On many occasions we tend to downplay the importance of issues related to the expression of emotions in children.
It is quite common to believe that day-to-day events or extraordinary events do not affect them and they do not notice when there are problems at home, at school, or when some of their classmates are not feeling well, but it is precisely at this stage of their lives when they need more attention to care for and manage their emotions and feelings.
Emotional management in children
Childhood is the basis of how we will act as adults . To better visualize this fact, we could imagine that our children are small adults and the role of us as parents, tutors, teachers or therapists is to provide them with tools that they will use throughout their growth.
To achieve this I would like to explain some tips that can be applied both at home and at school, in the first step to achieve the regulation of emotions and feelings.
Emotion and feeling in childhood
To begin with, I would like to mention the difference between two concepts, which can sometimes be somewhat confusing, and then go a little deeper into the content to serve as an emotional guide for our children, students, family members, etc. It is about the distinction between feelings and emotions .
Types of emotions
Emotions appear before conscious sensation; it is an organic reaction accompanied by physical changes. They are of innate origin and their response is accompanied or influenced by our experiences, usually appearing abruptly and being transient.
It is considered that there are 6 basic categories of emotions.
- Anger: We usually live it as an overwhelming experience, we may believe that we are losing control of our actions. We also know it as rage, anger, resentment, rage or irritability.
- Aversion : Allows us to avoid food or other types of poisoning. It is also known as disgust or repulsion. Within social interactions it occurs when we move away from someone or some situation because it causes us displeasure.
- Sadness: Related to grief, loneliness or pessimism. It can be present with the same intensity in both children and adults and can sometimes be used to create empathy in the other.
- Surprise : Emotion that causes shock, astonishment or bewilderment due to a situation or event.
- Joy: Also expressed with euphoria, gratification, and gives a sense of well-being and security.
Although the emotion of love is not considered within the first six basic emotions, it is important to remember the value it represents and how deep it can go, even in children.
Types of feelings
On the other hand, but closely related to emotions, are feelings . These are the result or consequence of emotions.
They refer to an affective state of mind usually of long duration, and tend to remain more in time compared to emotions. That’s why when someone is in love with another person they might say “I feel that I have fallen in love with you” and not “my emotion is falling in love with you”.
Tips for Managing Emotions in Children
Let us now apply this theoretical distinction in practice to help children regulate their emotions.
1. Knowing and recognizing emotions (the transient)
There are many elements involved in a child’s development. Everyone’s cognitive maturation is unique; their development or process will depend, among other things, on the environment provided at home, the relationship with their families, the relationship with their peers, and the educational environment provided at school. However, generally around the age of 2 one could start teaching the recognition of emotions in themselves. This will greatly help them to feel more control over their emotions, feelings, thoughts and reactions to adverse or day-to-day situations.
To recognize emotions we must first know them. We tend to think that this is something that is obvious to children, but it is important to explain to them that there are different emotions and the difference between them and feelings. The greatest emphasis will be on the child understanding that an emotion of anger, for example, is transient, and for parents the most important thing is to know that the presence of this emotion does not define their child.
How to apply this advice?
To achieve learning about emotions, feelings and their difference, we can use different tools; for example, we could use books. Nowadays you can find a great variety in children’s books specially designed for teaching emotions. Some of the ones I would like to recommend are; “Sad monster, happy monster”, “Little Edu is not angry”, “Tough guys, they have feelings too”, “Coco and Tula: Feelings!
For older children and teenagers, “Labyrinth of the Soul”, “The Diary of Emotions” and “Recipes for Rain and Sugar” are easy to get and can even be bought online. Reading helps the child to visualize and internalize situations and to understand how the characters reacted to different events, thus relating it to their life. For example, if some of the characters in the story are upset, the child will probably relate it to some current situation, “my friend is upset with me”. To make the reading more effective, it can be done together with them in a moment of intimacy and total attention to the activity. It is important to listen to the ideas that the child has to say about certain impressions and to clarify the doubts.
