They throw temper tantrums. They hit their siblings. And when denied the tiniest desire, they can melt into inconsolable puddles.
Yet, somehow it’s up to you to help mold these little emotional tornadoes into reasonable human beings.
What’s a parent do?
Giving names to feelings is the first step to helping the under-8 set regulate their emotions, says Catherine Mogil, PsyD, an assistant clinical professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
“When you think back to being a child, you’ll remember that emotions often washed over you, and you rarely had the words to express them,” said Mogil. “That can be frustrating and challenging.”
Therefore, teaching children to identify strong emotions – and the steps needed to regulate them — can go a long way toward helping them calm the storm within and get their needs met.
A licensed clinical psychologist, Mogil specializes in teaching families how to better cope in stressful situations. In her years as director of training and intervention development at the UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center, she has advised families with parents deployed in the military, foster families and children living in dangerous neighborhoods.
Her top six suggestions are:
- Don’t hide your negative emotions. It’s natural for parents to want to shield their children from anything unpleasant. But make sure your children understand that, like them, you experience sadness, frustration and disappointment. Doing so not only shows them that these feelings are alright to have, but that you can manage them. Children who rarely see their parents express and cope with negative emotions worry that Mom and Dad can’t handle them, which is frightening for them.
- Label your own emotions. Did you just get cut off in traffic? Calmly describe your sense of irritation to the little witness in the back seat. When you take real-life opportunities to put a label on an emotion that you’re feeling, you are teaching your children a better way of expressing what they feel but might not necessarily have the vocabulary yet to describe.
- Label your child’s own emotional states. Notice that your daughter is struggling to assemble those last two pieces of a Lego set? Come right out and describe what she must be feeling. “Oh, how frustrating,” you might say. “You’re working really hard to get those Legos together, and they just won’t go.” By putting words to your children’s experiences they learn how to better express their own emotions. And if they can talk about their emotions, they’ll be less likely to act them out.
- Define your own coping mechanisms. Did your child just witness your confrontation with a shopper who sharp-elbowed you out of a coveted sale item? Explain how you’re going to calm yourself down. And after you call your sister to laugh about the experience, explain how the step helped defuse your lingering irritation. Not only do children learn coping techniques from your example, but they also see how resilient you are.
- Help your children identify their own coping mechanisms. After the best friend had to pack up and head home following a particularly fun play date, offer a hug — or whatever helps cheer your son up. But explain why you are doing so. “I’ve noticed that hugs tend to help you cheer up when you’re feeling sad,” you might say. Repeatedly matching successful coping mechanisms with specific feelings teaches children to reach for the right implement in their emotional tool box.
- Don’t forget all the teachable moments that come up during play. Getting out dolls, trucks or books is not just an opportunity for fun – it’s an opportunity to understand emotions. Is Elmo happy because his best friend came over to play with him? Pretend you’re a sportscaster and provide emotional play-by-play of what the doll is feeling. Or if Elmo is sad because the best friend had to go home, ask your child to describe coping skills that might help cheer him up. Discussing the emotions of a play thing or fictional character can be less threatening than discussing one’s own emotions.
By instilling emotional regulation, you’re helping your child now and for the rest of their lives.
“Learning to regulate emotions is going to be the building block for a child’s future success in school, in work and in relationships,” Mogil said.