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Helping Children Manage Big Emotions with Everyday Conversations

When my daughter started preschool, we prepared for the transition. We visited the open house and played games at home with toys who we pretended were going to school for the first time. I took the morning of her first day off so that I could stay if needed. When we arrived, my daughter sat down next to her new teacher, smiled at me and said, “I got this mom!” I gave her a big thumbs up. Then, I turned and walked out as quickly as I could so that I would be out of sight before my tears started. Even though it was hard, I had to remind myself that my daughter was developing important skills that she needed to build trusting relationships with others and feel comfortable in new situations.

For my daughter, the smooth transition didn’t last long. Her feelings came out in a big way at night when she was exhausted from spending her day with new people and new rules that she worked hard to follow.

When my daughter started kindergarten, first-day drop off went smoothly for both of us. She had the confidence to walk into her new school on her own and I had the confidence to say good-bye with a smile. Once again, her big emotions came out weeks later at night.

Helping children learn to manage their emotions is a universal parenting challenge and especially tough following a transition.

When children are born, their emotions come out through impulses (crying/cooing, tensing/relaxing, smiling/frowning). These impulses help us know when our children need something. As children get older, we expect them to show emotions in different ways, but helping children use their words to express feelings doesn’t happen overnight. This shift comes with brain maturation, support from role-models, and lots of practice.

In my book, Creating Compassionate Kids: Essential Conversations to Have for Young Children, I share conversations between children and adults aimed at helping children develop the social-emotional skills they need to manage their emotions through everyday ups and downs as well as transitions. We can’t predict or plan for every possible situation that our children will face, but we can use conversations to help them develop skills to navigate challenges successfully. Here, I share a few conversation prompts to get started, along with strategies to practice emotional intelligence at home.

“Did anything happen today that made you feel excited? How about scared? Disappointed? Loved?”

Make talking about emotions part of your daily routine. Let children know that everyone has feelings. When reading together, talk about characters’ feelings (e.g., “How is he/she/they feeling? What do you do when you have that feeling?”). If your child feels comfortable talking about emotions at home, they will be more likely to talk with you about challenging feelings as they get older.

“It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to hit your brother. What could you do next time instead?”

Teach emotional intelligence like any other skill. Establish family rules for different emotions. How do you want your child to show emotions like anger, frustration, sadness, fear, or excitement in your family? Talk with your child about what they can do to let you know when they have these feelings. Practice modeling your family’s emotion rules, too.

“I can see that you are really upset. Let’s take a deep breath together. Do you want a hug? That’s okay. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

Support challenging feelings in the moment. When your child has big emotions, stay calm as possible and let them know their feelings are okay. Allow time and space to calm down, making sure your child is not hurting themselves or others. Coach your child through these moments, but remember that during a tantrum, children struggle to think clearly. Take time afterward to revisit these moments when everyone is calm (“Let’s talk about what you could do next time to let me know you feel that way.”).

“I had a hard day at work so I’m feeling grumpy today. When I’m grumpy, I’m not really in the mood to play games. Do you have ideas for a quiet activity we could do instead?”

Share your feelings with your child, too. Children pick up on adults’ emotions. When you have different feelings at home, let your child know. Talk about how you feel and how you are managing your feelings. Talking openly about your feelings also lets children know what happened that led to your feelings, rather than leaving them guessing (“Are they upset with me?”). Share stories from your childhood about what you did to manage your emotions.

With everyday conversations, we can help our children learn the emotional intelligence skills they need to navigate transitions and to thrive.

Shauna Tominey is an assistant professor of practice and parenting education specialist at Oregon State University and the Principal Investigator for the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, a statewide initiative to increase access to parenting education programs and resources. For additional resources, visit her website at: www.creatingcompassionatekids.org

This article appeared in the February 23, 2019 edition of the Register-Guard.


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