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Responsive Relationships | To Help Kids with Emotions, Help Yourself

June 27, 2022

In my monthly column ASK Dr. Donna, I answer questions from concerned, worried, and anxious parents about how their kids are doing and offer ideas, provide advice, and suggest ways on how to handle situations that cause children, and their moms and dads, emotional discomfort and distress.  What I always try to impress upon parents, however, is the important role that their own stress, worries, and anxiety play not only in their own emotional well-being but also in their children’s ability to make sense of all they are feeling as they deal with their own big emotions. 

In a recent USA Today series that spotlights the overwhelming consequences the pandemic has had on our youngest children and their families, I spoke about the importance of recognizing that children develop within the context of relationships. Young children are truly emotional detectives. They are tuning into, watching, taking in, and imitating the actions, reactions, and responses of the key adults in their world. As families and caregivers face unprecedented emotional and financial stress, hardships, and loss, their young children are absorbing these emotions and stress and reacting in kind. Before we can help our children to understand and manage all their many emotions, we must first be able to do this for ourselves.

Responsive relationships are essential for learning

It's important to remember that children’s first language is that of emotion. In the earliest years before children have acquired the language to express their emotions, it is through their gestures, actions, and behavior that they can communicate what they’re feeling. And a lot of what they’re feeling these days may involve worry, sadness, fear, or confusion - much like us. For our youngest, our covid-era kids, the “norms” fell away and most of the reliable anchors for very young children – the routines, the support, the social opportunities just were not in place as before. These anchors provide the boundaries and holding environment necessary in supporting children’s feelings of safety and security. This inconsistency, major change, and disruption can be experienced as trauma, especially without the presence and guidance of an attentive, supportive, empathetic adult ​who is responsive to their needs and able to model and guide them in dealing with their emotions.

It is within these essential responsive relationships when we as caregivers are intentionally engaging responsively, sensitively, honestly, and empathetically that children will learn best how to understand and appropriately express and manage their many big and confusing emotions and accurately understand those of others. This is essential not only to their mental health and well-being but also to their ability to focus, attend to tasks, grasp new concepts and skills, problem solve and build empathy. When a child is unable to manage their emotions, their thinking is impaired. When their brain is hijacked by dysregulated emotion it cannot learn.  Before we can deal with learning loss and the missed opportunities to develop key skills, we must first be sure children have the skills they need to understand, appropriately express, and manage their many emotions.

Children learn from their observations

How do we help children learn to deal with all their many feelings when we ourselves are trying to figure out how best to do this for ourselves? First rule of thumb is to remember to breathe, you are not going to get it right every time - and that is okay. So where to begin? Let’s start with some helpful bits of information - Children take in information through their senses – from what they see, hear, taste, feel and smell. They learn from their observations, and how we model, guide, and respond to them and to others. Their brains are like sponges absorbing everything they are experiencing directly and indirectly. Children are truly emotional detectives, with emotion as their first language, as such, we need to focus on helping them to learn to navigate their big emotions, including how to recognize, label, understand, express, and regulate them.

Use picture books to help kids practice recognizing and labeling emotion

Point to how characters are expressing different emotions

One way is to show them visual representations from their favorite picture books for example of friendly and familiar characters. Point to how they are expressing different emotions through their facial cues and body language – for example, a frown, tears ​, and downturned eyebrows for sadness, and a grimacing scowl, glaring eyes, furrowed eyebrows, and clenched fists for anger.

These visuals help children to see similar facial and body responses in themselves, and in others around them.  Once they’re familiarized with these visual representations, you can ask them about their emotions to help them build and understand the important connection to the cause. What makes you sad? What makes you scared? What do you do when you feel that way? These visual representations help ​children identify emotions ​while also helping them understand how others are feeling, which in turn supports the development of empathy - so important as young children begin to socialize and build friendships.

When children do not yet have the language to express how they are feeling, they will express their feelings in action. They may hit, scream or throw a toy. Help them understand that behavior is not okay with a reason as to why it’s not an appropriate, safe, or helpful way to solve the problem. Stop and ask if that helps solve the problem? Explain that such behavior can be hurtful to others and that the better solution might be to let the other person know how they are feeling and what caused them to feel that way. For example: “I’m angry because you pulled the toy away from me.” Before you close the door on an inappropriate behavior you must open the door on an appropriate behavior and find better ways to resolve things. The goal is to help children identify what they’re feeling and then express it in a constructive way. A child who can manage their emotions is better able to solve problems and therefore feels much more in control of themselves – feeling more competent and confident.  

Before helping your kids, you must help yourself first

Circling back to you and how best to do this for yourself.  How can you best deal with and manage your own feelings? Think about the examples above for a moment. These are lessons you can also apply to how you are reacting and responding to your own stressful situations.  In the process of helping your children, you are actually helping yourself as well. 

As mentioned earlier our children are watching, observing, and listening, even when we think they may be in outer space when they appear not to be hearing our pleas when it’s time to pick up their toys or come to the dinner table. They may be unaware, confused, or not know what to do with what they are feeling, and they are looking to see what you do and how you do it.

Think about it - how do you respond, react and express your stress, worries, and anxieties?  How you do this will help model and guide them in how they will then deal with their feelings.  Learning to become aware of and understand your emotions and needs first, is an essential step in being the model and guide to help your children learn to manage their emotions. 

In helping our children develop these essential skills, it is so vital to remember that we’re all human. I often tell parents who are anxious about being a good parent and getting it “right”, that they need to remember the tried and true oxygen mask rule - to do and be your best, you need to first be able to take care of your own needs.

By taking care of you and by being aware of, understanding, and managing your own emotions you will have the energy, understanding, and awareness to be the best model and guide to help your children deal with and manage their emotions.

So with summer on our doorstep and opportunities to head outside, to play, and to hopefully enjoy the precious present moments…take a deep breath and know that in getting it ‘right’ at least 51% of the time by appropriately modeling for, supporting, and guiding your children responsively and empathetically -  you are doing a great job at one of the most difficult jobs there are!

So yes, take and give yourself a break and breathe. Keep practicing your own self-management skills, keep working on how you engage with and respond to your child, and feel good about the working it out part - strong muscles are built through repetition and developed over time. By building your emotional muscles you are not only taking important steps for yourself, but you’re also setting your child on the best path forward. Be mindful and enjoy the endless possibilities for a joyful and safe summer – you and your family deserve it.

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