Another way of teaching about emotions, both at home and at school, is dramatization . After the parents or teachers have improvised a small play, (it doesn’t have to be something so organized, in fact a bit of improvisation wouldn’t be bad) they can go together exploring and expressing the different situations that require the expression of different emotions and feelings, acting in front of a mirror could help to visualize and internalize them.
2. Accepting emotions
Acceptance is a broad concept, and I would like to emphasize that this point is not about accepting bad behavior or a bad reaction to an emotion, but about accepting that the child is feeling a certain emotion.
Some parents wonder why their child is sad, or the teacher wonders why that child is upset, for example. As parents we think that children do not have responsibilities, should not pay bills or give explanations to the bank. The teacher might consider that she has planned the funniest class of the month, but “that child” is still angry and that is where I would like the term to be used. We must accept that children get excited even if the emotion is sadness, anger, dislike, fear … as a society we have placed positive emotions on the podium, but not so positive ones are also part of us and we must feel them.
3. Manifestation of emotions
I won’t say that it is the most complex step, but I will say that it is the one that possibly requires the most effort , for both the adult and the child. The way we manifest our emotions is constructed and made up of many elements. Generally, children imitate their parents or the people with whom they behave most of the time. If we as adults tend to hit things in a moment of anger, we cannot demand that the little ones in the house do not do the same, as they will do it, in front of their parents or not. To teach our children how to express emotions we must be a model for them.
The way emotions are manifested is accompanied by coherent thoughts. These can trigger strong feelings of, for example, despair, which can lead us to do things we really don’t want to do. In other words, what we think drives us to act in one way or another. To help the thinking not to overwhelm them, it is important to agree on limits, so that we help the thoughts not to get out of hand, so to speak.
As adults we have to establish what is allowed and what is not : “If you are very upset you can tear up sheets of paper or newsprint but you cannot hit your younger brother”, for example. Boundaries should be discussed and agreed upon by both the children and the parents, and it is important to remember that you do not negotiate or talk to him when he is in a tantrum.
It is more than clear the complexity of what we want to ask our children, but the most important thing is that they understand that an emotion is temporary. And we, as adults, must understand that this emotion does not define the child, and more importantly, that we must avoid reinforcing certain types of behaviour by labelling it with comments such as “it’s a bad habit” , “whenever we come here you cry” or “the same tantrum every morning”.
Considering the ages of the children
With the application of limits on the manifestation of emotions the first change that is likely to be reflected will be a less explosive response but the final result will be achieved after much constancy. But we must also take into account the age of the child we are trying to educate .
There are several elements to remember here: tantrums are very common up to the age of two, and transitions or changes from one activity to another also give rise to the onset of a strong tantrum. Therefore, my biggest advice, regardless of the child’s age, is to anticipate them: “in five minutes we will go to the doctor” (even though until a certain age they are not clearly aware of the time, you can mention the time to them, they will understand that there will be a change soon). Constant communication will be the best ally for the parents.
4. Assertive expression
Assertive communication will be our ultimate goal. Getting the little one to say what he feels and why will be the greatest achievement. To do this, we must provide him with the necessary confidence to be able to believe in himself, and thus he will be able to identify his emotion more easily.
Many parents are worried about attending medical and psychological appointments because of their children’s tantrums and that is what is most recommended. But as parents we must stop for a moment, stop looking at our children and start observing them carefully. An emotional upset could be caused by elements that we ourselves could modify. For example, food. Other reasons could be problems or difficulties related to sleep, which could range from a light that disturbs at bedtime or the lack of it, a very high or low temperature in the room, etc. The causes can be multiple.
In the case that several physical elements have been verified, we move on to consider the psychological elements and if the child continues to have strong emotional responses, (let’s remember that “bad behaviors” are usually calls for attention related to something not being right), then it is best to take him/her for a medical and psychological check-up.