“You can’t have that toy,” we tell them, as they scream at the register. “You have enough toys at home.”
They scream louder.
“Stop it,” we whisper with frustration.
Forcing the toy from their tiny hands, they resist with tears and kicks. And the screams get louder.
Your child is upset and you’re upset, yet neither of you has expressed why. Does this situation sound familiar?
MANAGING BIG EMOTIONS
We’ve all been there, face-to-face with a determined toddler. In the check-out line, at bedtime – really anywhere. And although a young child’s emotions are far from predictable, as parents, we can typically sense a pending meltdown with the skill of a service dog.
We do our best to keep it together while our child is emoting, but remaining calm requires great patience, often times more than we have in reserve. But what if we could prepare ourselves and our children to manage these big emotions? What would this same scenario look like?
The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is key to understanding ourselves and others better. While our emotional state profoundly impacts our actions and decision making, many of us aren’t aware of how we’re feeling at any given moment or what the impact of those emotions may be. Simply put, we can’t change what we don’t notice.
Emotional intelligence starts with naming our emotions, but it doesn’t end there. We can also learn to pause and to make choices about what we do with our thoughts and feelings. The idea behind emotional regulation is not to remove, suppress, or deny emotions but to manage them consciously as they shape our words and actions.
With this in mind, think back to the scenario above.
You’re standing at the check-out and your toddler has a toy in hand. You know leaving that toy behind will cause a reaction.
You prepare yourself and are ready to talk them through their big emotions. You begin by standing where you can be seen, heard, and even felt as you gently pat a knee or shoulder. You connect with your child by locking eyes before you speak, ensuring they will hear what you are about to say.
“It’s time to put the toy back on the shelf” you explain, avoiding trigger words like need, can't, and have-to as they invite push back.
“No!” your toddler screams.
Using a calm voice, you accept and re-direct your toddler.
“You like playing with toys. You can play with your toys at home.”
Tears and anger begin to surface on your child’s face.
“You are feeling sad. You would like to bring this toy home” you say, gently accepting and affirming their feelings.
You name the feeling your child is struggling with, stating it calmly and with as much empathy as you can muster.
They nod in response.
“Take my hand. Let’s walk the toy back to its home on the shelf. What toy would you like to play with when you get home?”
WE TEACH BY EXAMPLE
By modeling compassion, you are teaching compassion, and by taking time to listen to your child’s big (if not always logical) feelings, you are teaching your child how to listen and empathize with others.
Now, you may be thinking “Yeah right, have you seen my kid in action?”
Things may not go this smoothly the first time around and maybe not even the second, but consistency is key. Kids need to feel safe feeling if they are to learn how to tune in and to trust their bodies, intuition, and feelings. We can teach children with our words and actions that all emotions are valid. We can teach them how helpful feedback from the body can be as we navigate our way through this life.
But don't take my word for it when you can look to research for clarity and direction on this important matter. Fostering mindfulness in children and developing their emotional intelligence has been proven to reduce symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety. It’s also been shown that children with a high emotional quotient (EQ) earn better grades, stay in school longer, and make healthier choices overall.*
ALL EMOTIONS MATTER
Emotions are a basic part of us; they make us human. Teaching children how to recognize, understand, accept, and manage their feelings (all feelings...not just the easy ones) is essential if we are to prepare them to live a joy-filled and connected life.
So the next time your little one grabs a candy bar in the checkout lane and yells, "NO!!!" as you put it back, see if you can recognize your own feelings before you begin to help them move through theirs. Pause, breathe, and deliver your boundaries without threats, bribes, or even raising your voice. There may still be tears, but in the aftermath of clear boundaries delivered with respect, both you and your child will feel more connected and self-aware on the other side.