How to Help Children Manage Difficult Emotions
As human beings we are hard-wired to experience a wide range of emotions each day – from excitement and joy, to frustration, anger and grief. In these difficult times of COVID and social distancing, it can feel like the more difficult feelings, such as loss and disappointment are increasingly present in our daily lives.
We as adults are working hard to manage these emotions in ourselves and trying to find ways to create feelings of peace and joy under new circumstances. At the same time, children are experiencing their own “difficult” emotions each day.
The Emotions of Children
For children, they first communicate feelings and emotional experiences through behaviors, as humans are not born with the ability to understand and communicate our own internal experiences.
The ability to use words to share feelings and experiences grows over the course of child and adolescent development with help from adults. These behaviors often present as challenging to caregivers and others around the child, as they can be defiant or oppositional.
A child might come in from outside, slam the door, throw his coat on the kitchen table and say, “I’m never playing with Charlie again! He’s stupid”! As parents, it can be easy for us to get caught in addressing the surface behavior as it can bring up our own feelings of fear and anger. We may have just told our child his coat always goes in the closet or that he is not allowed to slam the door. We then interpret the child’s behavior as not listening to instructions. We might feel frustrated they aren’t following the rules or worried they aren’t being a kind friend to others.
How to Respond as Caregivers
Overall, children’s emotional development will be well served if parents or caregivers can see these tough behaviors as opportunities for learning about difficult feelings and how to manage them.
One of the first things we can do is try to attune to a child’s feelings. Attunement is the “ability to ‘read’ (understand) a child’s cues and respond in a way that helps them manage emotions, cope with distressing situations, and/or make good choices.” Margaret E. Blaustein and Kristine M. Kinniburgh, Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents (2019, The Guilford Press).
What this means is we can first try to respond to the emotion behind the behavior rather than the behavior itself. We can try to link the cue the child’s behavior is giving us to a feeling they may be experiencing. Then, we can provide words and labels that help the child learn about the feeling.
We might say, “Whoa – you look mad. I wonder if something happened with Charlie.” After we have tried to name and label the feeling, we can move to offering suggestions or alternative perspectives. Through this approach we can help kids know their feelings, think about their feelings, and be with their feelings.
As parents and caregivers, we can have compassion toward ourselves and our parenting, especially during such stressful times. We can not expect to be perfect parents. We can do our best to understand and be present with our own feelings, so we can do the same for our children.
Reach Out for Help
Helping children manage challenging emotions and behaviors can be overwhelming for families. When challenging behaviors begin to cause significant distress for the family or begin to impact a child’s functioning at home or school, it might be necessary to seek out help from a mental health professional.
If your child has been removed or is at risk of being removed from their regular school settings due to challenging behaviors, we’re here to help. Get in touch with our Program Director, Anne Fleming, at (952) 443-4600, for more information on our Early Childhood Day Treatment program.