Even if this is your first step to helping your child express troubling emotions, or you are at the point where skepticism or despair have taken over, and you are not sure anything will work at this point, you are still in the right place. The one of LOVE and concern for your child. You recognize something is wrong, or at the very least you are willing to take a closer look. Being a parent can make you feel like you need all the answers – like right now! And there seems to be this unspoken guilt that if you don’t know how to fix it, you’ve failed. There’s also a sense of urgency at this point. Relationships are breaking down, schoolwork is not getting done, and your work and home life is imploding. By now your child is also yelling, screaming, crying, or breaking things. Or they’re hiding in their room all day only to pick fights when they do appear. They certainly aren’t calmly telling you what’s wrong. When your child won’t talk to you, when it seems logical they should, you may start blaming yourself. Don’t, it’s not your fault. You’re probably doing all the right things. So, what’s the problem then?
Let me share a little secret.
Odds are, your child doesn’t know what’s wrong. And even if they did, they don’t have the words to tell you. So instead, they “act out” their feelings. Unfortunately, this isn’t a drama production. So you can’t just leave when it’s over. You use every parenting tool in the box to help calm your child. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. So, what can you do at this point? Well for starters, continue to be the rock they need, even in hard times and when it feels REALLY hard. Give them as much attention and love as you can, and let them know this comes no strings attached and is in ever abundant supply. Because they will really need you when things get tough and to navigate all of life’s trials and tribulations. Knowing there is a loving and supportive parent in their corner builds your child’s self-confidence and reassures them you will be there to help them get through hard times. With that in mind, here are 3 simple tips you can use to help your overly emotional child build emotional competence.
1. Teach them emotional vocabulary.
Your child may know the basics, like mad, sad, and glad. At the very best these can convey a sense of happiness or pain. But for a child struggling with stronger emotions, sometime you need to go deeper. Words like exasperated, devastated, ashamed, or perturbed have a different connotation than just angry or upset. They reflect more complex feelings that can help you better understand your child’s thoughts and actions.
So how can you incorporate these words into conversation so your child can understand and use them in a way that will help them communicate better? A great first step is to explain what they mean and present them in context so your child can understand how they enhance discussions. This can be done by reading stories together or using feeling words in everyday conversation. Children are like sponges, and will absorb what they hear with enough repetition and context. Personalizing stories using emotional vocabulary can help them connect to the information being presented. When you’re speaking with your child, look for opportunities to insert words conveying deeper emotions. Then check to make sure they understand what you mean, or ask if they have any questions. The next time your child is emotional or upset, reframe their actions using the words you discussed together. When they are calm, you can also talk about what happened by incorporating some of the new language you’ve previously discussed. It will go a long way for your child to share their emotions with their enhanced vocabulary. Not only will this give them competence in expressing their emotions, but it will help them feel confident and powerful. Your child can bravely express their feelings in a way that makes them more mature, relatable and easily understood. They have the vocabulary to actually express what they feel! Furthermore, child will be better prepared to use more problem-solving and perspective taking to manage their emotions because they actually understand how they feel.
By empowering your child, you deepen their ability to deal with challenging situations and engage in productive conversations. Most importantly, now they are able to share more of what they are feeling. So, listen intently to what they are really trying to say, reframe misconceptions, and empathize whenever possible with the struggles that come with growing up. You will reinforce yourself as a trusted confidante. You will also earn your child’s respect and will be rewarded for your efforts with less “acting out” and more effective communication. You will be so proud to see your child gaining confidence through language. Of course, you will always be there to provide support, but now you can discuss and manage situations together.
2. Let them grow by facing obstacles even if this means feeling uncomfortable.
As a parent, you intuitively know your child can’t learn without making mistakes. However, for the overly emotional child, at the first sign of difficulty, their instinct is to run. You know your child should face the situation, but they don’t want to. So what really happens when danger or trouble appears? Usually, there is an unspoken compromise between parent and child. You agree to remove the uncomfortable situation so they don’t throw a fit. It’s supposed to be a temporary way to reassure and ease their pain. “Until next time,” you say. But next time usually doesn’t come. You find ways to “accommodate” your child. Perhaps you drive them to school so they no longer have to ride the bus or the teacher allows them to sit in a spot of their choosing. This seems like it works because your child is no longer getting upset. But really your child is learning to avoid situations that cause inner turmoil. They also do not have the tools to manage similar situations. Their self-esteem ultimately suffers and they never learn to be truly self-sufficient.
It’s important for your child to overcome adversity on their own and understand they can stay in a situation even if it feel unbearable. They will learn to accept uncomfortable feelings and recognize the situation was probably not as terrifying as they thought. So what might this look like? You can start small. Even five minutes in an uncomfortable situation is better than none. Be your child’s emotional cheerleader along the way. Reward successes with hugs, high fives, and “I knew you could do its. ”This can go a long way. Then practice some more. Maybe your child stays in a situation for 10 minutes, and then 20.You see where I’m going. Your child will get better with practice and build the confidence they need to embrace new situations and grow into the person they were meant to become.
3. Acknowledge and appreciate their achievements, no matter how big or small.
When your child calmly expresses their feelings without lashing out, gives unsolicited affection, participates in a new activity, or attends school for a week, show appreciation for their accomplishments and the positive attitude they’re taking. If your child tried something different or took a new approach to solving a problem, they should get credit for it. Make a big deal about it. Get super excited when you acknowledge the first steps they’ve taken and the great work they’ve done. You will reinforce their self-esteem because they took a chance on their own, and it met your approval. As we discussed, children are always seeking the support of their parents. This is your time to shine and be the hero who praises them for their valiant work. This will reinforce their trust in you and grow their confidence. Every time your child expresses themselves or acts in a way closer to our aspirations for them, by sharing in the win, you show them you are on their side and encourage them to confide in you about future accomplishments. Moving forward, they will also feel more confident about making future decisions, and confronting more challenging obstacles.
Helping your child build emotional competence is a worthwhile investment for today and the future. It allows them to become effective communicators and problem solvers, and feel confident with their decisions and actions. As a parent, you want what’s best for your child so they can successfully communicate their emotions and experience control over their life. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs when something is not going right, know it’s not your fault, and figure out what to do next so your child can grow into a strong, self-assured, and happy individual.