01 Jul Teaching Children About Emotions
Did you know the brain isn’t fully developed until about age 241-2? This means that childhood and adolescence actually extend way past age 18. The bad news is that the expectation placed on 18 year old’s to be fully functioning adults is probably a bit unrealistic, but the good news is that there is actually a longer window of opportunity for young people to learn important social and emotional skills which can set them up for a lifetime of comfort in dealing with some of the more “negative” emotions like anger, sadness, worry, and frustration.
We say “negative” in quotation marks because typically these emotions carry a certain dislike. But actually,
the word emotion comes from the Latin word emovere, or, to move.
Therefore, emotions are really just sources of energy that flow through us – temporary and transient, in the same way the “positive” emotions never really stick around for as long as we might want them to as well. This means that emotions, all emotions, aren’t “good” or “bad” – it’s just how we relate to these sources of energy that dictate their power.
So what do you do when you experience emotions? Do you bury them? Distract yourself from them? Numb them? Exaggerate them? The way you handle your own emotions will model for your children how to handle emotions too. You can ask yourself, what kinds of emotional experiences do I block? Which ones do I amplify? Why?
Teaching children how to identify and manage emotions from an early age is key. Not only can the early years be emotionally volatile, but children and adolescent’s brains are like sponges! They are ripe for picking up some new tools that can be especially helpful throughout the more tumultuous years, and you as a potentially sleep deprived and strung out parent will reap the benefits too. So here’s a few tips adapted from evidence-based mindful parenting techniques on helping children learn to identify and cope with their emotions:
- Try a Mindful Body Scan with your kids – This helps kids start to pay attention to and relax any physical sensations in the body, like tightness, tension, clenching, that might relate to specific emotions.
- Draw emotions with your kids – Children and adolescents (and sometimes even us adults) have difficulty verbalising or naming our emotions but picturing them can be more accessible. Sit down with your child and ask them to close their eyes and think about how they’re feeling. You can offer suggestions for how they might be feeling along the four main emotional categories if it’s hard to know – do they feel mad? Sad? Glad? Or scared? Then pull out some arts and craft materials and model the exercise by drawing how you are feeling too.
- Practice non-identifying with emotions. When your child tells you they are angry, help them create a story about the emotion “Angry” – you can give the emotion a name, a colour, a shape, an identity, how it came, how it felt, what it said, and then finish the story – how or when will it leave? What does it need to say goodbye? This helps children see “Angry” as just a visitor, someone or something that comes and goes and doesn’t have to consume them.
Also, here’s a great article from the National Public Radio website on how the Inuit culture, a community with a low rate of angry adults, teaches children about controlling their anger: https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/03/13/685533353/a-playful-way-to-teach-kids-to-control-their-anger.
Parenting is not for the weak, especially during those first few years. Just remember, while you are up at all hours of the night, changing nappies, trying to juggle work, friends, family, finances, and your relationship, your child is going through a really tough time too – developing their brain and learning how to learn. With your guidance and your own reflection on how you deal with emotions, your children will likely grow up to be comfortable not just with the “positives” but with the “negatives” too.
Here’s a few additional online resources on parenting to help you navigate all stages of your child’s development and your journey as parents:
- https://communityofmindfulparenting.com/ – an online resource for more Mindful Parenting tips
- https://raisingchildren.net.au/ – this website is supported by the Australian Government Deptartmnet of Social Services and has backing members such as the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and the Parenting Research Centre, so lots of great evidence-based info here.
- https://www.whattoexpect.com/ – a website geared toward pregnancy but has really helpful parenting articles as well
- http://www.parenttoolkit.com/ – NBC News Education Nation funded parenting website for pre-K to high school advice and tips
- https://www.parenting.com/ – the website for the US-based ‘Parents’ magazine with articles and message boards on various topics for pre-natal to pre-K years
- https://www.bundoo.com/ – developed and led by doctors with expertise on childcare and child rearing, featuring articles and an ‘ask the doctor’ feature
- Finally, when you need a night out, here’s a website where parents can search for a babysitter, it’s an online membership/platform for babysitters to register and get reviewed so you know your kids will be in good hands while you’re out on the town for the first time in weeks, months, or years: https://www.findababysitter.com.au/
1 Christie, D. & Viner, R. (2005). Adolescent development. BMJ, 330, 301-304.
2 Arain, M., Maliha Haque, Lina Johal, Puja Mathur, Wynand Nel, Afsha Rais, … Sushil Sharma. (2013). Maturation of the adolescent brain. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 9, 449.