Learning to recognize, accept and work through or process our feelings is something we all need to learn, and learn to do better, as we develop. Kids don't come into the world knowing how to do this at all, and even as adults some of us are still working on, or need to be working on, doing this too. Your ability to regulate yourself, or self-regulate, depends on your being aware of your feelings and your body's sensations, recognizing what they might mean and making choices about what to do with them.
When kids are growing up, they don't have the ability to completely regulate their own emotions. This is obvious when they are little but much less so as they get into their teenage years. The human brain isn't fully developed until the early 20's, and even at that point, young adults lack the experience needed to put things into real perspective. You will have to help fill in the gaps and co-regulate with them. Your showing them how to work with emotions through your actions is an important part of their developing the skills mostly by watching and experiencing you.
Becoming Aware of Feelings and Sensations
It may seem surprising but being able to be more consistently aware of feelings and sensations starts with having names for them. Our being able to think about, talk about and do something with them, depends on having words for them. Even just knowing what they are feels like a bit of control.
As your kids (or you yourself, if you struggle with this) grow, help them develop the words they need to describe to you and to themselves what they are experiencing. Emotions have range and depth. Mad or angry are great emotion words, but so are frustrated, annoyed, disappointed and betrayed. Having more possible words for different experiences helps you and your kids think about what's going on more accurately.
Tip #1: Spend time with a feelings chart with your kids. Ask what characters in a book, TV show or movie might have been feeling in different scenes. Work on finding good words by suggesting different words similar to what was first suggested. Ask why one choice might be better than another. There are no perfect or "right" answers. The goal is to learn and think about feelings, both yours and others.
Most of us pay very little attention to our bodies. Noticing your physical reactions is an important part of recognizing emotions more accurately. Being more aware of your body also makes it easier to start calming yourself so that you can think about your feelings and express them.
Tip #2: Ask your kids where they feel an emotion the most in their body. If they're having some difficulty and you recognize the emotion, ask them about particular sensations or reactions you either see or reasonably suspect to help them focus and check. Work on helping them describe them after they notice them. Help them develop the words they need.
You'll find two emotions charts at the end of this handout as well as a link to a four page "faces chart" for kids of different ages. Put them somewhere you can use them with your kids or put a copy on your refrigerator. Find a new word together from time to time and talk about it. Look them up in a dictionary together and teach them another skill in the process of learning about feelings.
Recognizing What Feelings and Sensations Mean
Once someone is aware of their feelings, they can work on where they came from and what they might mean right now. They can ask, "Is this based on what's happening right now or mostly a reaction to the past?" or "Is this mostly me? Am I hungry, angry, bored or tired?" What someone's feelings mean is really a story. It's how they're making sense of it right now and it's ever more highly colored depending on the strength of the feelings involved.
Tip #3: After your child tells you what happened and how they feel about their story, ask them about the others involved. What might they have felt? What did they probably think was going on? Spend some time talking about other ways they could think about what happened and what it means. Again, there really are no perfect or "right" answers, although some stories might be more likely than others. The point is that there really are more ways to see things and the "truth" isn't as certain as it feels.
It's important that you and your children realize that feelings are important, but they aren't the Truth with a capital "T." Feelings are "data," just like thoughts and sensations. They can point out what's important to us, and that we want to do something about what's going on, but they betray us when we let them run the show and don't consider others and other possibilities.
Things to say #1: "If you start thinking about what you could have done differently when things go wrong more often, pretty soon you'll start remembering to do those kinds of things when you want to."
Pay attention to the language you and your children use when describing things. Is it simple and descriptive or does it tend to be colorful and emotionally loaded with lots of blaming or being a victim? Ask them about the roles they played. Did they help create, start, end or keep the situation going?
What to Do with Feelings and Sensations
We make choices based on our feelings. If we let our raw feelings run the show, we tend to make poor impulsive choices and our values and longer term goals go right out the window. We actually make it harder to get what we want or have the relationships we would really enjoy. Help your kids see that paying attention to and working with their emotions works for them and for your relationship.
At their best, emotions give us the energy to do things and change things. At their worst they hurt us, destroy relationships and make life difficult and ugly. What are a few simple things we can teach out kinds to bring to mind when emotions start rising? Here are 5 principles to keep coming back to:
- Your family motto or "mission statement." This can be something like, "In my family, we love each other, so we help and take care of each other. We try to do this for other people, too."
- I respect myself and other people.
- I respect and take care of everyone's property.
- I cooperate with others when they make right and reasonable requests.
- I obey those in authority when they tell me to do valid things.
When things go wrong and emotions get high, go back to one or more of those principles. Talk about them frequently so they come automatically to mind for everyone. These are a simple elaboration of Jesus' 2nd Great Commandment: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself." This is recorded in the Bible in 4 separate places, starting in the Old Testament.
Things to say #2: "I want you to be happier. Your life will be more enjoyable, if you choose loving, compassionate and respectful things more often. To live well, we all have to do stuff that we might not really want to do right then. It's part of us loving and taking care of each other."
You need to let kids disagree appropriately. Always give them the opportunity to (respectfully and briefly) explain their side or offer a valid reason for your response being off base. You still get the last word. Giving attitude, being disagreeable, making remarks and similar behavior after not getting their way is not "disagreeing appropriately." It's also not showing respect or being cooperative. Remind them of this and warn them that consequences will follow if they don't stop immediately. Your reminder is not an opportunity to reopen the issue, but you can remind them about why you made the choice you did if you choose to.
What to Really Keep in Mind
You really need to practice paying attention and listening non-judgmentally. You're trying to teach and coach, not simply discipline. You need to be compassionate. If you consistently do this, your kids will be happy to cooperate, and you'll need to do much less correcting and need to use far fewer consequences.
Remember, you don't have to discipline or fix things in the moment. You'll need to do something soon but not immediately. Let your kids know you're going to think about what to do. You'll make choices soon and then talk about again when everybody can do it with a leveler head. The goal for all of you is to choose loving, compassionate and decent responses, so everyone's best interests are taken into account. This is the ultimate show of respect.
Live on Purpose TV, How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child
Live on Purpose TV, How to Calm an Angry Child
Live on Purpose TV, How to Help Your Child Express Their Feelings
Cornerstone Psychological Services, Attachment Theory and Emotion Regulation
Cornerstone Psychological Services, Helping Your Child Regulate Emotions
Stan Tatkin, Relationships Are Hard, But Why? (TEDxKC)
Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kinds: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by (2012)
Hope for Hurting Kids, Emotions Charts
Verses for the Week
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
No learning process seems pleasant at the time. It's painful. Later on, however, it produces the fruit of right character and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Leviticus 19:17, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.
Prayer for the Week
Help me take the time to practice listening calmly and non-judgmentally to those I'm interacting with, especially my kids. Help me remember to take care of myself as well, so I can take better care of them with patience. Please remind me to pay attention to what I'm thinking and feeling before I act, so I can respond rather than react. I want to keep my goals for my kids in mind, even when I'm stressed and aggravated. Help me prepare my kids well for their future. Amen.