The most difficult thing parents will face is a child whose emotions seem out of control.
If we’re going to be honest, it’s really hard for most parents to stay calm when their child is experiencing an uncomfortable feeling. More specifically, when their child is experiencing a feeling that makes the parent feel uncomfortable.
In those moments, it can be so hard to resist the impulse to immediately punish your angry child ... Or to not try to cheer them up when they’re sad.
Or to not ask them to calm down when they’re a little too noisy when they’re feeling happy and excited.
Especially when you had the experience of being punished, cheered up, or told to calm down when you had those feelings as a child.
In fairness, if you didn’t learn how to understand and work with emotions, it was because no one ever taught you how to work with your own.
Most of us weren't — because the adults in our lives weren’t taught to work with theirs, either.
And yet, we all know from the best parenting books that emotional intelligence is so critical to “success” in life. And being emotionally available to your children is exactly what it takes to raise children into being emotionally intelligent adults.
It’s also the only way to communicate to your children that you love them; for them to actually feel the loveyou profess to feel for them.
So, if you’re ready to consider how to take some important steps forward in that direction, here are 5 tips to help you be more emotionally available for your kid.
Here are 5 ways to be more emotionally available to your kids — and teach them emotional intelligence, too.
1. Make it a priority to become an "emotions detective".
Make the decision and take the time to be curious and remain curious about your children’s feelings. Even in the face of emotions that feel uncomfortable, behaviours that need to be addressed, or problems that need to be solved.
Take time to consider what the behaviour — whether it’s your kid’s actions or words — might be suggesting about your what they might be feeling. Notice what happens for you when you try to do this.
Being emotionally available begins with noticing that your child is having emotional experiences that need your time and attention.
So, to begin, you must notice feelings and emotions. If you’ve got this down and find yourself tempted to step in and say or do something every time you notice a feeling, try tip number 2!
2. Start communicating with your kids about their emotions.
Why? Because using feeling words communicates to kids that you care about feelings — theirs in particular, in that particular moment — and that it is safe to talk about them with you.
You cannot expect your kids to talk about their feelings if no one shows them how. It begins with you.
Like learning a language, they need to hear it many times in order to learn it. So start to use feeling words to describe what emotions you’re seeing or hearing.
Start with “mad”, “sad”, “glad”, and “scared” if you must. But begin! Gradually expand your feeling vocabulary to include more refined ways to talk about emotions. Words like “angry”, “frustrated”, “irritated”, “annoyed”, and “furious” are more nuanced ways to talk about feeling “mad”.
And “worried”, “anxious”, “terrified”, and “confused” are all ways to express worry. Learn to become more specific in your word choice so that you can teach your children that feelings exist on a continuum.
For instance, “mad” does not always mean “furious”, sometimes it can mean “irritated”. And those differences, subtle as they may seem, can be quite significant.
3. Stop trying to talk your children out of their feelings.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but, if we’re going to be honest here, we know we’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another.
What parents hasn’t tried to reassure and shift their child’s emotional state when they talk about (or behaviourally express) uncomfortable feelings? Who wants to have a lengthy conversation about feeling sad?
We just want to comfort them and help them to just be happy, after all. And if we can convince them that there’s nothing to be sad about, that everything will be alright, wont’ they be happy? And we definitely don’t want them to be angry. Or scared. It’s too uncomfortable. For us.
So, as counter-intuitive as it might be, allow them to express those feelings — especially the ones that are uncomfortable for you — without trying to dissuade them.
4. Listen — really listen — when your children talk about their feelings.
Take the time to truly listen so that you can begin to understand “why” they might be feeling the way they feel.
This goes hand in hand with not trying to talk them out of their feelings. Usually, when we interrupt, they stop sharing, so the option for listening deeply to understand their experience often goes out the window.
Stay curious and listen keenly so, if someone were to ask you, you would be able to say, confidently, without a doubt in your mind, that your child feels a specific way for a particular reason. Whether or not you agree that they ought to feel that way in that circumstance.
5. Learn about working with feelings and emotions so you can learn to manage your own.
Especially the ones you have about feelings and emotions! It’s hard to be emotionally available and talk to your child about their feelings when you don’t feel comfortable talking about feelings to begin with.
Emotional availability would pretty much be a non-starter if your discomfort interferes and disrupts your best intentions. You will slide away from that curious stance and slip into behaviours like reassuring, nagging, lecturing, convincing, and cajoling them into believing they don’t feel the way they do in hopes that they will shift and feel something more comfortable. For you.
So learning to manage your own discomfort with feelings is really a first step in being emotionally available to your child. So, if you have think the other 4 tips are easy, begin here.
Like all new learning, getting good at this takes time.
Being emotionally available means learning to communicate with your kids about their feelings. In ways that teach them that feelings are important and that help them learn how to talk about them.
This often means that parents must begin by learning about feelings, why they matter, and how to go about working through their own feelings before they are able to help their children work through theirs.
In the end, raising children to become emotionally intelligent adults who feel loved, value emotions, and know how to work through their own feelings is the achievable outcome.
Even if it feels more than a bit scary at first.
Judith Pinto is a parenting coach in Alberta, Canada. Judith also helps families discover if sensory sensitivities are impacting their unique dynamics.