Treat Children’s Emotions as Important
Emotional Children and Teens can try anyone’s patience. How in the world do we respond? When emotions are high, one important thing to remember is to keep it all in perspective. One day I found a meme that I believe helps us do just that. It says, “Just because I’m a teenager doesn’t make my problems less important than yours.” I love that though. It provides an opportunity for us parents to stop and think. Am I brushing off my children’s complaints as trivial? Am I laughing at their frustrations and disappointments? Am I at my wit’s end trying to deal with their daily drama and don’t want to deal with it anymore? Or, am I listening to what they say? Am I treating their problems as worthy of being addressed? In this post I hope to provide a few tips on how to better relate to the emotional ups and downs that children and teens experience.
Look Past the Circumstance to the Emotion and the Children’s Heart
The very first, and perhaps most basic tip, is to remember that your children and teen’s emotions are important. If necessary, try to look past the situation, which may seem trivial, and find the commonly experienced emotion behind it. For example, one young boy was very frustrated because someone kept following him around on the playground repeating the same single annoying word over and over. Although from an adult’s perspective it’s almost humorous and is something that would occur on a sitcom, nothing makes that interaction less important to a 5 year old than your own annoying neighbor or co-worker. This is just one example, but the principle can be applied to so many other situations. As an adult, you can probably look back on your high-school years with added wisdom and recognize all the follies and trivialities that seemed so important then. But, many of the emotions are the same. We may not feel down in the dumps like some teenagers every time we get on Instagram because we see photos of a party we weren’t invited to. But, as an adult I still know what it feels like to be left on the outside and ignored or to wish I had a friend.
Some emotions blow over quickly, but not all of them. Just because children or teens are young, energetic and exuberant does not mean that they are not impacted by divorce or friendship difficulties or loss of a loved one or trauma, etc. etc. etc. On the contrary, it can be extremely difficult because their brains are not mature and they have not yet had the life experience to learn how to think through it in a helpful way. Likewise, just because a child or teen is bullied at school does not mean they should be left to their own devices or just “fight back” because kids will be kids. The sink or swim mentality really doesn’t work out well in a lot of situations. I could go on and on with examples, but the point is simply to remember that children’s problems are worthy of being addressed, no matter how insignificant they may seem to an adult.
How to Effectively Address and Talk to Emotional Children
The formula for helping children and teens deal with their hard problems and difficult emotions is to first listen whole-heartedly.
Really…listen…without talking first…
Make sure you understand where they’re coming from and that they feel understood. Only once all the listening bases are covered can you proceed to helping them problem solve.
Dr. Seigel and Dr. Payne’s Connect then Redirect Formula
Dr. Dan Seigel and Dr. Tina Payne have an awesome little phrase in their book No Drama Discipline: “Connect then redirect.” What this means is that when your children (or teens) are upset and having a difficult time, the first thing you have to do is connect with them. Talk with them. Give them a hug. Sit down and “chill” with them. Help them find some calm and peace. Validate their emotions and help them understand or process what they’re going through and feeling. Be there for them.
As a side note, validating does not mean that you approve of behaviors. It simply means that you’re listening and trying to understand.
After all of this, and once your child or teen is not as upset, then you can move into teaching mode. You can redirect their thoughts and behaviors to more correct thinking, use logic, find helpful responses to the challenging situation, or discipline behavior if needed.
Dr. Gottman’s 5 Steps to Validate and Problem-Solve
I also love the simple and straightforward 5 steps to help children overcome emotional challenges as outlined by Dr. John Gottman, a well-known family researcher. He explains them in depth in his book, “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.” Of course, his book is written for parents of children, but I think the principles are easily adaptable and true for teens as well.
First, become aware of your child’s emotion. This sounds like a “no-duh” statement, but it really can get difficult to recognize emotions. Sometimes children, teens, and even adults are good at hiding their emotions. Or, maybe they’re expressing it in other ways instead of directly. For example, maybe they’re really mad at their siblings instead of talking about their frustration with being bullied at school. Or, maybe it’s simply easy to miss between the soccer games and the laundry and the pull of social media. Whatever it is, become aware first.
Second, recognize that your children’s emotions are an opportunity for intimacy. Even though drama is usually not fun to handle, it can really bring you closer together. Remember Dr. Seigel and Dr. Payne’s first part of his phrase: “connect.” Heart-to-hearts with your child or teen can bring greater closeness and love.
