How Children Express Themselves and What You Can Do
By Jaclyn Shlisky, Psy.D.
“Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness. It takes strength to acknowledge our anger, and sometimes more strength yet to curb the aggressive urges anger may bring and channel them into nonviolent outlets. It takes strength to face our sadness and to grieve and to let our grief and our anger flow in tears when they need to. It takes strength to talk about feelings and to reach out for help and comfort when we need it.”
People experience emotions in various ways. Snapping at a loved one or shutting down may be a marker for stress. Happiness might lead to singing, dancing, and other fun activities. Anxiety may cause nail biting or hair twirling. When you’re sad, you might cry. Adults experience emotions constantly and are pretty good at identifying and coping. Inherently we know the world is a safe place and we are in control. That is comforting.
When children experience emotions, they lack the life experience needed to understand they are safe. Instead of using verbal communication and self-soothing, children react to strong emotions behaviorally. The way you respond to these outbursts will go a long way in both comforting and teaching them how to build emotional strength. One of the most important things we can do as parents is talk about our feelings with our children. When our feelings have a name, they become less overwhelming and scary.
Respond to your child’s emotions, NOT their behavior, with these five steps:
- Ignore the behavior, while identifying the emotion: In a calm tone of voice, say “I can tell you are feeling sad because you are crying” or “your face looks red right now, I can tell you might be feeling angry.” You can also show them a picture of a thermometer and say, “From 0-10, it seems like you are very angry right now. Maybe you are a 7 or 8. What number do you feel?”
- Identify the potential reason or root for the feeling: Say something like “You might be feeling sad because you’re not going back to school” or, “I can see you feel lonely because you can’t play with your friends right now.” Give your child a chance to explain the root of their feelings.
- Cope: There are many methods of coping. Try these fun ideas:
- Relaxation strategies: Take deep belly breaths, muscle relaxation (tense and release your body), imagine yourself in a calming place (the beach, a forest, lake, etc). Try to use all of your senses while imaging yourself in a peaceful place.
- Physical activities: Let your emotions out physically. Go for a walk or run, do jumping jacks, wall push-ups or jog in place.
- Artistic expression activities: Draw, paint, color, play with sand, create something.
- Re-check emotional status: Once your child calms down, ask, “How do you feel now?” You can remind them it’s ok to feel angry, anxious or sad sometimes, but the most important thing is what we do with our emotions. By using our coping skills we will feel better and more relaxed.
- Praise, praise and more praise: Praise your child for talking about his/her emotions and coping. The goal is not to remove the negative emotions, but to enhance the activity of expressing, coping and regaining control. This is a valuable gift you can give your child.