Many parents are happy to spend time and effort daily to teach our children to read and write, but very few of us sit down with our children daily to talk about emotions. Yet difficulties in managing emotions have a direct impact on learning and is the major reason that children get excluded from school. Getting in the habit of talking about emotions should happen early on. In my book “Inside Out Parenting”, I talk about teaching managing emotions with the same effort and at the same time as teaching our children to manage their motions (toilet training). We should spend as much time and effort encouraging our children to tell us that they ‘need a cuddle’ as we would teaching them to tell us that they ‘need a pee’. If talking about our common experiences of emotion is habitual from toddlerdom, it will become part of our natural repertoire and free us for a life time.
Remember when our children were babies and they cried if they were wet/ hungry/ thirsty or tired? Children who have difficulty identifying their emotions are in the same boat. They convey distress in one way (usually anger) which does not help others identify what is actually wrong. In clinic, it is often evident that many families (parents and children alike) can only identify and express one negative emotion: ANGER – and all manner of other nuanced emotions: frustration/ boredom/ jealousy/ sadness/ pain/ irritation/ annoyance/ unfairness/ grief/ hunger just become subsumed under ‘anger’. This inability to identify and define emotions and their cause is impairing as the solutions for relieving distress in each case is very different. The more that we as parents can actively support and teach our children to identify emotions and physical states, the easier our children will find it to manage their emotions.
Emotions can be tricky things to identify, particularly so for children who have learning disability or autism spectrum disorder who may not understand where the discomfort is coming from. Negative emotions like frustration, anger, jealousy and sadness feel intensely uncomfortable and unless we have an understanding of the cause and temporary nature of the feeling and ways to deal with it, then it can cause immense distress to children, adults and all around them. I will give a funny first-world problem example:
When Molly was around 6 years old, she had quite a temper and one dinner time she complained incessantly about the dinner that I had cooked. Having had rather a long day and spent time trying to prepare a nice dinner, I didn’t feel like listening to her complaints any longer and as she is usually well-fed and watered, I sent her to bed without her dinner. Around 11pm, down comes Molly in immense distress and sorrowful tears.
Molly: Mummy! I’m dying. I’ve got a pain in my tummy and it really hurts.
Me: You’re hungry, that’s all.
Molly: No, it’s not that. It’s the most pain I’ve ever felt in my life. I really think it’s serious. I waited ages and it’s not going away, it’s getting worse and worse. I’m frightened.
Me: OK. But eat this first and then we can call the doctor if it still hurts.
Molly [buttered toast later]: Mummy. The pain has gone.
From then on, Molly was able to identify what ‘hunger’ felt like and the solution. If we are on hand to explain to children their emotions as and when they experience them, then they will learn what these emotions are and how to handle them. Of course, sometimes in the heat of the emotion children may not accept your explanation: try telling an over-tired child that they are tired and you’ll get the most vehement denials – but reinforcing your explanations the following day when they are calm can help, as can witnessing the same symptoms in their siblings and having these pointed out. Molly became quite the pro at tutting “He’s over-tired” when D was raging due to tiredness.
Sometimes, we need to do a bit of investigative work to find out the cause of negative emotions: for instance the source of jealousy or frustration, but if we find it, normalise it and explain it, it generally helps for the next time around. If we are there to catch emotion forming and can head it off, all the better:
Me: I can see Molly that you are upset that your brother got a massive Lego set from Grandma for his Christmas present and you got a book. But this doesn’t mean that they love you any less, it just means that they happened to know what he wanted and weren’t quite sure what to get you. Tell you what, why don’t the two of us go and buy you something else as an extra present tomorrow?