Third, listen and validate. Show some understanding, compassion, and listening before you jump in with anything else. Are you listening enough that they feel you understand where they’re coming from, even if you don’t agree with them? Remember, validating does not mean agreeing. It means that you hear them and love them and are there for them.
Next, help your child label their emotions. With children, this means that you help them understand what they’re feeling. So, you probably won’t help your teen understand that they’re feeling mad like you would for a 4 year old. Nevertheless, you can certainly help a teen process what they’re feeling. As adults we still do this. How often do you talk to your best friend to voice your emotions and have them help you sort it all out? Our minutes talking on the phone would probably be a lot less if we didn’t practice this.
Lastly, problem solve. This is where you can discipline if needed and set limits on how they are expressing their emotions. You can problem solve with them on how to get through the difficult time effectively.
For the Drama Queens and Kings: Recognize When Your Child is Overreacting and Learn to Reinforce Appropriate Responses
All this being said, there are times when children do overreact. As an outsider and parent, you may be able to see that your child or teenager’s response is way out of proportion to what is acceptable. It’s normal for a 2 year old to cry over spilt milk, but not an 8 year old. You may recognize that your child is someone who wins hands-down when it comes to being the drama-queen or drama-king. So, do you keep validating your child’s emotions when you recognize it is out of age-appropriate proportion? Connecting with and understanding your child is always a good thing. We don’t want to inadvertently send messages that we only love children who are happy or always follow the rules. But of course, there are different ways to offer that connection and validation and some are more helpful than others.
You can still respond in a caring and validating way while also not inadvertently reinforcing drama-queen behavior. Help them know that you’re there for them and you love them. Still validate their emotions, but state that they are over-reacting and you will address it once they have calmed down. (It’s the same principle as waiting for children to calm down before applying logic and problem solving skills.) Help them find coping strategies that help them feel calm and more peaceful. Once they have calmed down, immediately address their emotions so you are reinforcing appropriate responses to dealing with difficult emotions and situations. This means that you are not reinforcing the overly-dramatic behavior and they will be eventually become more likely to respond to emotions in an age-appropriate way.
If you feel like drama-kings or drama-kings fits your child or tween, you may be interested in the book The Unwritten Rules of Friendship by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore. It offers a few chapters on dealing with drama-queens and kings. They break it down into different categories such as overreacting to criticism or being a perfectionist (and becoming upset when something isn’t perfect) or complaining all the time. The authors provide practical and easy exercises to help teach children how to appropriately respond to emotional situations.
If you feel like this fits your teen, you may be interested in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy skills. One workbook I recommend is Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Teens by
Let Your Child Take Appropriate Responsibility for Their Emotions
Lastly, find the healthy balance in letting your child take responsibility for their own emotions. As parents, we want to shield our kids from the harsh world. Part of our role as a mother or father is to protect our children and be their number one advocate. However, just like other virtues, too much of it can become a vice. When your children face difficulties, ask yourself if you are willing to let them experience their own hard emotions and take personal responsibility for them instead of trying to take it for them.
For example, one leader of a youth group observed that some of the teens did not like participating in the group. They did not feel accepted, and the parents started shielding their youth and blaming the other teens for not being friendly enough to their child. The leader observed act if the youth had been encouraged to take more personal responsibility for their feelings of awkwardness or shyness and made a greater effort to make friends instead of waiting for friends to come to them then things would’ve been a lot smoother and happier.
Another example is helping your child take responsibility for conflicts at school. I want to be very careful about bringing up bullying because I recognize that many children are truly victimized by more powerful peers at school. However, I observed in my practice that some kids grabbed onto the idea that they were bullied at school. They blamed other children when I could tell that half if not more of the conflict was due to their own behavior and hurtful words. In certain cases, it was helpful to try to let clients see that they were responsible for their own feelings about the interactions and how they responded accordingly.
Learn from Experiences
As with everything in life, we learn from our experiences, our mistakes, and our successes. Don’t worry if you weren’t able to aptly de-escalate a tantrum or teen-sized catastrophe. Remember your successes and that you’re trying the best you can. And good luck!
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to provide therapeutic services. If you believe that your child’s problems are more than you can cope with and handle, please seek the help of a licensed professional.