Difficulty With Emotional Management

Lots of people have trouble managing emotions. Many adults spend their entire lives working on emotional management, and some never fully master it. So it should be no surprise when we encounter children who lack the skills necessary to manage their emotions. It isn’t something we’re born knowing how to do. We need to learn it, either through concrete lessons or through experience.

As children get older, their ability to manage emotions develops. This is why a toddler may have a temper tantrum when you hand him the blue crayon instead of the red one he wanted. An 8-year-old, however, is able to both recognize how insignificant this sort of problem is, and communicate what he actually wants. The toddler is not able to do either.

Name Emotions

The first step in helping children to manage their emotions is making sure they can recognize what emotion they are experiencing. Some children have difficulty telling the difference between when they are worried, or scared, or angry, or tired.  This can be really confusing to a kid! Help them tell the difference by talking about the way their body feels and what thoughts they are having. You don’t necessarily need to find the root cause (yet), but helping them identify what the feeling actually is will help them work their way toward managing it.

ALL Emotions are Okay!

It is crucial that children learn that all of the emotions they feel are valid! We sometimes inadvertently send messages to kids that certain emotions are “good” and others are “bad.” While it’s true that some emotions may be wanted and others unwanted, teaching that there are “bad” emotions is a slippery slope. Instead of hearing, “it’s bad to be angry because it doesn’t feel good,” they are likely to hear “I am bad when I feel angry.” And anger, just like all other emotions, is a natural part of being human! Everyone feels angry at times, and that’s okay. The key is in how we deal with it.

Teaching Coping Skills

This takes us to the most challenging part of emotional management–finding positive coping skills. This is where a majority of children (and, let’s be honest, adults) fall short. When we are dealing with an unpleasant or unwanted emotion, we want the fastest and easiest way out of it. For a grown-up, that might be a huge tub of ice cream or an adult beverage. For a little kid, it might mean pushing someone on the playground who took a toy away from them. “Use your words” is essentially meaningless to a young child in the moment, especially since high emotions impede our ability to “talk it out” calmly, which is, of course, the ultimate goal.

Unfortunately, there is no “quick” fix for children pushing as a response to their emotions. While we always want to send the message that it isn’t good to push (or hit, kick, etc.), we have to also keep in mind that this is how young children express that they are upset. The best way to address it is by discussing it after the fact when the child is calm and no longer upset. And the best way to help our children develop better long-term coping mechanisms is to teach them ways that they should respond when they are in situations that make them want to push, or engage in another undesired behavior. These can include asking for help, problem-solving, and yes, eventually practicing “using words!” But this will take lots of time and practice!

Tips for Grown-Ups

As important as it is help children manage their emotions, it’s even more important that the adults in their lives are able to manage theirs as well. When things get tense, keep the following tips in mind:

  • De-escalate. Aside from physical safety, de-escalating an upset child should always be your first priority. This is best done when everyone else is able to stay as calm as possible.

  • Walk away. If you are feeling yourself escalate in front of your already escalated child, make sure she is safe and step away for a moment. Try taking slow breaths while counting to ten, then return.

  • Revisit the conversation later. Don’t try to bring closure to emotionally charged situations right away. You and your child likely both need time to process and cool off. But do remember to talk to your child about the situation later, once he or she is fully calm and removed from the situation.

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