To a young child, everything is BIG. Thoughts, feelings and ideas often become so BIG that they overwhelm the child. As adults, we need to take seriously what is BIG to children and not slough it off as “no big deal.” Additionally, it is vital that we hone our listening and understanding skills so that we can get to the root of a child’s distress. Whether as parent, caregiver or teacher, it is our job to become a detective and identify the source of children’s worries and concerns so that we can help them learn to manage big emotions. It is a job that requires a lot of patience and time.
The five-step process for helping children manage BIG feelings
In the 1990s, the American psychologist John Gottman developed a process known as “emotion coaching” to guide parents in helping children manage their strong feelings. Gottman’s process has been adopted by many parent-education groups. Using Gottman’s five-step process as a model, parents, caregivers and teachers can learn how to really listen to children and help them better understand and regulate their emotions.
Step 1: Be aware of the child’s emotions
Take note when a child behaves in a way that does not seem “normal” to you. Whether they are “acting out” (crying or becoming physically aggressive) or seeming quieter than usual, the cause may be their inability to express thoughts and feelings verbally. They may know that something is not right but be unable to pinpoint what exactly is wrong or lack the vocabulary to express it.
Step 2: Connect with and teach the child
You can begin very simply with a question (“Is everything OK?” or “Did something happen that you want to talk about?”) or a statement (“I’m seeing someone who is very quiet today” or “I’m wondering if something is bothering you”).
(NOTE: As adults, one of our immediate inclinations is to dismiss the problem as “no big deal.” This tells the child that what is on his/her mind is not important, which can lead to feelings of “I’m not important.” Another inclination is to “fix” or “solve” the problem. After all, we are adults and we know how to take care of things. This can send a message to the child that “I’m not capable.”)
Step 3: Listen to, acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings
When children express what is worrying or bothering them, recognize and acknowledge the situation and express it back (“It really bothered you when Debbie took the marker from you. You did not like that.”)
Step 4: Help the child to label or name the emotion
Next, follow up with a “feeling” statement or question (“I’m wondering if that made you feel angry” or “Could it be that you felt angry when that happened?”). Don’t assume that you know what the feeling is. This may take a few tries before you are on the right track. You can help your child connect a word with the emotion or use emotion picture cards to identify the feeling. Patiently, reassure the child that you really want to understand. Acknowledge that it is difficult to have that kind of feeling. You might even recall an instance when, as a child, you experienced a similar feeling.
Step 5: Assist with problem-solving, if necessary
You might suggest that you and your child do some brainstorming about how the situation could be handled better next time – after all, it is bound to happen again. After you have a few ideas, talk about what might or might not work (take the marker back, cry, push the other child, OR tell her that she can use it when you finish). Then, try a role-playing exercise in which you take turns acting out both parts of the conflict. It may take several tries before your child feels comfortable and confident. However, practice will help him learn to express and stand up for himself in a positive way, building resilience and a sense of capability.
Typical and atypical worries and concerns
Some worries or concerns of young children are typical: difficulty in taking turns, wanting to eat a treat before mealtime, not wanting to go to preschool or day care, dreading a doctor’s appointment. In each case, use the “emotion coaching” technique and remain consistent. If not having a treat before mealtime is the rule, stick with it whenever the issue comes up. This is the same for going to school and doctor’s appointments. Try to find out what is going on below the surface so that you and your child can come up with solutions together.
If a child has said or done something inappropriate in a heated moment, reassure him or her that it’s always OK to feel your feelings (angry/sad/frustrated/afraid/jealous) and it is not OK to hit or otherwise hurt someone, break something or call names in return. With patience and calm, explain that these actions don’t solve the problem and usually make things worse.
In this past year, children have likely seen and heard things that are not typical and are causing bigger and unusual worries and concerns. COVID-19 and racial tension in our country and around the world are BIG issues for adults, as well as children. If someone close to your family has been harmed or lost their life, your child will undoubtedly need lots of comfort and assurance, as will you. As you work your way through the feelings and emotions of loss, you and your child may be able to do some things that will help:
- You can create a “memory book” of things that you did together with photos and drawings.
- You can plant a tree or flowers in memory of your loved one.
- You can have a birthday party and reminisce about special times.
- Remember to talk about feelings and validate them. Express feelings of sadness, anger and fear that your loved one is not with you.
There is a lot to process here. The important thing to remember is that as parents, caregivers and teachers of young children, we want to open the door to communication. Helping children confront and deal with feelings and emotions in a positive way when they are young is a good beginning. As they grow, the situations they encounter will be more challenging. We want them to continue to come to us with their concerns so that we can assist them, when necessary, in reaching sensible and safe resolutions. Sometimes, a listening ear is all that will be necessary. Reassure your child that you are always available. It is a lifelong journey. Best wishes.
For a list of book recommendations, visit the Washington Parent Magazine website.