Helping Children With Their Feelings

Homework struggles, friendship conflicts, bedtime battles, pandemic fatigue, the list goes on. Just reading these words might have you wanting to crawl back under the covers, and no one would blame you. Parenting in today’s world can be a challenge, but with a little encouragement, we can be up for the task! Read on as Gilman School’s Director of Wellness and Support Christina Kim shares her tips for helping to guide your children through difficult emotions.

Model for your child that all feelings are OK

Many parents find it easy to show their kids what it looks like to be joyful, appreciative, proud, or inspired. It’s a lot harder for adults to accept, even in themselves, what are typically considered “negative” emotions, such as sadness, guilt, loneliness, or resentment. And it can be counterintuitive to put those less-than-happy feelings on display for our children.

But humans are wired to experience all emotions, including the ones that many people find uncomfortable. Kim, who holds two master’s degrees in education and a third in social work, says, “It’s important to acknowledge the full range of feelings we have and to talk about strategies that help us shift and manage those feelings.” That means when parents are experiencing a difficult emotion, it can be beneficial to talk through the moment in real time in front of your child. Of course, you’ll want to keep the discussion age-appropriate, but know that it’s OK for your kids to see you upset and working through it. This modeling gives children a template to follow the next time they feel that way.

Partner with your child to build a toolkit for emotional regulation

When uncomfortable or overwhelming feelings inevitably come up, Kim says to “let your kids know that you are there for them.” In other words, make sure they understand that they will not be left alone to handle their problems. Kim goes on: “Say to them, ‘We are going to deal with these things and figure it out as a family. Tell me how I can support you: Do you want me to help you problem solve or just listen?’”

While strategies for moving through a feeling will be unique for each person, some common ideas that adults utilize include going for a short walk, making a cup of coffee, or taking a few deep breaths. And kids aren’t all that different. They may need to take a break from the location or situation causing them stress and it may be helpful for them to move their bodies. If they are doing homework at the kitchen table and things start to turn sour, they might want to go for a walk or to another room in the home. If a scene change isn’t possible, some children may find comfort in closing their eyes, listening to music, or even doing jumping jacks. Kim emphasizes that the strategies themselves don’t matter so much; the important points for parents to remember are to “start talking about finding tools for their toolkits from an early age” and to “partner with children to problem solve together rather than give them the solutions.”

Find moments to connect with your child

Kim says in order to build trust with your child, it’s critical to begin the process of showing children that they have a parent in their corner during peaceful periods, and not to wait for the tense times to bring up the toolkit. “This will lay the foundation of the relationship,” she says.

She recommends finding ways to insert connection through play. For a younger child, this might be building Legos or reading a story together. For older children, it could be playing video games or kicking around a soccer ball. The idea is to spend even just 10 minutes with your child doing something that they enjoy.

Give your child — and yourself — grace through the process

Children are constantly learning new things and improving their skills. The first time they picked up a tennis racket or sat down at a piano, they were beginners. And they are beginners when it comes to regulating their emotions. Parents should expect there will be a learning curve as children try out their tools. They will need gentle reminders (probably over and over again) to identify their emotion, to know that it’s safe and OK that they are feeling it, and then to decide which tool they want to use in that moment to shift.

Kim says to remember that you, the parent, are learning, too. And like the kids, you won’t always get it right. “Parenting is a skill, one you can work to sharpen at any age.” When learning a new way of doing something, it’s a good idea to seek feedback. She says that after you help your children through a hard emotion, once everyone is calm, you can ask if it was helpful, and give permission for them to share their thoughts with you.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, “The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.” Kim echoes the sentiment: “Children need one stable adult in life who tells them, ‘I see you, I love you, I am going to be there to support you.’ And the students here at Gilman have that, whether at school or at home,” says Kim. “At Gilman, teachers emphasize supporting the whole child. We let children know that we see them and that they belong here.”