Growing up is hard to do. With all the fun and games comes a constant stream of new situations and skills. Navigating complex emotions is one of the hardest things to do — as a child or an adult! Fortunately, support from parents can make learning this crucial life skill much more manageable. Start talking about and working through emotions with your kids from a young age. It’s a habit that will serve the whole family well for years to come.
Reframe Your Language Around Feelings
Reframing your language is the first and most important step in navigating complex emotions. Kids often hear about “negative” emotions or “bad” feelings. Consequently, they attempt to avoid and disguise these feelings rather than learn how to navigate them. Frustration, sadness, anger, fear — these are all valid emotions and can be felt alongside other emotions like joy and excitement. Tell your children explicitly that:
- All feelings are valid, and none are better/worse than others.
- You can feel more than one thing at the same time. Most people do, most of the time.
- Our goal isn’t the elimination of complex emotions. Our goal is to learn how to give space to our feelings and work through them toward happiness on the other side.
Your job as a parent is to be a safe space for learning how to work through emotions — all of them.
Use Age-Appropriate Metaphors
When you first introduce the idea of working through difficult emotions, it may concern a specific situation your child is facing. While this context is valuable, try to explain the role of emotions and the process of working through them in general terms. Age-appropriate metaphors are a great way to develop a family language that you can use in all of your discussions for years to come.
Kids often have trouble understanding why they feel many things at once, sometimes even emotions that seem unrelated. One popular explanation is to talk about a “box of feelings” that gets filled during the day/week with everything we feel. There’s only so much space, and when something doesn’t fit, everything can come spilling out and get mixed up. Maybe the feeling that didn’t have room was excitement, but the frustration from earlier in the day comes out in the process. This visual can help provide a way to talk about complicated situations that might span days or weeks and involve many emotions.
Proactively Incorporate Emotion Check-Ins
One of the best things you can do as a parent is to help your kids identify and reflect on their emotions before something boils over. It’s much harder to learn coping strategies when you’re in the middle of a meltdown or feeling lonely and isolated. Work with your child to incorporate a daily emotion check-in into your afternoon routine. When complicated situations arise, they’ll have a designated time and place to share with you and begin processing.
For younger kids, have them circle images that show all their feelings that day (a chance to practice naming them), and choose a picture that best demonstrates their current energy level (this is helpful info as you head into dinner and bedtime).
For the older crowd, have them assess how “full” their emotional box is on a scale of 1-10 and rank their energy level. Then have them write down the answer to this question: “What’s one thing you wish I knew about your feelings today?” They can keep their response private or share it; that’s up to them. The goal is in the process of reflection.
Tune in to Physical Cues
Emotions often produce physical reactions, and this relationship can be surprising for kids. Helping them learn how to tune into their bodies as they feel different things is an important skill. In the future, they can anticipate emotions based on physical cues and vice versa. Practice by offering simple techniques for calming anxiety (like focused breathing) or channeling frustration (release pent-up energy by drumming loudly or doing silly animal walks).
Ask your kids to notice how their body feels along the way as their emotions intensify or dissipate.
Learn to Love the Silence
These tips are essential for helping your kids navigate complex emotions, but they all involve a lot of talking or action. It’s crucial to remember that kids (even older ones) have short attention spans and need breathing space when challenging things happen. As parents, we want to help at every possible moment, but sometimes silence is best. Not everything has to be a teachable moment. When your child is struggling, learn to look and listen for cues to decide whether it’s best to work through some of these techniques or hold off until later. Sitting with your child as they experience emotions, without narrating or guiding, is a vital part of the process. As they grow, your kids will know how to let themselves process emotions in peace rather than constantly chasing a solution — and that’s priceless.
Navigating emotions is complex enough as an adult, so remember to be patient with your children as they learn this new skill. As they grow, their techniques will change and improve until they’re secure, emotionally-aware adults who can thank you for your guidance along the way.
Parenting Today is presented by the Minnesota Department of Health.