Navigating feelings is a pretty big deal for little ones who understandably have a difficult time recognizing why they feel the way they do, how they got to that point, and what to do next under the heavy weight of those complicated things we call emotions. The 2015 movie Inside Out introduces us to 11-year-old Riley’s feelings—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Although her animated (literally) emotions do their best to guide her through a difficult time in her life, predictably (because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie) chaos ensues. Despite their obvious conflicts, the five emotions eventually realize the only way to help Riley is to work together and allow her to feel all the feels. If only we could recruit those animated characters to explain and sort out the inner workings of the brain to our little people when the big emotions come out and nobody, including us big people, is quite sure what to do about it.
While we, as parents, won’t be able to make it all better all the time (and really, it’s unrealistic and unhealthy to even try or insinuate that’s even a possibility), here are some ways that you can help your little one to learn as he grows and figures out on his own (but with your help) how to best deal with the ups and downs he is sure to experience at every age and every stage of his life.
Once upon a time, my oldest daughter began to grumble when getting up for school. Daily tummy aches started soon after. Then bedtime became anything but as she fussed and worried about everything and anything. Unbeknownst to me, my usually charismatic and silly daughter was feeling things she’d never felt before, internalizing it, and these emotions were showing up in not so healthy physical and behavioral ways that seemed to have nothing to do with the cause. I tried to ask all the right questions and tried to give all the good advice, but it wasn’t until she asked me one night to just listen to her that finally, when she felt comfortable enough to open up and knew that she had my full attention, she was able to share what was bothering her. And although she described the situation, she was incapable of understanding it was leading to the tummy aches and bedtime anxiety—she just knew things didn’t feel right. Once we had the talk and I had a better understanding of what was going on, I was able to take action on her behalf and THEN bring her into the mix to help her to work through what had already happened and establish trust and confidence moving ahead.
As I learned from the above example, no matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to help your child to cope with big emotions if she and you don’t first identify what may be triggering those emotions. Although it’s easy to spot a cut or a bruise, the inside cuts and bruises are much more difficult to see. Being a parent means being a part-time detective. You need to sniff out all the clues before you can solve the mystery. And if you don’t identify the source, you can 100 percent be sure your child won’t have a clue as to how to deal with the resulting feelings.
Now that you know what’s going on, it’s oh so tempting to try and explain away your child’s emotions by telling him a story about the time mommy felt this way or that way, “Just like you!”. And while our intentions may be good, we are not our children, and they are not us. What worked for us—or at least so far as that long ago memory serves us—may not work for them. It’s important to identify with your child without forcing your identity on him. You can do this by sharing your circumstance as an example of how it made you feel and then offering him the opportunity to weigh-in on how his circumstance is making him feel. What you can share here is that we all have faced hardships and respond to things differently, and we all have emotions as a result. And having different emotions is definitely a-ok. Do not judge his response based on how you feel that you would have responded at his age.
So now that you and your child know what’s going on, how can you prepare her for big emotions and/or help her work through big emotions after the fact? Other than having a good sit down, there are many interactive and fun ways to help your child understand and learn to cope with her feelings. Books and television offer so many great opportunities to teach kids about dealing with all flavors of emotions. There are way too many books to list. Head to your local library or jump on Google to search for a book that may speak to your child. And while the movie Inside Out may be great for the 6-year-old, timeless tv shows like Thomas the Train are pretty great for the even younger crew. Thomas has interesting stories about being useful and overcoming the odds, but what caught my eye the most were the faceplates on the trains representing different emotions. It was always easy to identify the different trains’ moods by their expressive smiles and scowls as well as mischievous and sometimes sad faces. So even if a little one doesn’t quite grasp the storyline, they can easily identify with the train by its expression.
Another great way to help little kids learn to sort through and deal with their emotions, especially some of the more difficult ones, is to play games. What better way to work through basic concepts like winning and losing, trust, and patience than a good game of Go Fish, Sorry, or a Memory! Not surprisingly, for those who are a bit more tech savvy, PBS Kids offers a slew of free online Feelings Games. Whatever game you choose, in addition to having fun together, take the time to listen and learn, especially if and when feelings get hurt. Make sure to shake hands no matter who wins or loses. Other activities that allow for getting creative is anything art! Finger paint, sketch, or get out the glue stick and make something together. Or you can ask your child to draw the way he feels and have you guess the emotion or take turns making faces and guessing. And don’t forget music. Whether you bang on a drum, tickle the ivories, or dance like nobody’s watching, music is a wonderful way to express feelings and may even lead to a long-term interest!
And for early writers, still another way to teach your little one how to express herself is by asking her to spell it out. As my youngest daughter battled with some big emotions that tended to come out in angry bursts, I suggested she write her feelings in a journal. I assured her no matter what she wrote she would not get into trouble. After all, when you invite someone to share their true feelings with you, you need to make it clear that they shouldn’t have to edit them in whatever way, so long as they communicate them in a respectful manner. I have to admit the first time I read a passage, I was a little stunned at just how candid she was, but I was also proud and happy that she felt comfortable enough to open up to me. It was a great relief for her to be able to share her feelings, knowing she’d done so in a safe place. This eventually led to her feeling more comfortable expressing herself in words that didn’t land her in time-outs.
Set the Rules
While it’s important to teach your child that all the feelings happen to the best of us (my oldest once told me feelings were annoying), you also need to make sure your child realizes there is a right way and a wrong way of showing emotions when these emotions become bigger than she feels she can handle. In other words, throwing her sister’s favorite toy across the room because she was feeling mad is not acceptable. Feeling mad is acceptable, but disrespecting her sister is not the best way to deal with it. Offer some alternatives and talk through them to see which one she might choose next time. Don’t assume she understands conflict resolution. There are many adults running around who could use a few lessons themselves. Enforcing consequences for bad behavior is also critical to help her to work through the bigger emotions in a healthy and productive way. Just as important, if not more so, is rewarding her when she expresses her feelings in a positive way. While you don’t have to run out and buy her a new toy for doing the right thing, an extra helping of hugs and kisses and maybe playtime overtime with mom or dad is a great way to reinforce making good choices.
It’s tempting to send a child into time-out or threaten to take away his favorite toy each and every time he acts out, but what’s more effective in the long run is helping him to develop a healthy avenue to make better choices to express himself. This begins with helping him to understand the different emotions that he may be feeling. And this will take a lot of trial and error and a lot of patience, but as Riley learned at the end of Inside Out, it was perfectly normal to feel and express all of her emotions, a necessity really, in order to work through her problems. By acknowledging her feelings, she eventually was confident and ready to reach out to her parents and explain her behavior and begin to get back to feeling like herself again. Rather than hiding these emotions or hiding from these emotions, you want to help your child learn to open up and trust you when some emotions get too big to manage alone.