Everyone has all sorts of emotions. We all can feel intense joy and contentment or we can feel hurt, afraid, frustrated, sad, angry, and anxious to name a few. If we are lucky, we have found a way to express our feelings freely, safely, and constructively. If feelings are not expressed, emotions leak out in other ways.
For many children, nighttime is particularly the time of emotional expression. A lot of kids will keep their emotions largely in check throughout the day, but when evening arrives it often seems they can’t contain their strong emotions a minute longer. When they let down their guard at the end of the day, their emotions escape, and one emotion seems to lead to the next. Even giggling can shift to tears in a heartbeat. Once the floodgates of emotion are opened, it’s hard to close them, which explains why children sometimes even reject comfort when they are having a tough time.
As a parent, you can help your child learn how to express emotions freely so he or she does not “stuff” them inside nor let the emotions come out indirectly, like being frustrated about something and expressing it by hitting a sibling. Parents can help children manage their emotions by allowing the expression of feelings and helping kids have words for their feelings. It is OK to be afraid, sad, mad, frustrated, annoyed, or tired as well as happy, silly, or content, and, as parents, we need to let kids know that these emotions – any emotion – is OK.
Here are a few ideas:
You can “wonder” about feelings. “I wonder if you are feeling frustrated about . . .”
or “It seems like you’re still mad about . . . “ You are making a casual observation rather than an accusation. As you do this, you can help kids develop words for their feelings. When you help your kids have words for their feelings, they are learning to develop emotional awareness as well as learning to communicate their feelings with words. If kids can express themselves and their emotions verbally, they are less likely to communicate with negative behaviors.
Listen. Really listen – calmly, with interest, patience, and caring. The idea is to let your child’s feelings be heard, so just listen rather than lecture him or tell him what he should have done.
Encourage your child to think of a couple things he or she can do that will help make things feel better. You can help get the ideas flowing, but do give your child a chance to think of his or her own ideas. As your child actively participates, he or she will be developing confidence. You can also ask your child what he or she is feeling, and then ask what he or she thinks other people might be feeling. This is not a test; rather it is a teachable moment. Again, do so calmly and casually with patience and loving care.
Sometimes just being there is enough. If you find time for talking, listening, and feeling understood, your child’s strong emotions may just melt away.
Try to resist fixing every problem for your child. If you allow your child the opportunity to become a good problem solver, he or she will be better able to handle the ups and downs that are a part of life. Putting feelings into words, calming down when necessary, and bouncing back are skills to develop, for they are essential.
When you think about it, our emotions “erupt” when there has not been enough free expression of emotion. Denying feelings doesn’t make them disappear.
More to consider:
Emotional competence means that we have a dimmer switch for our emotions rather than an on-off switch. Children develop emotional competence in stages that include acting out their emotions, expressing them through their play, and finally verbalizing them. We need to help kids learn how to express strong feelings safely, directly, and respectfully. Words and play allow children to learn emotional expression, and parents can help by modeling how to modulate and express emotions.