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Helping Your Child Manage Difficult Emotions

By: Gabi Shiner
SmartSitting Diversity and Inclusion Council Mental Health Advocate

Helping your child manage difficult emotions - SmartSitting

A lot of us have been taught to compartmentalize or push away our hard feelings instead of validating them. So, it can be hard to help kids tend to their own emotions when we haven’t learned – or haven’t been given space to learn – to do so ourselves. But you’re never too old or too young to develop emotional regulation strategies that work for you. 

Emotional regulation skills help us face our feelings in a manageable way. They provide a middle ground between ignoring feelings and engaging with them to the point of overwhelm. Here are a few concrete strategies you can use to help your children – and yourself – manage difficult emotions when they arise.

Name the emotion

When we’re overwhelmed, it’s easy to feel like we are our emotions. That’s why when we consciously separate the two, our emotions become a lot easier to manage. Identifying or noticing emotions is a mindfulness technique that can help your child make sense of the difference (or distance) between themselves and what they’re feeling. Naming emotions can look like giving your child language for what they’re going through. (“Do you think you might be feeling mad that it’s homework time? Why do you think that is?”) It can also be asking them to describe how the feeling feels in their body. (“Is the bad feeling hot? Cold? Is it in your stomach?)

Try the park bench exercise

Many of us have a learned impulse to neglect the emotions that need our attention the most, like anger, sadness, and fear. As such, we’re sometimes inclined to tell our kids to do the same when they’re struggling (“Don’t be sad!”). Instead, we might encourage them to “befriend” emotions they might be inclined to push away. Try guiding your child in this visualization exercise from life coach Vanessa Loder, which turns this difficult task into a creative one. Picture your difficult emotion as a three-dimensional object with a color, shape, and texture. Imagine sitting next to the emotion/object in a calm place, like a park bench. Turn to it and ask it what it needs, and try to answer that need. You might imagine giving the object a hug or holding its hand. Your child can even try sitting next to their emotion-object while they do an activity. Teaching your child that they can have a positive relationship with difficult emotions makes it less intimidating to face those emotions on their own. 

Make a container

Psychotherapist Alyss Thomas writes, “As young children, we need to feel that our emotions are recognised and understood by a safe adult, who is able to contain them for us.” Parents can use containment as a strategy to help children set aside difficult emotions, especially when they arise at inconvenient times. There are several strategies for containment. One thing you can do is have your child visualize/create a “container” where they can put tough emotions to deal with later. First, have your child decorate and create their container however they want. This can be in their heads or even as an art project! When the tough emotion comes up, help them visualize it traveling into their container and staying sealed there safely. Thomas notes that containment is not the same thing as denial. It’s not telling your child to put the feeling away for good or throw it out. Rather, containment helps your child store the feeling safely so they can get through their day and tend to it when the time is right.

Write a self-compassionate letter

Unfortunately, our impulse when we are in pain is often to criticize ourselves for being in pain. We can counteract this impulse by offering compassion to ourselves. Have your child write – or recite – a letter to themself as they would a friend having a difficult time. (“What would you say to a friend who was feeling that way?”) Writing the letter shows us that we have the capacity to offer ourselves comfort even when it feels like our emotions are drowning us. 

Each of the above strategies can be used by adults and kids alike. You don’t need to be an expert on managing anxiety or sadness on your own to help your child. In fact, learning these skills along with our children demonstrates that we see them as full people with feelings as real as ours.

The SmartSitting Diversity and Inclusion Council is part of our ongoing efforts to build inclusive spaces in the SmartSitting network. Do you have ideas for helping kids deal with difficult emotions? What strategies have worked for you? We invite you to share your thoughts, ideas, and questions for on Facebook and Instagram. Want to get more diversity and inclusion resources sent right to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter!

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