Just like adults, children need to develop strategies for managing their emotions. Many times, toddlers and young children will bite or hit out of frustration or have a hard time calming down after an exciting day. It is a parent’s responsibility to teach them the skills needed to identify and express their feelings. Although aggressive behaviors in young children may be challenging for parents, these situations are a great learning opportunity for them to identify and express their emotions!
Research has shown the benefits that result from teaching emotional intelligence from a very young age. According to various studies, young children who participate in social-emotional skills programs show less aggression and anxiety, and become better at solving social problems. Not only do these outcomes provide a more peaceful environment for everyone, but also the benefits endure through the years! In fact, regulating emotions and not reacting in impulsive or hurtful ways is now recognized as a critical factor in children’s psychological health.
One thing is certain, we are not looking to change a particular feeling, we don’t want children to think that a feeling is “bad”, instead we want them not to be overwhelmed by it. In other words, if your son feels discouraged, encourage him to not give up; or if he feels anxious, talk it through with him so that he does not end up missing out on an adventure!
If you want to help your little one regulate his emotions, here are few things you can do:
1. Name emotions
Toddlers and young children have limited language skills, but parents can pay attention to their behaviors – be it yelling, pushing, crying, biting, or withdrawing. The behaviors they show are of great insight to know what they are feeling, then parents can help them put a name to what they are feeling. When your child experiences an emotion, name it. For example: “You are happy! I can see you’re happy to be at the park.”
As children grow, you can use this strategy to introduce new words that will build their emotional vocabulary: “You look startled. That thunder was really loud.”
2. Plan for strong feelings
Help your little one manage intense feelings by creating coping strategies!
Start by not classifying his emotions as good or bad; instead, neutralize his response to strong emotions. If you tell your child what to feel and that differs from what they are actually feeling, they will begin to feel confused about their own feelings and stop trusting their internal signs! So let him know that everyone reacts and feels angry, sad or scared at some point in time, emphasize that it happens to everyone, even yourself. After your little one has calmed down, summarize what happened and incorporate his emotions into the dialogue.
3. Use playtime to identify emotions
When your child struggles with aggressive behavior, help him verbalize what he can and cannot do. A great way to do this is through play! Play is a natural way for children to experience, explore, and talk about various emotions. A simple way to do this is to use stuffed animals or dolls to act out some scenarios your child can relate to. These games are a great tool to model emotional regulation!
4. Reading time
If you want to teach your child about emotional literacy and empathy, use books with pictures. When a happy, scary, or frustrating event occurs in a story, pause and look at the picture together. Examine the characters’ facial expressions, their body language, and what they are doing. Use this same technique when you watch a movie together, for example, when you see someone smiling – say “She must be happy” and continue with other expressions.
5. Recognizing other people’s feelings
Learning to empathize with others and respond appropriately to another person’s feelings, is an important skill when building relationships. Similar to the strategies mentioned above, you can start by showing pictures and drawings or role-play situations to discuss the words, body language, and experiences that portray a person’s feelings.
Remember that knowing how to regulate and identify emotions is a very important skill to cultivate, as psychologist Daniel Goleman once said, “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”