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Psychologist notes – problems arise when children don’t control their emotions. How to help them?

We learn of inappropriate behaviour of our children very soon when they start attending a kindergarten or school. If they are inattentive, cannot sit still during lessons and hurt others, parents are informed. However, situations where children face emotional difficulties – become red in the face or stutter when asked, bite their nails or avoid other people – are less frequently discussed. Fostering children’s emotional intelligence might be handy in all situations like these. How to start?

Parents’ help is important

The well-known phrase that “parents are the greatest teachers” is more than true in this case. Parents play an especially important role in teaching social skills, expression of emotions and self-understanding. They often do this without any guidelines or textbooks.

Emotions and feelings are complicated; this is a very abstract notion. Even adults find it difficult to describe what it feels like to be sad or frightened. It is therefore important to teach children of emotions they are going through from their early days, from the moment when children’s reaction or behaviour is caused by how they feel, for instance, when they want to throw something if they’re angry or hug their dad when they’re sad.

Even a problematic behaviour should be dealt with by recognising emotions. Children who understand their emotions demonstrate aggression or outbursts of anger less frequently to draw attention to themselves. The ones who are able to say “I’m angry with you”, hit others rarer and try to resolve conflicts peacefully more often. When we teach children emotional intelligence, we strengthen their psychological resilience.

How to help children understand their emotions and express them?

There are several things which parents might do to help their children foster their emotional intelligence, i.e. perceive their emotions and express them appropriately.

Set an example. Children watch their parents closely and see how they deal with their emotions. Being smart watchers, they learn fast what adults do when they are angry, how they react to happy or unpleasant news, how they express joy or conceal their dissatisfaction. Children also see when their parents avoid showing their emotions – because of shame or for other reasons. They copy everything – what their parents do when flooded with emotions – they do exactly the same thing.

Help your children identify their emotions. To enable children say what they feel, they, first of all, need to learn the names of emotions and develop their vocabulary. Underfives need to already learn and recognise what it means to be cheerful, angry, sad or afraid. Older children may learn more complicated words, such as disappointment, frustration or anxiety. You may discuss what the characters from different books or films feel. When you read, you may stop and ask: “What do you think this character feels right now?” It’s also worth discussing the reasons for such feelings.

Talk about feelings. Use the names of emotions in everyday language. Set an example of how feelings may be expressed: “I’m upset because you didn’t share your toy with a friend, I see that he’s also upset”. Draw your child’s attention when you notice that he’s going though a certain feeling: “You seem happy about us going to grandparents”, “It seems that you are worried about tomorrow’s test”. One of the ways to help children recognise their emotions is to identify them aloud. This way children associate their emotions with the names of emotions.

Teach them emotion control strategies. Children’s emotional intelligence needs to be fostered throughout their childhood and adolescent years. They need to learn that they can’t hit or otherwise hurt others irrespective of whether they are angry or not. Instead, teach them ways to resolve conflicts and control their emotions when being overwhelmed. For example, you may encourage your child, when he feels something unpleasant, to have a break, change his environment, take a walk, find a remote place and calm down. It’s worth teaching how to deal with sadness. Children often have no idea what to do when they feel upset; that’s why they may become aggressive or seek attention from others through unacceptable ways. Look for solutions together: it could be drawing, reading a book or playing with a pet. You may share your experience: what you, as parents, do when you’re sad.

When a child makes a mistake, breaks something out of anger or gives up before reaching a goal – consider this an occasion as a lesson to learn what to do differently next time. For there will be numerous moments like this.

What are things you should never say to your child?

There are some things to refrain from saying out loud. Don’t forget that children learn about emotions when they see how their parents react to their moods. A child whose parents say: “Stop crying! Big boys don’t cry!’ learn that emotions should be hidden and supressed. It also happens that parents pay attention to their children’s anxiety by saying: ‘Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be worried about’. Children may then realise that their worries are trivial and insignificant. Although parents are trying to calm their children down, children learn how to hide their emotions.

When parents speak of emotions, they teach empathy. When they teach to recognise and express emotions, parents help to build strong foundations for psychological resilience. Those who understand their emotions and have skills to control and deal with them will be more confident in the future.

“Erudito licėjus” psychologist Rūta Žiaunienė