how to work with difficult, unpleasant or overwhelming feelings if they rely on others to make them go away. You won’t always be there to fix your child’s problem situations for them. But if they have a repertoire of stories based on their history of being able to get through tough situations, then they are more likely to develop a helpful belief system that they can handle things.
My top tip for parents?
- Take a breath.
- Assess the situation. Is your child in danger? Is anyone else in danger? Is anything being destroyed.
If not, you can probably step back and give your child an opportunity to navigate the situation. While it can be hard to watch your child experience difficult situations, as a parent, it’s important to remember that how your child is feeling feel won’t last forever. The best coaches in the world don’t run onto the playing field and take over. They watch, they stay calm themselves, and they help work out how to help that person do better next time by considering what skills need further mastery.
So, when feelings are running high, the first lesson for parents is to stay calm. Your emotions simply add complexity your child doesn’t need. This is an opportunity to teach your child the name for how they are feeling – and it’s not necessarily the same as how you as their parent are feeling. Big feelings often mean more than one emotion. Perhaps they are sad and hurt. Or humiliated, betrayed, angry and sad – all at once. Emotions are complicated, and learning how to navigate them successfully can take well into adulthood. For many adults, navigating big feelings is still incredibly challenging.
Remind yourself and your child that feelings pass – both the positive ones, and the negative ones. Remind them that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable, and to recognise feelings as a message from the body. “What’s your body trying to tell you here?” Naming emotions is one of the fundamental stepping stones in learning how to tame them.
Once you understand how your child is feeling, you can problems solve solutions together – or help them engage in some soothing activities. That might be taking a bath, going for a walk, having a hug, listening to music, reading a book, talking things through with a friend. There are hundreds of ways to self-soothe that are helpful, and great skills to fall back on.
Whilst your child may never enjoy tolerating or managing difficult emotions, as a parent, building their capacity and ability to navigate the challenges of life is perhaps one of the biggest gifts you can give them.
If your child is struggling with emotions such as anxiety, upskilling as a parent can increase your ability to help them – and build your confidence. You might be interested in our Help Your Anxious Child 6-week program for parents, where I take you through gold standard techniques and skills to help you know how to best help your child navigate anxiety.
Article by Dr Amanda Mullin, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, Founder & Director Mindworx Psychology.