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5 Ways to Help Kids Understand and Process Emotion

Posted by Amanda Loveland on
Parenting is a beautiful, yet challenging experience, and all parents wonder at times, if they’re doing it right.
Kids don’t come with a handbook of instructions, and understanding their rapidly developing minds can often leave us feeling like we are stumbling around in the dark. In their ground-breaking book, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive), Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson give parents an inside look at the development and wiring of a child’s maturing brain, and offers insight on how to best help your child understand both their logical and emotional selves. To address the topic of helping children deal with powerful emotions, I drew upon the insight of these two doctors and their revolutionary introduction of this new science: Dr. Bryson refers to children’s meltdown moments as “emotional tsunamis.” More often than not, in effort to deescalate the intensity, we tell our kids to ‘calm down.’ It makes logical sense, of course, but one of the most crucial things to remember about emotions, is that they don’t respond to demands to be shut-off, they respond to validation, empathy, and movement. Here are 5 ways we can help our children understand and process emotion: Validate their (right brain) emotional reality through (left brain) logic: Emotions can be difficult for anyone to understand, especially a child, so one of the first things to remember while attempting to help our children deescalate an emotional meltdown is to acknowledge and validate how fee first. Asking a child to turn their emotions off in the moment of a breakdown, will typically cause the surge of feeling to rise with more fury. As babies, the only way to communicate need is through tears; as they grow they learn to express their needs through words, but crying is still a powerful vehicles for expressing overwhelming emotions (even into adulthood). When we tell a child to calm down (before hearing or validating their powerful emotions) it communicates we don't understand the seriousness of their immediate reality, and they may go to greater lengths to demonstrate their pain or anger through a tantrum. Dr. Byson and Dr. Siegel recommend to first offer empathy: “I’m sorry you’re in pain” is a good place to start. As their emotions begin to soothe and calm, ask questions that will help give words to what your child is feeling. Explain how emotions work: Once they’ve given words to their predicament and you’ve validated their emotional reality, Dr. Byson recommends explaining to your child how emotions work. Emotions are meant to flow through us, and they don’t always last. Like waves in the ocean, they build until they reach their highest peak, before breaking and becoming part of the ocean once again. If we resist emotions, the higher the wave and bigger the crash. Remind them that, like water, emotions are meant to continuously flow (and they go through us!). Stuck or unexpressed emotions are like a dirty pond or lake where bacteria and mold grow. Let them know it is okay to feel, and that even difficult emotions will pass, IF we allow them time to be felt and expressed. Emotions are difficult for anyone to understand, but the sooner we teach our kids what they are and how they work (using logic – the left brain), the more mature and balanced they will be in handling their powerful feelings (right-brain). This is what balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain is all about. Address painful or negative subjects: Regardless of how protective we might be over our children, all kids Sensitive kidsexperience some form of trauma, (cruelty from other children, learning difficulties, embarrassing moments, an illness or injury impedes their sociability, etc.). The more we help our kids give a voice to the events that unfold in their lives (and let them know we care), the more emotionally fluent and articulate they will learn to be (and the healthier and more balanced adults they will become). Dr. Byson points out the importance of addressing these stressful topics, rather than ignoring the negative events in hopes your child will forget they happened or overlook their painful reality. Ask questions, and let them know you’re not afraid of potentially embarrassing or emotionally heavy conversations. Creating a safe space for our children to share is loving them in a deeply nurturing way (and facilitating the growth and development of their right-brain). Help them tell their story by asking questions about what happened in their day, and encourage them to tell you how the events made them feel. The sooner we can help our kids learn to identify and express their emotions, the well-adjusted they will become to their own sensitivities. Apologize when necessary: We should not be afraid to apologize to our children if we feel we’ve hurt them or even (unknowingly) done something that is affecting their current mood. Young children naturally rank their parents to a god-like status, and humbling yourself to them is a powerful example of what it means to be human (we all make mistakes). It also demonstrates that we too, have feelings, and showing we care about how we affect our kids is the most loving way to remedy a wound or fault. Stay calm: We’re not perfect. We all have moments we feel our children’s tantrums or emotional instability has pushed us to our breaking point, but Dr. Byson and Dr. Siegel emphasize the importance of staying calm. Losing our temper is never constructive or helpful solution. When we allow our emotions and frustrations to take over, it causes our kids to feel more out of control – we simply mirror an adult version of a tantrum back to them. It’s the demonstrational equivalent of telling them not to smoke while lighting up a cigarette in front of them. When we feel our own emotions reaching a breaking point, it's okay to step away from the situation, and it's okay to voice it: “Mommy needs to take a break to calm down. I want to be a good parent to you and right now I am feeling frustrated (or angry, or sad – be specific about identifying emotions so children learn how to do it as well). I am going to calm down first before I can help you.” Not only does this show that we too, are human, but it also demonstrates how to address and articulate emotions (rather than suppressing them or acting out). Emotions are not bad or wrong (even powerful ones, like anger) and it’s important for our children to see us taking care of our emotions and expressing them in healthy ways. They need to know emotions matter. It’s important for kids to see adults being mature and realistic about their feelings (not acting out of control and not suppressing or ignoring them – but treating them with respect and validation). Our left-brain is meant to protect and honor our right, and it’s our job to keep them in balance -- not allowing either hemisphere to dominate, suppress, or control the other. Remember, examples are the greatest teaches.
  Written by Amanda Flaker

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