From birth on, we teach our children about how to live and survive in the world. We read books to them, teach them to walk and talk, and build or take them to play grounds where they can play and jump. As they grow, we look for the most fitting educational environment that will stimulate them intellectually and guide them into the person God created them to be. We have hopes and dreams for them and do our best to parent them with love and discipline.
But along the way, we often forget about the important work of fostering their emotional life in the midst of all other life skills. We sometimes fail to notice that this too, is an area where early-on parental “teaching” and “modeling” is of utmost importance. As parents, we often times see emotional outbursts, and for lack of a better word, tantrums and deal with the aftermath without giving much thought to the details of WHAT led to the tantrum, the feelings expressed or unexpressed within them, and how to help our children get their needs met in a healthier way. We fail to recognize that developing a healthy emotional life is key to a full and whole educational, spiritual and professional life.
Before having my own children, I was a school social worker. One of my roles was to create behavior plans for children within the school environment who had difficulties controlling their strong emotions, as evidenced by behavioral and/or verbal outbursts. I would often meet with parents who along with teachers, struggled to identify how the problems began and how to help their children fix them. When I asked how they expressed anger or sadness at home, parents often times would become uncomfortable and shy away from these emotion-based discussions. This gave me a glimpse into some of the sources of the difficulties at school.
As parents, there are some simple, yet key ways that we can begin to foster our children’s emotional health so that, as they develop, they can learn to identify their feelings and express them in a healthy way. So how do we begin this journey? Here are a few simple steps:
- Label feelings: Your child does not come out of the womb knowing that sadness is a feeling that he/she may experience when mommy or daddy go to work, or when a pet dies, or when a friend moves away. Instead, these feelings might instead be observed in behaviors such as withdrawal from the family, or lack of an appetite, or tears that turn into a tantrum. As parents, we have the important task of TEACHING children about all emotions, and giving all emotions a voice and a name. When we, as parents, talk about the feelings of sadness outside of these experiences, we give children an emotional language and allow them to begin to develop a feeling vocabulary. This leads to greater self-control in difficult situations where these feelings might arise. With young children (3 and under) these conversations can take place through play. For example, when the child is playing with a stuffed bear and the bear falls, we can use this simple experience to build an emotional vocabulary by saying, “Bear feels sad when he falls and gets a boo-boo. How can we help bear?” With older children, these conversations can also take place using life experiences, such as discussing events going on within the family or church or at school. If a peer has a mother who is enduring cancer, we can use that situation to foster a healthy emotional vocabulary by simply saying, “Wow, Sarah sure is going through a difficult time right now. I am sure she is feeling all sorts of emotions such as fear, sadness and even anger. I sure would.” When we begin to give a voice to experiences using emotions, not only do we help our children in turn express their own emotions, but we are also saying that all emotions are OK and as humans, experiencing a range of emotions is universal. Finally, we are inviting them to express these emotions with us, however intense or difficult they might be.
- Model emotion expression: There have been times in my practice when parents have asked whether or not it is ok to cry in front of their children when they are, for example, grieving the loss of a loved one. My answer has always been, “YES! Children need to see that emotions have reasonable amounts of expression that are healthy and helpful. Doing this will not only help them to understand emotions, but also give them a sense of security to express a wide range of emotions themselves.” I encourage parents to couple the expression of the emotion with the verbal vocabulary by communicating for example, “I am feeling sad because I miss Grandpa. When I feel sad, crying helps me to not bottle these feelings up and helps me feel calmer.”
- Model healthy coping skills: As mentioned above, when children see their parents expressing sadness with tears, this experience helps them to more easily identify their own emotions in a situation where they are also experiencing sadness. What I also encourage parents to do, is to use these moments to help children see that there are many other positive and healthy ways to cope with these emotions. For example, a parent experiencing the loss of a loved one would experience a season of grief. If the child saw that this season was combined with weeks or months of their parent staying in bed without an explanation, he or she might instead feel a sense of despair within and for the parent as well. In contrast, if the parent modeled this sadness accompanied with sharing that he or she is seeing a grief counselor to work through these feelings and talk about them, the child would see that it is OK to talk about feelings and that seeing a counselor is a healthy way to deal with these universal human emotions.
Children that are raised in a home environment that identifies, accepts, effectively communicates, and copes with emotions in healthy ways will have a much greater chance of turning into an adult who also can do this for him or herself. If you are in need of help in building a healthier family unit, contact Desert Streams. Our caring Christian counselors are here to help.