“How can I get my child to control their emotions?” By waiting until their brain is capable of doing such a thing. There! Shortest article ever.
“But there has to be a way to encourage or increase emotional intelligence, right?”
Yes, absolutely. Emotional intelligence is very different than controlling emotions.
Giving our children productive tools to grow and cope emotionally is a huge service for them in the long run. The first, most important step in raising emotionally intelligent human beings is by accepting, allowing, and holding a space for all emotions; regardless of how uncomfortable those emotions make us feel.
“Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished.” - Haim Ginott
If children (or adults) experience an emotion, they will continue to feel that emotion regardless of what other people say. Sure, huge crying screaming meltdowns can feel stressful. I know I heard “stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry” growing up. Even if I forced myself to stop crying, I was still feeling that huge upset on the inside. And the tool that I learned from that phrase was to stuff my emotions because they were viewed as unacceptable. My strong feelings were banished, but they most definitely hadn’t vanished.
If your child is acting in a way that feels selfish and all about them, it’s because a young child is very egocentric. There is no amount of “training,” punishment, coercion, advice, criticism that can change this. I know we would love a quick and easy fix to these behaviors, but there is no quick fix; although it is relatively easy. Waiting until the child’s brain is capable and modeling the behavior we want to see is really the only positive solution to raising a child that is empathetic.
If you are in the throes of a huge-screaming-kicking-crying meltdown or a quiet-sad-secluded heartbreak, here are some ideas that you can use to give them tools to cope with their huge feelings.
In the moment:
- Allow the emotions. All of them. Angry or sad emotions seem to be the biggest triggers for a lot of people. You’re child is mad and yelling, “I hate you!” Don’t take it personally. Their emotions are their own. They are lashing out because of an underlying cause. Our first instinct and reaction should shift from wanting to say something like, “that’s not a very nice thing to say,” instead to, “you are really angry/frustrated/furious/outraged/sad/devastated (match the severity of the word with the severity of their emotions). You are so angry that you feel like you hate me.” Just because you say it, doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means the child will feel heard. Truly listened to and understood rather than corrected, judged or criticized for their outburst. Later on, after everyone has calmed down, you could say that those words hurt your feelings in an open and honest way when you are can offer the words on the offensive rather than the defensive.
- Write a dictated letter/note. If the child is upset about sister always knocking down his block tower, so he reacted to his frustration by pushing her down, you can, first, check on the victim. “Are you alright?” The pusher will see this interaction and file it away for use when they have matured a bit. Then go to the pusher. “You are so frustrated. You are frustrated that your sister keeps knocking down your tower. Let’s write a letter to her here. I can start it. (write and speak) Dear sister, it makes me sad when you knock my blocks down. I was working hard on that tower… what else do you want to say?” Child might say (while you write), “I don’t like when you knock my blocks down. It makes me mad. I pushed you and you cried. Maybe you can play with the blocks when I’m done.” Then read the letter out loud to your child. You can give him the pen to sign it. He will probably want you to read it again and again. He will feel heard and he will learn how to be clear about his feelings with others instead of hiding them with the intention of “being nice.”
- Practice deep breathing. Sometimes my son will be so upset, the emotions so huge, that he asks me to help him feel calm. I hold him and say, “breathe with me.” And I breathe slowly and audibly so he can hear me. I still utter comforting words of “I’m right here. I’ve got you.” And I continue the breathing. “Let’s keep breathing together just like this. Close your eyes if you want, it might help.” We practice this breathing and beginnings to meditation when all is calm too.
Our goal, in the moment, is to never try and soothe away the display of emotions because the feelings will still be there, trapped inside. Our goal is to be the calm within the storm, always present, always loving, always accepting. Yes, it can be overwhelming. Sometimes we have our own triggers from our own childhood when we weren’t allowed to cry as much as we needed to cry, but we can be the response that we wish we had as children. Each time we say yes to those overwhelming emotions and embrace them from our kids, we heal a little bit ourselves. The stifled child inside us is allowed to heal, little by little.
Some ideas for giving our children emotional intelligence tools when all is calm:
- Create a space for physical activity. Some experts suggest allowing a child to punch pillows if they are mad. I don’t agree with this because that is strengthening the neural pathway between angry and hitting. I would prefer that my child’s go to response to anger NOT be hitting. If my child is in a rage, I first make sure that everyone is safe from physical harm. A gentle “I can’t let you hurt my body” along with a gentle, yet firm grasp on the child, if necessary. How to create a space for physical activity? If your child appears to be out of sorts, you can encourage a bit of rough and tumble play; crashing into pillows; roughhousing; jumping off the couch; jumping on the bed. If a child is out of sorts, they will most likely go into this physical play very willingly, and it will also, most likely, end in tears. Tears that they are having trouble expressing. Sometimes our tears and emotions are so big that they get blocked, and this rough and tumble play will often result in tearing down those flood gates, quite literally. Prepare yourself for this flood of emotion before the roughhousing begins to ensure that you are armed with all of your patience, rather than taken by surprise.
- Read books about different emotions. We really love the book In My Heart right now. But there are a variety of different types of books that you can get; stories about divorce; stories about bullying; stories about getting hurt; stories about fear; stories about hate, love, anger, sadness, hope, and grief.
- Use puppets to portray emotions. Play is the best form of healing and learning for children. You can use puppets, superhero action figures, stuffed animals, or any other toy that you have. If there was an emotionally charged event that happened within your day or week or month or even year, playing out that scenario through actual play will be a great tool for allowing your child to work through those emotions in a more detached way; because the animals are the focus rather than the child.
- Play games like red light/green light, Simon says, or musical chairs. Red light green light is when you have a child do something (say running from one spot to another), and you shout, “green light!” The kids take off running for the end point. Then you shout, “red light!” And they have to stop. Simon says gives directions of, “Simon says touch your finger to your nose and hop on one leg (or whatever silly action you can think of).” And musical chairs, or a variation of, where the music plays and kids dance around. As soon as the music stops, the kids stop moving. These activities, repeated over and over, will help strengthen the prefrontal cortex and the ability to control impulse.
- Practice meditation with your kids. Meditation is the solution to so many problems. There are tons of beginning meditation guides. You can start simple with a walk outside. Sit beneath the trees with your child. Have them close their eyes. “Breathe like this.” And take a deep breath that they can see and hear. Have them listen for sounds of nature; wind in the leaves; birds chirping; a crunching twig; bees buzzing nearby. Little mindfulness and meditation moments like this will guide them and give them tools to find their inner calm, eventually.
- Music. I feel like music is a must for a happy life, but that’s just me. Music and dancing are so freeing. You don’t have to think about anything if you just give your mind and your body over to the rhythm, sounds, and movement. Music can bring out deep emotions. Let yourself cry, laugh, dance, or sing.
The only thing that we can control in this life is our own reaction. We can choose to be calm, peaceful, and present. We can choose to acknowledge and then step over our fear brain, our triggered reactions. We can choose peace and love. We are human, of course, and will always drop the ball at times. But as humans we can always grow and learn. It might be scary, but self-reflecting often will bare all of our vulnerabilities, insecurities, and strengths. When we look within, we can see where we want to learn and grow. And then we do.