Helping Children Manage Big Emotions
ParentEdge|March - April 2021
Parenting is a roller-coaster ride filled with loads of fun as well as moments where we feel as if we are walking on eggshells. When our child has an outburst, we either make frantic attempts to soothe them or end up having a fit ourselves. Though it appears as if we are stumbling in the dark when it comes to understanding our child's emotions, there is still hope. When armed with information about how to help them deal with their emotional challenges, we will be able to sit back and enjoy this ride. Read on.
Dr.Nisha Vidyasagar

Young children are often beset by strong emotions. Emotional challenges are a part of growing up and uncomfortable situations tend to elicit a mixed set of reactions in children ranging from anger, sadness, fear and worry. A toddler who loses her toy; a middle schooler who is ignored by his friend; a teenager dealing with being over-weight - all experience big emotions that require regulation. In some children, the reactions are instantaneous and intense while in others the distress builds up over time before leading to an outburst. How we react to our child’s emotions has an impact on their ability to handle their innermost feelings. As parents, we thus have a responsibility to help our child develop emotional intelligence for them to cope with the highs and lows of life.

Useful questions to ask ourselves

Before proceeding to read through the next few pages, it helps to think of the following questions:

» How do we know that our child is overwhelmed or stressed?

» What are the triggers for stress?

» What do we do to help the child feel calm? Does it work?

» What more can we do to help the child feel calm?

Building Emotional Resilience

Consider these scenarios:

» A four-year-old’s ice-cream melts and falls on the ground. She looks shocked but instead of bursting into tears, she composes herself and calmly asks whether she can have another.

» A 10-year-old’s playdate cancels at the last minute. He is angry and disappointed but instead of yelling he takes out a book and reads.

» A teen has received low grades in her school examination. She speaks to her parents about her disappointment and asks for help coping with the subject.

The above responses seem ordinary but they signify that these children are in control of their emotions and possess the art of managing their emotions in an appropriate way.

This emotional control, in other words, s emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations and crisis. This quality helps children bounce back from challenges without becoming overwhelmed. It is necessary that our children learn how to express and manage their feelings appropriately as well as respect the feelings of others.

There are benefits of teaching emotional control to children. A child who can calm herself when distressed over the loss of a toy, pet or friend is likely to have better relationships, more self-confidence and a higher chance at academic and job success as an adult. Such a child will also grow up to have better mental health – that is, less likely to experience depression, severe anxiety or any other mental illness.

Though some children are resilient by birth, it is a skill that can be learnt over time at any age. They just need us adults to help them learn. We can make them develop this skill by we ourselves modelling how to deal with stressful situations and by teaching our children specific strategies to cope with distress.

Parents as role models

Our child’s good mental health begins with us. This process starts as early as infancy. At birth, infants lack self-control and often express distress through crying. Our actions, such as calming and soothing a crying baby, serve to regulate the baby’s negative emotions. We also elicit positive emotions in our baby through play and other stimulating interactions. Hence, how we behave and express our feelings in front of our child can have a long-lasting impact on them.

As parents, we need to find the inner strength to manage our own strong feelings when faced with challenges. When our child shows his report card, or talks about his new girlfriend, we know that he is counting on us to hear him out and also watching how we will respond to him. However, we are also human with our own personal flaws and there will be occasions when we lose our cool in front of our children. But it can help if we pause and think about the example we are setting to our children while responding to our own difficult feelings.

In her book ‘The Conscious Parent: Transforming ourselves, Empowering our children’, Dr. Shefali Tsabari states the premise that children are born to create deep internal transformation in us. According to the author, to be a conscious parent means to be mindful and aware of ourselves. Only when we look deeply within ourselves can we transform our relationship with our children. She refers to children as ‘gurus’. Their behaviours and emotional expressions are opportunities for parents to remain calm and look inwards at their own personal traits that could be contributing to these behaviours. So before becoming a role-model for our children, we need to invest time in observing ourselves and work towards bringing about a change in our inappropriate responses to stressful situations.

The following are some pointers on how we can help ourselves and our children:

Be genuine in our expression of feelings

It is important to tune into our feelings and not be judgemental about ourselves. This helps to own up our feelings which in turn would motivate us to work towards addressing them in a healthy way rather that elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Children can easily sense when we are faking our reactions. If we are impatient while waiting for our appointment at the doctor’s clinic, it helps to verbalize the frustration and at the same time talk about ways to manage the situation better. For example, “There is a delay, and it is frustrating. Let us play ‘I spy’ or read a book to while away the time.”). This shows children that adults also we experience negative emotions and that such emotions are normal.

Empathise

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