Your child gets a “C” on their science exam. What do they do next? Do they cry uncontrollably? Do they rip up their report card in anger? Does it go further than that?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, or even a variation of the above, you might be worried, and rightfully so. You might be wondering if your child’s lack of emotional control will limit their success and well-being down the line. But where do you begin? How do you teach a child to reign in those kinds of big emotions?
What if the key to fostering the type of emotional regulation you want to see in your child was to allow space for those big emotions, not stifling them?
A New Way of Looking at Emotions
This idea may sound revolutionary to you, as many of us were raised with the notion that emotions (at least unpleasant ones) are meant to be “kept to ourselves.” How many of us were sent to our rooms when we got a little too upset for our parents’ comfort? Too sad, too angry, too hard to deal with? These big displays of emotion often meant we were sent away to cope with it on our own.
The unconscious message many of us emotionally digested was that unpleasant emotions are too difficult or unruly to handle, so it’s best just to push them down or bottle them up.
We see the results of this “bottle them up” approach in mental health research, and it’s not great. Studies have shown that bottling up emotions (i.e., emotional suppression) is linked to mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. Furthermore, the process of trying to push down or bottle up emotions doesn’t even work well in reality. Among many people, the bottled-up emotion “leaks out” in other ways, like aggression.
If bottling up emotions is not the answer, then how do we help our kids handle those emotions that have the potential to consume them? Is it possible to allow space for those unpleasant emotions while still not allowing them to push us to the point of doing something we regret?
Emotional Agility: Emotions as Information
Decades of psychological research are now giving us a new approach to dealing with children’s emotions. In her widely-viewed TED talk (and subsequent book), psychologist Susan David calls this approach “emotional agility,” which she defines as, “a process that enables us to navigate life’s twists and turns with self-acceptance, clear-sightedness, and an open mind.”
This new way of viewing children’s emotions is centered on the idea that emotions are neither positive nor negative; they are simply information. They are your mind and body’s way of providing you with critical information. Many times this information relates to what you truly value. When your child ripped up that report card in anger and shame, those emotions revealed that they probably really do value good grades and your opinion of them. If that report card provoked no emotion, that might be a sign that they don’t value education. Emotions, therefore, provide valuable information.
However, just understanding that doesn’t give us all the tools we need to help foster emotional agility in our kids.
Emotionally Agile Parenting
In practice, fostering emotional agility in our kids might require us to rethink our understanding of emotions. It might mean giving up our preconceived ideas that unpleasant or difficult emotions are “bad” and need to be pushed away.
In parenting, fostering emotional agility looks like:
- Being present with our kids in their emotional moments: This might mean physically being with your child—offering hugs or holding hands. More importantly, however, it means being emotionally present for them. Instead of sending an angry child to their room, consider waiting for them to calm down and then talk about what made them angry. In these moments, it’s essential to really listen to your child talk about the anxiety they have, regardless of what is causing the actual anxiety.
More than anything, being with our kids means allowing all their feelings to have a place in your home. That doesn’t mean all behaviors have a place in your home. Setting boundaries on behavior is still important. (hint, hint, these two ideas are linked).
In addition to fostering emotional agility, this approach also cements you and your child’s relationship. When they know that all their feelings (even the ugly ones) are accepted, the bond they have with you can only grow.
- Not trying to “fix” everything. It’s our parental instinct that makes us want to make everything right in our child’s world. We feel distressed when they experience distress. When it comes to our emotional world, however, it is not always possible to fix everything.
Although kids’ challenges may seem trivial to us, they are very real to our children. The teasing words of a classmate really hurt; the death of a cherished pet is a real loss. The emotional valleys kids experience are part of their journey toward emotional agility. Instead of immediately intervening to fix the problem, we can walk them through this emotional experience. The process of allowing your child to experience these difficult emotions (with support) is the path by which they learn emotional coping skills.
The Gift of Emotional Regulation
Let’s be realistic; this approach to parenting involves more emotional labor for us. It is emotionally taxing to sit with your child while they are angry or sad, instead of whisking away their lousy mood with an ice cream cone or extra screen time. But guess what? Fostering emotional agility in our kids actually supports our own emotional lives as well.
Above all, fostering emotional agility in our kids provides them with one irreplaceable gift—the gift of space and presence. When kids learn to feel, process, and cope with difficult emotions, they are less likely to experience those regrettable moments when their emotions get the best of them.
By learning healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions, your child is learning how to release the power these emotions hold on them instead of bottling them up. They understand that feelings can be strong, but they don’t have the power to dictate behavior. This process helps them learn to find that space between feeling the overwhelming emotion and acting on it.
The next time they get a disappointing grade, they will be better equipped to handle the emotions before turning to destructive behavior. By allowing all emotions to be expressed, you are indirectly helping your child manage their behavior for both today and the future.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.