To be emotionally intelligent, we need to operate a dimmer switch of sorts on our emotions rather than simply turn them on and off. In other words, emotional competence requires an ability to modulate emotions—even strong emotions—safely, respectfully, and directly.
Children who develop emotional competence do so in stages: first they act out their emotions, then express them through play, and finally verbalize their feelings. If children do not have the words or aren’t allowed to express their emotions in play, their feelings can be “let out” by more impulsive behaviors, like slamming doors, hitting, screaming, or crying.
Because as parents we want our children to be able to regulate their emotions, we can help them as they play. For example, in fantasy play, we can introduce characters into the fantasy—characters who have a range of emotions, words for their emotions, and methods to regulate them. Perhaps when Oscar the Octopus feels too much frustration, he takes time to relax his body like cooked spaghetti. Bodily sensations that go along with feelings are clues kids can learn to recognize.
We can also model emotional regulation for our children by being appropriately direct about our own feelings while doing so in a safe and respectful way. Helping children learn words for their emotions and all the shades of those emotions is important.
Though we may think we want our children to magically get to the final stage of verbalizing their feelings, the truth is that emotional development takes some time. Even when children are highly verbal, they can be emotionally immature. Moving from the words “I’m mad,” to more fully expressing the nuances and power of the feelings behind those words is a process that takes time. It is a process that involves learning.
That’s why it is important to remember that as children act out an emotion impulsively through a “misbehavior,” it is an opportunity to teach rather than a reason to punish. Help them learn how to express themselves. They will need you to help them take the next step (the playful step) on their way to verbalizing emotions—directly, safely, and constructively—by asking them to draw what they are feeling, or have two puppets act out what they are feeling, or create a story about it, or dance the feeling out.