“Mama, I just want to stay home today and relax.” I almost got a case of whiplash when I heard this and turned towards her. No indoor playgrounds, no indoor bouncy places, no swimming, no running around trying to figure out how to keep my 4-year-old entertained today? What was this telling me about my child’s emotional health?
“So you want to stay home? Tell me more,” I suspiciously asked. She then went on to tell me, “Mama, my body is tired and needs some rest today. Let’s just stay home – can I watch my iPad and lay with you?” Even at four years old, she is already practicing good self-care and cultivating strong emotional health. My 4-year-old communicates how she feels and this is not by chance. Here’s my guide for parents on how to help your child develop healthy emotional development.
When children understand emotions, they are more likely to regulate their own and respond to others’ emotions more effectively and responsively with accuracy. This is a crucial skill to develop because it directly affects social development. Having the skills to understand, express, and regulate emotions is key to getting along with others, understanding oneself, communicating needs, and positively impacts self-worth and self-esteem.
Your emotional health sets the tone and framework for your child’s emotional health. If you haven’t worked on your own emotional health, I recommend working with a therapist. Another great resource is the Emotion Coaching curriculum developed by The Gottman Institute.
Here are 3 ways to help develop child’s emotional health:
- Being aware of your child’s emotions.
- Responding to your child with empathy and validating their feelings.
- Help your child label their emotions using words.
Awareness. “Wow, William – you are feeling really big emotions right now. I see those emotions and they are so big.” Children have plenty of emotions, but they may not have words to express exactly how they feel. Thus, it’s up to you to be patient and see through your child’s perspective regarding what might be going on. By naming what you see, it helps your child feel seen and heard. It brings awareness to your child that what they are feeling is real. When you do this, you also create safety for them to feel their emotions and express themselves, which will help them develop greater emotional awareness of themselves and will help them make sense of their own internal emotional world. Emotions are not bad, but the way emotions get expressed through behaviors could be. Once your child has awareness of their emotions, it sets the stage for you to teach how to express those emotions more appropriately. For example, “William, I know you are feeling really big feelings and that is okay, but it is not okay to hit because it hurts me. Mama is not for hitting, but you can have those big feelings. Would you like me to hold you instead?”
Respond with empathy and validation. Responding with empathy does not mean your child gets a free pass on whatever is happening. Rather you’re expressing that you understand them. Same goes for validation: it does not mean you agree with them, but you can see where they are coming from and you are acknowledging their emotions. For instance, when we go to Target and my daughter sees a toy she wants and then I tell her we’re not there to buy a toy that day, she feels frustrated. A quick response would be, “You don’t always get what you want. Let’s go.” While it’s a very true statement, it doesn’t empathize or validate her emotions. Rather, I should say, “I can see you are frustrated because you can’t have that toy (validation). That toy does look really fun with all the colors and noises – you would really like to play with that toy. I can understand why you feel frustrated when you want it so bad and I tell you no (empathy). Today we came for Band-Aids, not for toys so we need to put that toy back on the shelf. Could you help me pick out some Band-Aids? We can come back another day to pick out a toy (say this last sentence as long as this is a true statement).” It definitely takes a bit more time and thought on my part, but I assure you, it’s a better approach if your goal is to promote healthy emotional development.
Label emotions. If you don’t have a large emotional vocabulary, that’s okay. You can grow it. Here is an emotion wheel I recommend to everyone wanting more adjectives to describe how they feel. A great way to start helping yourself or your child tune into emotions is noticing where in your body you feel it. For example, the other morning my kid said something about not feeling so good and the therapist in me perked up and I wanted more specifics. “I heard you say you aren’t feeling so good. Where do you not feel so good in your body?” She could immediately identify feeling a heavy heart and weight in her head. She quickly turned the tables on me and asked how I felt and what my body was telling me, and it turned into a joke as I pointed to my newly twitching eye and I told her I felt stressed.
Emotional development is important because children grow up to be adults – they turn into us! Without deliberate work, emotional development doesn’t magically improve when you turn 20, 30, 40, 50; it’s not like wine where it ages to perfection just by sitting around. Your emotions and coping strategies tend to mirror ways you learned to express yourself or how your family expressed emotions when you were a kid. I’ve worked with clients who find out that how they cope and feel emotions is the same way their parents handled things growing up. Without an intervention and deliberate practice to create new ways of feeling and attending to those feelings, it is likely you’ll pass this on to your children too. Think about the family you grew up in – how did your parents respond to you when you felt scared? Felt anger? Felt sadness? Felt joy? So, while some emotions or lack of expression may have helped when you were 8-years-old, the same way of dealing with things at age 8 tends to be problematic in your adult relationships. Not to fret, emotions and coping strategies are malleable and can improve with intentional and deliberate work; as an adult, you can work on how you’d like to respond to your child and what you want your child to learn when it comes to their emotions.
How can we increase our emotional development?
If you grew up in a household that didn’t prioritize or attend to emotions, you’re not alone. However, it is not too late to make emotions a priority within your immediate family. There are lots of books, one I particularly am fond of is Permission to Feel by Dr. Marc Brackett, that helps name emotions and give you plenty of reasons why you should feel and show your feelings. Another wonderful resource is a blog post from The Gottman Institute that describes different parent types and how those influence emotional development in our children.
Need a little help getting comfortable with emotions? Don’t know where to start to support your child’s emotional health? Therapy can help. If you’re curious how therapy can help you and your family identify, feel, and talk about emotions, find a therapist near you. I’m a therapist in AZ and my practice specializes in relationship health—you can find me here.