Attending to Our Children’s Emotions: From Toddler to Teen

by | Jul 1, 2019

Often in my conversations about the behavioral concerns of their children, I find myself repeating the same instructions to different parents: “Attend to the emotion!! There’s time and space to work on the behaviors, but let’s start with the emotions first!”

While behavioral change might be the objective of much of the therapeutic work done with children, I believe that the best way to achieve it is by a renewed emotional connection between a parent and child. Think about emotions as you might the muscles in our body. Although one could begin a new workout without warming up, the process ends up being much more gentle on our bodies (and better over the long term) when we are able to stretch, prepare and prime. In a similar way, talking about and working with emotions helps us and our children make meaningful change easier and more comfortable.

Below are some simple but important suggestions to help you attend to your child’s feelings and to foster the type of emotional relationship with your child that will be able to grow and adapt with time.

Toddlers and Young Children

  1. Find ways to incorporate basic feeling words into your interactions with your child. Help put words to what you observe your child experiencing: “Oh, you seem mad right now!”, “That looks like a sad face,” or “Oh no! Your tower fell over! How disappointing.”
  2. Play simple games where you can practice stating basic feeling words (ie. mad, sad, scared, happy) and making the associated facial and body expressions. Kids especially love permission to practice being angry with their parents by stomping their feet, raising their voice, or clenching their hands.
  3. When it comes to acting out behaviors or tantrums, try to connect with your child’s feelings before engaging with the behavior. Acknowledge their feeling (“I’m sorry you’re mad that we can’t go to the park right now”), use your body to help them control their own emotions (ie. squat down and look in their eyes, use physical touch, use a quiet soothing voice, hold them), manage your own feelings (ie. take several deep breaths, have a time-out for yourself, ask yourself what buttons are being pushed for you, imagine yourself in your child’s shoes), and finally implement the consequence (ie. getting a toy taken away, time-out or time-in, etc.)
  4. Connect your feelings with their actions in very specific ways. Instead of saying, “Stop that!” say, “I feel sad when you hit your baby brother in his face” or “I was not happy when you ran away from me in the parking lot.”

School-Age Children

  1. Continue labeling feeling words as you observe them happening in your child in order to foster their ability to communicate their emotions. Elicit conversations about feelings by saying things like, “Wow, I might have been really mad if that had happened to me. What was it like for you?”
  2. Have conversations with them ahead of time to help them recognize the physical signs of their emotions (ie. getting hot, their hands clenching into fists, their stomach twisting in knots, changes in heart/breathing, etc.) One of my favorite metaphors for anger is that of a volcano, with the intention of helping children realize when they are in a “bubbling lava” phase about to erupt, when their volcano has “exploded,” and how we can help them get back to being a “calm mountain.” Help them identify the things that trigger their anger (or any other emotion) so that they can gain greater control over it.
  3. Allow them to feel their emotions without trying immediately to resolve it. Sometimes I work with parents that try to help their child stop having a strong emotional reaction by promising them a treat (“If you stop crying, we can go and get McDonald’s after this”), by threatening them with a consequence (“If you don’t stop that you won’t be able to play on your tablet later today”), or by repeatedly giving them instructions that the child can’t seem to follow (“Stop crying. Sit down. Be quiet. Control yourself.”) When these situations occur, I like to pause the parent’s involvement and instruct them to make space for the child to feel their feeling. I might say something to the child like, “It seems like you’re really angry. That’s okay. Why don’t we all just sit together for a little while and be angry together?” After a minute or two of silence or angrily kicking the air I might say, “How much more time do you think you need to be angry? What about 2 more minutes?” Usually at this point the child is more able to interact and might acknowledge that they need more or less time. This can be modified for other feeling states as well, for example by saying, “Why don’t we just be sad together for a little while? Should we cuddle together on the couch or hide together under this blanket?” Always seek the child’s input or permission, but if they’re not able to respond just match their body language (ie. slouch down quietly in a chair and don’t say anything. Just be with them.) This is my favorite tool, and one which I find to be so powerful because it teaches children two crucial messages: one, that they can tolerate their feelings and manage them without the automatic need for a reward or consequence, and two, that you as his or her parent see them and accept them in whatever state they may be in.

Adolescents

  1. Validate, validate, validate. This is one of the most important emotional needs that teenagers have. They quite frequently feel unheard and misunderstood by adults in their lives and showing that you can listen to their point of view without reacting goes a very long way. Validating does not mean that you agree with what they say, that you think the same way, nor that you are going to allow them to do what they are telling you. It simply means that you listen to their main point without interrupting or judging, reflect back what you heard the person say, and then empathize with what feeling you hear them express. You’ll be amazed at how much better solving problems or disagreements go when you have first validated your teen’s feelings. It might sound something like this, “Okay, so I heard you saying that you think it’s really unfair that I won’t let you go out this weekend and you’re worried that your friends are going to stop inviting you to things because you can never go. Did I get that right? That must be really frustrating for you to feel like your Dad and I never let you do things with them.”
  2. Change your line of questioning. Many of the teens that I work with want to be able to speak with their parents about their feelings and worries, but find that it’s difficult. Some worry that their parents will overreact and get angry with them, others don’t want to worry their parents, and others state that their parents don’t “ask the right questions.” I recommend replacing “Why” questions with “What” or “How.” Some of my favorite questions to get teens to talk about feelings include, “What was that like for you?”, “Is that what you wanted/were expecting to happen?”, “How did that work out for you?”, and “What do you think you’ll do about it?” I find that statements are also very powerful in creating space for teens to talk about their feelings. Simple, validating statements such “Wow, that seems really unfair” or “That sucks” go a long way in communicating to teens that you get them. Acknowledging your own role in the conversation can be another way to create a healthy space for communication. This can be done with phrases like, “Help me understand…,” “What am I missing?,” or “What is it that you need me to hear/understand/do?”
  3. Listen and guide more, fix less. I find that most of the teens I work with have decent problem solving skills and a strong desire to use them independently. This makes them prone to close up or shut down when they feel like their parents are criticizing their decisions or telling them what they need to change. Because adolescent brains are still developing their ability to plan and connect behavior with consequences, teens might need guidance with problem-solving–but rarely do they respond well when told how to get there. Use guiding, open-ended questions such as, “What do you think might happen if you (make a certain choice)?”, “So it sounds like one part of you (feels one way.) What about the other part of you?”, “It sounds like you sound stuck between two different options. Is it possible that there’s a third option?”. Sometimes I ask teens what is the worst thing that might happen because of one of their decisions and whether they feel willing to receive that consequence if it transpires that way.
  4. Foster emotional connection with your teen by sharing your own emotions with him or her. Let them know that you don’t know all the answers and feel insecure and confused at times. Spend time doing things that add emotional capital to your relationship instead of only withdrawing from it. As one of my favorite Brene Brown video states (which I highly recommend watching), “rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

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