Getting your child to understand and express their emotions- what you should know

Olivia Smith – Educational and Developmental Psychologist atNorthern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development

It goes without saying that for most kids, different events are a BIG DEAL. When it is their birthday, they are SO EXCITED. When they lose their favourite toy, they are SO SAD. And when you tell them they need to turn off the iPad now and go to bed… that is SO UNFAIR. Sometimes these emotional reactions seem totally out of proportion to what has occurred and can seem baffling and overwhelming to parents. How can we help our kids manage these big emotions?

It is important to remember that children’s brains are still developing, and this also applies to their ability (or inability) to manage strong emotions. Emotion regulation is not a skill we are born with, but something that grows as we mature over time. Importantly, it is largely a learnt skill, and something we must explicitly teach kids. What does this look like?

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Well, first of all, we need to help children identify what emotion they are feeling. Kids will often respond that they are feeling ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and lack the emotional vocabulary that adults have. As adults, they need us to label their emotional experience, e.g. “I can hear that you’re really disappointed that we can’t go to the playground today”. This act of naming an emotion is powerful for a child as it makes it a tangible thing they can manage. Acknowledging what your child is feeling does not mean you are necessarily agreeing that it is a justified response but shows your child that you are there for them.

Children often also have difficulty knowing what to do in each moment. It depends on the age of the child, but you directing them towards a calming activity- such as blowing bubbles to support slow breathing, receiving a firm hug, drawing or bouncing on the trampoline- teaches them strategies that they themselves can implement in the future. When your child is highly emotional, the rational part of their brain has gone ‘offline’. As most parents would know, trying to verbally reason with a child when they are escalated is a futile process. For this reason, wait until your child has ‘recovered’ before opening a problem-solving discussion about what they could do differently next time.

Remember, the more your child practices emotion regulation, the better they will get at it. It takes patience as a parent, but you play a vital role in your child developing emotional intelligence.

If you’re keen to learn more about how to respond to your child’s emotions, paediatric psychologist Amanda Abel (founder of Northern & Hawthorn Centre for Child Development) has created an online mini-course jam packed full of tips. It’s called Responding to your child’s BIG feelings and you can get it here!

Olivia Smith is an endorsed Educational and Developmental Psychologist and is a strong believer in the importance of working collaboratively with families and other professionals to ensure a holistic approach to child wellbeing. She is passionate about advocating for and working with children presenting with anxiety and/or neurodiversity (e.g. ASD, ADHD and specific learning disorders) and their families. Olivia strives to make therapy sessions engaging, effective and applicable to everyday life, and views the relationship between child and therapist as key to success. She is also a certified SOS-feeding therapist.

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