Responding to children’s emotions effectively is made easier when we understand the process of emotional regulation. There are three main steps that will help.
“Let it go.” It’s a great anthem for a Disney film. However, as far as emotional advice goes…it’s terrible.
The inconvenient truth about painful emotions and traumatic experiences is that you can’t let them go. And if you try, you will fail. Then you can add failure to the emotional mix.
Other expressions that are equally as redundant include:
- Get over it
- Move on
- You’re fine
- It’s okay
- Don’t give it oxygen
- Toughen up
- Build a bridge
- Look on the positive side
In each of these cases, we are failing to acknowledge that bad things happen to all of us and they need to be processed and integrated into our experience of being human. We have to let them in.
We can’t rush emotional experiences. They take as long as they take, and that amount of time is different for everyone.
Lots of firsts
Kids of all ages are experiencing so many firsts. Everything from failing to make the netball team to their first crush, rejection by friends or the death of a pet. With each ‘first’ come new feelings.
It is our job to legitimise those experiences and help kids to understand and regulate those emotions. That involves three main steps:
1. Recognise and name the feeling: Feelings are less overwhelming when we recognise them and are able to name them. It also helps enormously to know that everybody else experiences them too.
This process of familiarisation and labelling begins when kids are very young. However, sometimes we assume adolescents have mastered these skills, when in fact they haven’t. Some adults haven’t!
Avoid the temptation to tell kids how they feel. For example, we may assume a child who has lost a pet is sad because that is how we would feel. They might actually feel angry because their furry friend has left them behind. Listen to understand.
2. Accept the feeling as human: There are no good or bad emotions, just human emotions and we need to experience and accept them all. When we try to push away emotions it never works, they push back even harder. If we accept emotions, they will stay and may play a lead role for a while but gradually we will integrate them into our life experiences and they will become less powerful.
Role modelling this process is important. Talking to kids about the feelings we have and how we recognise them helps. It shows that everyone, ‘even grown-ups’, feel this way. That said, we must be careful in choosing which experiences to share. Adult problems should never become kids’ problems.
3. Self-regulate: Employ self-regulation tools, not to make the feelings go away but to allow them to flow through us more gently. When we see kids experiencing painful emotions, it is instinct to want to make those feelings disappear. To take their pain away. That’s not our role. We need to equip kids with self-regulation tools.
What are self-regulation tools?
Self-regulation tools are the techniques we use to comfort ourselves in times of upset and pain. As small children, our parents did this for us. They coo-ed and patted and cuddled. Emotional regulation tools help us to experience those same feelings of comfort and calming.
Some self-regulation occurs naturally. We might sigh more when upset as it allows more oxygen which is calming. Crying is another normal self-regulation tool, it is an emotional release. Please…never say “Don’t cry” to a child, or to anyone. Usually, we say it because it is difficult for us to experience someone else’s upset, but crying is actually helping them, so let it be.
- Focusing on the mind-body connection. This can be achieved with activities like yoga, listening to mindfulness apps or body scanning to recognise where in the body the emotion is being experienced. Noticing where we are holding emotion in our body is a step towards accepting that emotion.
- Exercise. Physical activity gets our endorphins flowing and helps us to work out frustration.
- Listening to music. We can choose calming music to soothe us. We can also just choose music we love. Music can lift our mood and remind us that there are still things we enjoy. A good singalong never hurt anybody either!
- Journalling. When we take time to articulate feelings in written form, we foster self-awareness, self-reflection and greater insight into our emotions and patterns of behaviour.
Remember, kids don’t have adult-state brains
No matter how well we model and teach emotional regulation, don’t expect kids to get it right all the time. Their brain will not reach adult-state until they are in their mid-twenties. Until then, the analytical pre-frontal cortex, responsible for sound judgment, will still be undeveloped. This means they will often fall back to the instinctive, emotional responses governed by the amygdala. That’s normal. They will need practise and support.
Most of all, we need to really try not to enter that emotional state with them. We have a developed prefrontal cortex. It’s our job to use it.
Don’t let it go…Let life in.
Life, with all its ups and downs, happens whether we like it or not. So, we need to teach kids to let it in. Sometimes it hurts so much it feels as though your heart has been hacked out. Sometimes it is frightening. Sometimes it is so joyful, it’s euphoric. Other times it’s meh. Dull. And that’s okay.
When we let life in, after a while those painful feelings get mixed up with all the other stuff: soccer training, a new friend, a Netflix series you’re loving at the moment, little wins that make you feel a bit special. Thousands and thousands of little bits of life….and time.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is a writer, speaker and consultant in Western Australia. You can find out more about her work here.