Teaching your tween to effectively navigate their emotions is vital. After all, the skills of identifying and expressing emotions are valuable well into adulthood for everything from cultivating healthy relationships to practicing compassionate self-care.
It also helps your kids right now. Because as your child gets older, they have more experiences without you. It’s important for them to be able to pinpoint how they’re feeling on their own (e.g., “I don’t like this”). And it’s important for them to be able to articulate those feelings, so they can get the help they need, said parent coach Mercedes Samudio, LCSW.
Of course, this isn’t easy to do. Many parents naturally try to protect their kids from painful emotions. Which means that you might inadvertently create an environment where some emotions aren’t welcome and others must be processed quickly. You might make comments like “You should be happy!” or “This isn’t a big deal.”
Samudio often hears phrases such as: “Just get over it” or “Don’t be so dramatic” or “Don’t be so worried.” When kids hear this, they really hear: “Something is wrong with me. Something must be weird with me. Why am I being so dramatic? No one else is feeling this way.”
Parents also might trivialize or misunderstand social situations by saying, “Don’t worry about those people. Just be yourself.” “Again, they’re not taking the time to say it’s OK to be sad or to make mistakes when it comes to peer relationships,” Samudio said. In other words, not only does a child not feel heard, but parents miss the opportunity to teach their tweens to honor their feelings — all of them.
Below, Samudio shared several valuable suggestions for how parents can help their tweens effectively navigate their emotions.
Be honest about your own feelings.
Often parents hide or minimize their own feelings because they don’t want their kids to know they’re sad or disappointed, Samudio said. “But if their parents ignore their feelings, kids will, too.” If parents say, I’m not stressed out, I’m fine!” kids learn “I’m supposed to be fine when I’m stressed.”
This isn’t about dumping your stuff on your kids, she said. Rather, if your kids notice that you’re upset, be honest with them. Kids are perceptive and they’ll pick up on your emotional state. For instance, you might say, “I really am stressed out because I have a huge deadline at work. Have you ever been overwhelmed over a deadline?” This helps to normalize a range of feelings for your kids (and they see “I’m not weird for feeling the way I feel”).
Understand your child.
Pay attention to how your tween communicates their emotions right now. Do they curse at everyone? Do they shut down and lock themselves in their room? Do they become aggressive? Do they say, “I’m fine; everything is fine” when you know they’re actually struggling? Know who your child is when they’re angry or sad or stressed out. Know how they tend to express themselves.
Kids also might revert back to acting very immature, Samudio said. They might become argumentative and pick a fight with everyone. They might act out, so a behavioral issue really masks an emotional one. For instance, they avoid their homework because it only reminds them of an issue at school (when all they want to do is not think about the issue).
Let your child know you’re available.
You can’t undo or change how your child is feeling, but you can create a space for them to open up about their emotions, Samudio said. Which they might not do right away, which is OK. To create a welcoming atmosphere, you might say, “When you’re ready, you always know you can email or text or call me to talk about this.” Give your child options, and try not to force them to communicate the way you do. In other words, try to meet them where they are.
“Kids who shut down will want to talk during inopportune times, when you’re making dinner or when you need to get out the door. In the moment, make time.” For instance, you might say, “It sounds like you want to talk. We can get coffee. But first let me drop your brother and sister off at school.” Or if it’s during dinner, you might say, “I’ll just put this on the stove, and then I’ll come and talk to you.” This shows your child that you’ll make time for them, Samudio said. Which means they’ll “come to you sooner.” When talking to your child about their feelings, make sure it’s a dialogue without judgement or lecturing.
Experiencing and expressing a range of emotions isn’t just OK. It’s human, and it’s part of taking good care of ourselves. It also takes practice. It takes a whole lot of practice for adults, and it’ll take practice for kids, too. The key is to be your child’s guide, Samudio said. If your child is sad, let him feel sad. If she’s angry, let her feel angry. Of course, if they’re expressing their feelings in destructive ways, talk to them about healthier strategies. Let them know that you’re available to talk. Show them that you won’t judge or criticize their feelings, and you won’t tell them how they “should” feel.