Encourage kids to practice focusing on their feelings.
“Don’t cry! There’s nothing to be afraid of!” How many times have we said or heard another adult say these things to children?
On the surface these admonishments might not sound harmful, but they can send a message that some feelings aren’t okay. On the other hand, some parents want to soothe a child’s emotions as soon as they express them. “Come here, sweetie, I can make it better!” Of course that security and assistance is important many times, but it’s also important that parents help children learn to sit with their own feelings. Only by observing our feelings can we learn to express them to get our needs heard or met, can we learn to self-soothe, and can we learn to work with our feelings so they are a healthy part of our life.
If not empowered to deal with emotions as a natural part of life, as children get older they find it hard to cope when away from their parents. On the other hand, kids who are encouraged to feel their feelings are more likely to grow into adults with healthy communication and coping skills.
Unexpressed feelings can lead to many types of obsessive, compulsive and addictive behaviors.
- Ask questions instead of providing answers. When your child is frightened or crying, resist the urge to immediately make them feel better by trying to fix the situation. This can inadvertently send the message that it’s not OK to be frightened or sad. Instead, ask “how are you feeling?” or “what are you afraid will happen?”
- Practice describing feelings. With younger children, you can make a game of recognizing what angry, sad and happy emotions might look or sound like. As kids get older, you can talk more about the intensity of a feeling or where the emotion is felt in the body. Try asking for a 1 to 10 rating for anger or sadness to encourage both awareness and detailed communication about feelings.
- Let your children see you cry. Sometimes parents will try to protect kids from uncomfortable feelings by putting on a happy face even when they aren’t really feeling happy. Telling a child that you are sad or frustrated with something shows them that it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions.
- Teach “I feel” statements. People often struggle to express anger and will resort to talking about what or who made them angry instead of the emotion themselves. It’s good for adults and kids to practice focusing on the feeling before discussing blame. “I feel angry right now,” is a more constructive way to start a conversation than, “he is mean to me!”
Learning to accept all of the emotions we feel as people is an important part of accepting who we are as individuals.