Helping Kids Feel Their Feelings

Family

Parents immediately want to help children who are in pain—either physical or emotional. When a child scrapes a knee, how often do we swoop in with comforting sentiments like, “It’s not that bad!” “Everything is okay,” or “No need to cry. You’ll be alright.” While these are well-meaning sentiments, what we’re subconsciously suggesting is that kids should avoid their feelings. If you don’t think about it or simply ignore what you’re feeling, it will go away. Well, we all know that’s not true!

In teaching children to be emotionally intelligent, parents get many opportunities to model behaviors around feelings. According to the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, emotions influence a number of important aspects of a child’s development including attention, memory, and learning; creativity; physical and mental well-being; academic performance; and the ability to maintain healthy relationships throughout life. 

Adults can do a lot to ensure children are able to feel, express, and regulate their emotions appropriately. 

  • Empathize: If a child is having a difficult time, or has just experienced a painful or traumatic event, practice empathy first. Children’s big feelings can be unpredictable, uncomfortable, and may even trigger negative feelings in the caregiver. Just step back and put yourself in the child’s shoes and try to see the moment from their (much younger) perspective. 
  • Listen: Children are expert communicators in expressing how they feel. As adults, we may want to instantly change how they’re feeling or talk them out of their emotions as soon as possible simply because we want their discomfort to end. But taking a few moments to let the child say what they feel without interruption or correction will help them process the experience more quickly. Instead of saying, “You’re fine. It will be OK,” try saying “I understand how you might feel. I’ve been through this before and it hurts. I’m here and I’ll always listen to you.”
  • Talk: Our first instinct may be to talk kids out of their pain. For example, a parent may say “You’ll be fine. Once we clean up your cut and put a bandage on it, the pain will go away.” But children may feel badly for other reasons. They may be disappointed in themselves for failing to avoid danger. They may be afraid they will get into trouble for tearing a t-shirt. They may think the injury is more serious than the grownup is indicating. They may be shaken by the suddenness of the fall or experience a general feeling of confusion or helplessness. These are, of course, completely normal feelings. After a child expresses a negative feeling, it’s important to name that feeling. Are they scared? Do they feel ashamed? Is there confusion? Is there a lot of physical pain? Are they anxious or worried about a scar or healing? Help the child name what they’re feeling. Try saying, “That looks like it hurt. But I’m right here with you and I’m going to help. I remember how that felt when that happened to me once. It was painful and scary. Do you want to tell me how this is making you feel?”
  • Resolve: Once the feeling has been acknowledged and expressed, the next step is to help the child resolve the situation in order to avoid similar circumstances in the future. If a friend was mean, brainstorm ways to come to together with the friend to talk about what happened. If a faulty bicycle was the cause of a bad fall, work with the child to identify what happened and help to fix the bike. If a bad test score comes back, work with the child to make an appointment with an academic counselor or teacher to see of additional supports might be needed. Being proactive will give kids opportunities to make positive changes and regain control. 

Feelings are, of course, just feelings. They are neither good nor bad. Like weather, feelings come and go. Helping children process them in a healthy way is a lifelong skill that will always serve them.

For more information about teaching kids about emotional intelligence, check out these resources:

Exploring Feelings | Adventures in Learning | PBS Parents

How to Strengthen Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence

5 Steps to Nurture Emotional Intelligence in Your Child

 

Austin Family Magazine serves the greater Austin area with up-to-date information and ideas that promote smart parenting and healthy homes. Pick up the latest issue at any local HEB, Central Market, or Whole Foods or visit www.austinfamily.com

Jennifer Hill Robenalt is the editor of Austin Family Magazine. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Hill Robenalt
All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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