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Helping Children Feel Their Feelings

bigstock-150220880With the current election, we have all felt intense feelings. This article highlights the importance of acknowledging our own feelings as well as provides some steps to take with young children to help them understand and cope with their emotions.

When emotions run high, people do and say things they normally would not. This is what it feels likes to be a young child all the time. Emotional self-regulation, a large component of emotional intelligence, is the ability to manage one’s experience and expression of emotions. With practice, children improve in their abilities for emotional self-regulation. By age 4, most children start to use strategies to eliminate disturbing external stimuli. In other words, they cover their eyes when they are scared and plug their ears when they hear a loud noise.

It’s not until age 10 that children consistently use more complex strategies for emotional self-regulation. These strategies can be broken down into two simplistic categories: those that attempt to solve the problem and those that attempt to tolerate the emotion. When a child can make a change to address a problem, they engage in problem-focused coping by identifying the trouble and making a plan for dealing with it. When they deem the problem is not solvable, they engage in emotion-focused coping by working to tolerate and control distress.

Emotional Intelligence

All of these strategies are a part of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence encompasses awareness, understanding and the ability to express and manage one’s emotions.

While the world has been focused on academic achievement in childhood, emotional self-regulation has been largely ignored. This is a poor strategy, given that research suggests emotional intelligence is twice as a strong a predictor as IQ of later success.

Self-control, one piece of emotional intelligence, is particularly important in predicting achievement in children. Children who are able to inhibit impulses (often driven by emotions) and avoid distractions are able to engage in more prosocial behaviors and accomplish their goals. A particularly powerful study tested school-aged children on self-control and conducted follow-up studies on those children in their 30’s. The study demonstrated that self-control predicted success better than IQ, socioeconomic status and family environment. Those children high in self-control were also healthier, made more money and were less likely to have criminal records or trouble with alcohol.

Feelings Serve a Purpose

The first piece of emotional intelligence is awareness and understanding of emotions. We have to understand and accept before we can control and express our emotions. Emotions are not an inconvenience, but rather a piece of human evolution that serves a purpose. The discrete theory of emotions suggests that each of our primary emotions have evolved to serve distinct purposes and motivate our behavior.

Sadness is an emotion uniquely capable of slowing us down, both in thought and motor activity. This can allow us the opportunity to reflect on the source of our emotional upset and take a closer look at the antecedents of it. In contrast, anger speeds us up, mobilizing intense energy and sending blood to our extremities. While evolutionary, this geared us up for a fight; in modern times, it allows the sustained energy for a fight of a different nature. Anger cues us that our rights have been violated and helps us mobilize to protect against future threats.

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Our emotions are to be respected and reflected upon. This includes our children’s intense emotions at seemingly non-intense situations. My daughter experiences intense anger when she is not able to do something she had previously accomplished, such as buckling her car seat independently. In their recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents not use technology as a way to calm or pacify negative emotions in their child. Specifically they expressed “concern that using media as strategy to calm could lead to problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation.”

Basically, children need the experience of feeling these emotions and practice in tolerating them to develop self-control and emotional intelligence.

Increasing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence

Because emotional intelligence appears to be such a strong predictor of success, researchers have looked at how caregivers can encourage its development. Specifically, John Gottman observed how parents respond to their children’s emotions in an effort to understand how emotional intelligence develops. He found that parents respond to children’s emotions one of four possible ways:

  • Dismissing Parents see children’s emotions as unimportant and attempts to eliminate them quickly, often through the use of distraction.
  • Disapproving Parents see negative emotions as something to be squashed, usually through punishment.
  • Laissez-Faire Parents accept all emotions from child, but fail to help the child solve problems or put limits on appropriate behaviors.
  • Emotion-Coaching Parents value negative emotions, are not impatient with a child’s expression of them and use emotional experience as an opportunity for bonding by offering guidance through labeling emotions and problem-solving the issue at hand.  

Gottman’s research shows children of parents who emotion-coach are physically healthier, do better in school and get along better with friends. Emotion-Coaching Parents followed five basic steps to help their children with emotions. Sometimes this can take a great deal of time. Gottman found that emotion-coaching parents only followed all five steps 20-25% of the time, suggesting there is no need for guilt as no parent can complete this process all the time. The five steps are:

  • Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions. Parents who emotion-coach are aware of their own feelings and sensitive to the emotions present in their children. They do not require their child to ‘amp up’ their emotional expression for the feelings to be acknowledged.
  • Step 2: See emotions an opportunity for connection and teaching. Children’s emotions are not an inconvenience or a challenge. They are an opportunity connect with your child and coach them through a challenging feeling.
  • Step 3: Listen and validate the feelings. Give your child your full attention while you listen to their emotional expression. Reflect back what you hear, thus telling your child you understand what they are seeing and experiencing.
  • Step 4: Label their emotions. After you have fully listened, help your child develop an awareness of and vocabulary for their emotional expression.
  • Step 5: Help child problem-solve with limits. All emotions are acceptable but all behaviors are not. Help your child cope with his or her emotions by developing problem-solving skills. Limit the expression to appropriate behaviors. This involves helping your child set goals and generating solutions to reach those goals.

Sometimes the steps of emotion-coaching may go relatively quickly. Other times, these steps may take a great deal of time. Patience will be key. If the problem is big, all five steps don’t have to be completed in one interaction.

Nurturing Yourself the Way You Would Your Child

In this time when emotions are running high, nurture yourself the way you would your child. Allow yourself to first feel the feelings, as all feelings serve a purpose. If you are feeling sadness, you may need some time for reflection. If you are feeling anger, you may want to involve yourself in ways to protect your rights and interests in the future. Walking through the steps of emotion-coaching for yourself, when you are ready to do so, is a first step in allowing yourself to be an emotional intelligent being who is successful in your goals. After you have an understanding of your own feelings and goals, you can begin the process of emotion-coaching for your child.

Helping Children Feel Their Feelings

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Meghan Owenz, Ph.D.

Dr. Meghan Owenz is a psychologist, writer and a university psychology instructor. She has her Doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami and Master’s in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. She is happily raising her two kids sans screens. She runs the website, Screen-Free Parenting, where she writes about tech-wise parenting and provides tons of screen-free activities. She has developed a psychologically-based system to help organize the activities young children learn and grow from: the S.P.O.I.L. sytem Before you turn on the screen, she asks, “Have you S.P.O.I.L.-ed your child today?

APA Reference
Owenz, M. (2018). Helping Children Feel Their Feelings. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 15 Nov 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.