How we talk about emotions with our children?

Introduce emotional skills before they are needed 

Whether we are helping children to deal with pain, social worries, learning blocks or stressful situations, teaching our children to talk about their emotions is one of life’s lessons worth practising. It might be good to remember that talking about emotions is a skill… whether you find it easy or difficult, practice is the ‘way forward’! It is best to introduce the ideas (below) before your child has a major emotional melt down. When a  child is having a really hard time it is difficult to get them to focus on anything, let alone something new. By teaching your kids how to talk and act under normal circumstances will make it much easier when things become more difficult.

Complex emotions… and an attempt to simplify them

Emotions are essentially information. Our system letting us know what’s going on physically or emotionally in our body. For example if I put my hand on the cooker – my hand starts to hurt, telling my body to move away. Emotions are not much different… Children tend to look for empathy and understanding, and if you as a parent don’t hear the message they are trying to send you, the messenger often gets louder and louder until you hear! It’s worth remembering, that children’s emotions go from 0 to 10 (and sometimes back again) rather quickly and are much more acute than those of an adult: they are also more short lived with less shades of grey.  

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Common pitfalls

As a parent confronted with a child experiencing big emotions our first response is often to try and persuade them out of feeling this way. We want nothing more than our children to ‘feel better’ and one of the first miss-steps we often make is to tell them how they are supposed to feel. Common phrases such as – ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘try not to worry’ ‘calm down’, or ‘stop crying’ are rarely successful. Every-time we do this we dismiss or minimise these strong feelings, teaching our little ones to squash their emotions – leading them to develop the idea that ‘there is something that is wrong’, or ‘I’m not being heard’.

‘In the moment’

Unfortunately, most of us in a place of high emotion are unable to hear or think clearly; no more so than when a child is angry. Having activated the fight, flight or freeze response (see pervious blog)  – the thinking brain has shut down and only the reptilian (survival state) brain still functions. There are many other aspects at play here – but the bottom line is we cannot reason with our children when they are experiencing high emotion. 

In that moment, rather than giving them advice, trying to reason with them or even asking how they feel, try to just ‘be’ with them. If we think we understand what they are experiencing and have preconceived ideas, we are not really listening, and more often than not, we then try to fix the problem! Be with them in the moment, demonstrate  that you are engaged and are listening; try not to make value judgements; and not over-estimating or under-estimating – just be present. 

There will a point at which your child feels listened to and safe – this is the time to try some ‘heart centred breathing’. This is (in my experience) the quickest way to ‘take the edge off’ restoring the body and brain back into harmony. It wont ‘fix’ it completely but it will hugely help your child get back to normality. You will know when it’s the right time – maybe ask, ‘it looks like you’re having a really hard time do you want to try something relaxing’?

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