I have said in previous posts that many of us have a tendency to distract others – including our children – from uncomfortable emotions. We can also simply want to ‘fix’ or ‘gloss over’ emotions for our children by telling them things like, ‘don’t feel sad, we’ve got a lovely day planned tomorrow,’ or ‘don’t be worried about your school play, you’ll be fine’. This feels intuitively like the right thing to do as parents/carers always want to protect their children – including alleviating their negative experiences and emotions. However, it doesn’t help your children become more emotionally intelligent and I will explain why in a bit.
There is also a tendency to receive the impression that we should be happy all the time – as portrayed on social media, in adverts and with comments like ‘you look nice and cheerful’ or ‘cheer up’. However, when we develop emotional intelligence, rather than attempt to avoid uncomfortable emotions (which is impossible), we understand that healthy emotions arrive and leave without the added complications of feeling secondary emotions as a result of feeling we shouldn’t ever feel the primary emotions of anger, sadness, jealousy etc.
In light of me being an advocate for experiencing emotions head on, not only so we keep them simple but also so we learn to observe and process them, I think it’s really beneficial to help your child manage mild emotional discomfort. Many of the things we do in life require us to endure mild emotional discomfort: trying to get good at something we find difficult, waiting in queues, trying out something new, delaying gratification, meeting new people, enduring physical discomfort like being tired or hungry and completing admin we hate doing! If we couldn’t deal with the negative emotions (albeit often mild) these situations trigger, we might be far more likely to try and avoid ever tackling these things. Quite often some parents/carers end up going quite some lengths attempting to placate a child experiencing a mildly uncomfortable emotion. Think of a child in a queue becoming agitated. S/he might have to be bribed with and ice cream or have a parent/carer indulge in high energy entertainment constantly. So with this in mind, how can we help a child manage mild discomfort – whether it be impatience, mild disappointment, low-level anxiety, boredom, tiredness, grumpiness, irritation etc? Well here are some ideas:
- Acknowledge your child’s emotional state.
- Don’t distract with bribes, however tempting that might be.
- If you’re feeling discomfort too – declare that.
- Ask your child how they think you manage to cope in this situation.
- Ask your child to notice everything around them (practice a bit of mindfulness).
- Remind your child you are alongside them – hold their hand, stroke their head etc – as a big part of helping your child manage their emotions is about you being able to ‘be’ there for them (providing love and security) and notice and validate their emotions.
- Ask your child to describe the feelings they are experiencing – where is it being felt in the body? Is it getting stronger, weaker or staying the same? (Again – some mindfulness.)
- Try and stay calm and mindful yourself- you are a role model for managing these mild emotions.
- Discuss how emotions come and go. Ask your child if the emotion went away as soon as the trigger for the discomfort went too?
The focus on the emotion will help your child identify what they are feeling, acknowledge that these feelings come and go and in doing so, learn to manage them better. The more times your child ‘survives’ these situations, the more they will accept that they are part of life, the more they will trust themselves to cope and go on to be less concerned about avoiding the discomfort that is so often needed to achieve many things in life!