Helping your Young Child Develop Emotional Coping Skills
As adults, parents, or caregivers, we talk. A lot. We talk to our children in the morning to get them out of bed, we talk to our children about breakfast, we tell them what to do and what to stop doing, we give them praise, and we provide them with criticism. We ask our children about their day, what happened, who they played with, and how they are feeling. Do you get it? We talk. A lot.
Our children are processing information all day long. Young children are constantly having to learn, process, and understand new information. By the time we have become adults, we have learned how to process that information, place it in different parts of our brain, and categorize it for later use. Our children are just absorbing it all. They are still learning to identify what is important, what is not, and most of all, to figure out what it all means. On top of all of this, they have to learn to identify the feelings they are experiencing and then how to manage their feelings.
Let me provide you an example: You want to take your young child to go see fireworks on the 4th of July. You are very excited for them to experience the colors and bright lights that accompany one of your favorite summer holidays. You pack up the car, put in a few snacks, bring their favorite sweatshirt, and head to the park. Your young child expresses excitement on the way there, but shortly after you arrive becomes moody, irritable, defiant, or shuts down. Look around and think of their five senses. What is being absorbed and processed in their little brains? It is hot and humid? There are noises everywhere (people, music, children screaming, firecrackers, etc.), the smell of food and fresh air may be overwhelming, and now you expect them to sit in their chair or on the blanket. The demands become too much and you start rattling off a rationale as to why your child needs to sit in their seat. You might even say things like, “the fireworks will start soon,” “here, I brought you a snack,” “don’t worry the bugs won’t bother you; you are bigger than them!” But in that moment, your child may be unable to take in all that extra language because everything around them is taking up space in their mind.
As a parent, stop talking and listen to what your child is trying to tell you. Pay attention to their nonverbal language and help them understand what they may be experiencing. Provide a brief statement to put their feelings and emotions into words and validate them. Try something like this:
“You look pretty hot and tired”
“You must be agitated with all this noise around you”
“You are doing a great job waiting, I know it is difficult”
You can provide the language that their young minds may not understand yet. But then, stop talking. No need to lecture, give advice, issue an instruction, or explain. Let your child sit with your observation or praise. Allow a quiet moment for your child to connect how they may be feeling with your statement and allow them time to process that feedback. You can help your child to identify their feelings by putting a name to the feeling and modeling how to express it in a statement like the ones above. Reinforcing your child during any occasion in which they express themselves independently and label their own emotions will lead to increased self-awareness for your child.