Experiencing certain emotions for the first time can be a lot for kids. Understanding this can help you better support their responses to big feelings.
Expressing (and regulating) emotions is like riding a bike. It gets easier with time, and the more you do it, the easier it is.
But don’t forget that riding a bike may be incredibly scary the first time you do it. So, too, are big new feelings.
When faced with a toddler screaming because their toast was cut diagonally instead of vertically, or a teen who’s sullen and withdrawn after a fight with a friend, remember that kids may be experiencing these feelings or a particular combination of feelings for the first time.
You as an adult, on the other hand, have had many years of experience coping with frustration, anger, fear, and exhilaration.
Teenagers may be experiencing all of these feelings at once, whereas before, they may have been better able to compartmentalize some and really focus on one.
Kids have to learn that there are no good or bad feelings, and that all feelings are worthy of expression.
One way to help them learn this is to own your feelings and to discuss them as openly as you expect your child to. This can also help them learn to name their feelings and put an identifying word to what’s going on inside.
Your child’s emotions are not fundamentally different from your own. The difference is that the feelings are new to them.
“Adults are able to use their concept knowledge. So they have all of the information that they have acquired over their many years on this planet, living in a particular culture, to make meaning of their internal states in a given context,” says Kristen Lindquist, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“But kids don’t necessarily have the same sort of conceptual repertoire that they can use to make meaning,” Lindquist adds.
For example, an adult who’s ready for lunch and gets angry in a meeting that just keeps going, knows they aren’t really angry at their colleague — they’re “hangry” because they need to eat lunch.
Young children don’t have the resources to make that connection, which come with age and experience.
“Those of us who are parents have experienced a kid who is just totally dysregulated because they’re exhausted and it’s nap time,” says Lindquist. “And this is really sending their emotions off [the] rails.”
“And for them, they’re experiencing this as… ‘everything in the world is terrible,'” she adds. “When really what’s happening is their body is saying, ‘It’s time for you to have a nap.’”
Good emotional intelligence is also associated with better academic performance.
Research also indicates that an empathetic child will have an easier time building relationships.
On the flip side, when a child is made to feel guilty or ashamed of their emotions or emotional reactions, it can hurt their ability to connect with others and make friends.
“So instead of just saying like, ‘Wow. It seems like you feel bad,’ saying, ‘Wow, it feels like you feel sad or mad or disgusted or afraid,’ or what have you,” says Lindquist.
It may also be beneficial to discuss the emotions of characters in stories with your young children.
“There’s actually some great research that [reading] fiction really expands the breadth of their understanding of other people’s emotions,” Lindquist explains.
Read to your child regularly, and point out characters having strong emotional reactions. Young children may respond better to illustrations.
Another strategy Lindquist advocates for is keeping your child on a schedule.
“One of the ways that adults help kids regulate their emotions is by really helping to keep these biological factors that throw kids out of whack in check,” she says. “There are real psychological reasons why that matters. You are keeping your kid’s physiological state even-keeled by not [pressing] a biological button.”
It’s important to react to your child’s strong emotional responses without judgment or the influence of your own emotions.
Approaching your child calmly and asking what happened and why, then brainstorming solutions to handle the same problem next time, can go a long way toward helping them learn to name their emotions and regulate them.
Teenagers, unlike younger children, are more likely to experience several strong emotions simultaneously.
For teens, Lindquist says “It may be less about understanding than, in the moment, being able to say: this is what I’m feeling and why I’m feeling it and how I should deal with it.”
Being frank about your own emotions and strategies for managing them — whether that’s therapy, medication, or exercise — can help your teen develop emotional literacy.
For most children and teens, learning to express and regulate their emotions is a natural learning process. But if you notice that your child seems to be having more difficulty with their feelings than you’d expect, it can be helpful to reach out to a qualified mental health professional.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recommends considering therapy for your child if they’ve developed unusual behaviors that are:
- ongoing for more than a few weeks
- upsetting to your child or your family
- interfering with normal activities at home, at school, or with friends
Other signs that a young child may benefit from an evaluation by a therapist include:
- frequent tantrums
- difficulty sleeping
- regular talk of fears or worries
- complaints of headaches or stomachaches that have no obvious physical cause
Signs that older children and teens may benefit from a therapist’s evaluation include:
- loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- difficulty sleeping
- excessive exercise or dieting
- avoiding social interaction with friends or family
Identifying and being open about emotions is a journey, not a destination. Remember, for your child, these feelings are all new — and while novelty can be exciting, it can also be scary.
You can help your child understand and regulate their emotions by:
- talking about emotions openly
- putting a name on emotions
- providing them with structure at home
Keep in mind that the way you discuss emotions may change as your child gets older and begins experiencing more emotions at once.
The more open you are about your own emotions, the more helpful it is for your child as they process these new feelings and learn how to express and regulate them among family and friends.