What do children need?
Any loving parent wants to give their child tools to navigate the world. Perhaps they want to teach them resilience or work ethic, strength of character or creativity. When your child shows an interest in dinosaurs, you rush to buy him books, toys, trips to the museum. How about the child who loves to learn about space – perhaps a hanging mobile with all the planets? Some children love to do a particular sport, so parents invest time and money giving them all the opportunities they can. My bias is for teaching children about emotions.
What better tool can any child have than to be fully fluent in noticing, labeling, accepting and embracing emotions? This includes their own as well as other’s. With a solid appreciation of emotions we can navigate the world and all it has to offer. We have an edge in whatever career we choose as well as being able to thrive in relationships with our partner and children. Our ability to connect with others using empathy enriches our life. Imagine going for an interview with an understanding of your own anxiety as well as an ability to read the non-verbal feedback you’re receiving from the interviewer.
How to start?
From an early age be curious with your child about feelings. Talk about emotions in books that you read together, in movies, in make-believe play, as well as when you see people in the store or on the street. Ask questions like: “What do you think she’s feeling?” or wonder aloud: “That seems scary; I wonder how he feels.” Engage your child in conversations about feelings and allow them to enjoy the puzzle, too. There are rarely right or wrong answers, so be open to discussing the clues. Can they feel more than one feeling at once? Can they notice the scale of the feeling? Talk to them about your own feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. Allowing children to understand that all feelings are acceptable goes a long way to letting them know that they are unconditionally loved.
I sometimes meet 12 year olds in my office who have very little understanding of their own feelings. This is an age when emotions are about to become a lot more intense. In order to survive (and even thrive) through the teenage years, children need to know how to manage their feelings. We often work on mindfulness exercises where they learn to watch their feelings and notice the ebb and flow. Children discover that they can feel without being, so that the emotion doesn’t dictate their identity. For example, “I feel angry” rather than “I am angry,” which makes a surprising difference in your self-identity. They learn that their emotions are normal and that they fade after a while.
It is important to note that I don’t advocate “fixing” feelings. If a child is sad, she needs comfort, but she doesn’t need to have the feeling taken away. Sadness, anger, embarrassment, fear, guilt, and other uncomfortable emotions are all acceptable and manageable rather than something to avoid. When they are acknowledged they become less overwhelming and then they fade away.
It’s never too late to start teaching your child / teenager / young adult / (even yourself!) about emotions, and it’s a gift that can last a lifetime.