Your child is putting on her coat. She carefully places the hood over her head so she can get each arm in the sleeve — a trick she learned at preschool. She gets one arm in and then the hood falls off. She tries and tries again and then she screams “MAAAAAMMAAA HEEEELLLP!” (If you’re lucky, if not it’s just unintelligible screams). Or what about this scenario: You take your kids to the park. One runs in front of the other and your younger child can’t keep up. Your older child reaches the playset first and your younger child throws themselves on the ground because they weren’t “first.” Do you have moments like these in your house?
Most probably the answer is yes, you do, we all do! Learning how to regulate emotions, an aspect of emotional intelligence, is one of the key tasks of childhood. It is also one of the Three Things about Child Development Every Parent Should Know. One of the other things on that list was the idea that everything, even negative emotions, can be good for kids in moderation. I talked about the 20-second rule and how it applies to holding yourself back as a parent. Allowing your child to experience the emotion can help them learn how to deal with that emotion, hence, growing their emotional intelligence.
Why Challenge is Important for Children’s Emotional Intelligence
So, what is the natural thing to do in these situations? Run over and put on your daughter’s coat — you are late now anyhow. Tell your older child to please let your younger child be first. Problem solved. Crisis averted. (please let there be 5 minutes peace before the next crisis).
Or is it?
When we step in and do things for our children or fix things for them we are depriving them of a chance to learn. And not only to learn the task or the skill, but also to manage the emotions that come along with challenge and stress. In one study, the more that mothers tried to help their child in a situation where the child had to regulate their emotions, the harder time the child had regulating their emotions on a later task when they were by themselves.
It is not what happens to us that defines us. It is how we deal with challenge that builds our character.
One study found that children tried more problem-solving strategies to solve a difficult task when they were angry compared to feeling happy or sad. Negative emotions, especially frustration and anger, may serve to fuel motivation to accomplish something to get it done, to persevere.
Viewing challenge ( e.g. failure, frustration, disappointment, hard times, obstacles) as an opportunity to learn, grow and become a stronger person, is psychology’s definition of hardiness. Not only to survive stress or challenge but to thrive.
Give Your Child Grit
Whatever we call it, hardiness, resilience, true grit, we know our children need to learn how to deal with stress. And the first step towards developing mental strength is to be able to weather the storms of their own emotions.
So, how do we do this? Do we watch them struggle with the coat, let the tantrum run its course? Do we throw them into the deep end of their emotions and hope they swim?
No, we guide them into the water with floaties and a watchful eye until their fledgling emotion regulation system is mature. But we don’t swim for them, we teach them how to swim on their own.
Judging When to Step In
If there isn’t enough challenge, whether cognitively or emotionally, you have a steady state. Much of your child’s day is like this. Doing routine things, practicing skills already learned, simply being. However, a high proportion of your child’s day is spent experiencing some challenge and failure. They are learning to zip their coats, write their name, share, lead, follow, regulate etc. When they face challenge, they grow.
Challenge = learning.
A good proportion of the day your child should be in the bottom of the U. It’s fine for them to skate along sometimes just being, but without some challenge, motivation to grow and learn dissipates. With too much challenge, they will burn out, disengage, or explode.
So, when do you jump in? When it’s just too much. When they are so frustrated they cannot problem solve. When they are stressed enough that they can’t focus. You have to use your gut, but you’ll know when it’s just too much. And even before they get to that point, make some suggestions to help them problem solve and move through the emotion– but don’t do it for them and don’t fix it.
Most of the time as parents we see our children learning and we step back and watch the process. We assist here and there. We resist doing things for our children.
But when it comes to our children’s emotions? We step in, we stop it, we fix it or we tell them to cool down in their room. Highly emotional displays are triggers for many of us. It’s hard to keep yourself in a nice steady state of emotional calm when the little person next to you is a mini earthquake of feelings.
We also don’t want our children to feel pain, sadness, stress or frustration. We are their parents, after all, we should make them feel better.
And we should. As parents, we need to be a safe place for children express their emotions, to give them comfort, soothe their hurt feelings and empathize with them. But none of that is “fixing.” It is very different than fixing. So, how do you step in?
Three Levels of ‘Stepping In’
Step One: Acknowledge and honor the emotion they are feeling.
Send the message that no emotions are bad and no emotions should be avoided. In doing this, you are being a safe place for them to express emotions. You are showing them that emotions are not something to be avoided, but rather they are something to be acknowledged. You are telling them — I understand you.
“I can see you are frustrated with your coat.”
” Are you feeling disappointed that you weren’t first?”
Sometimes they will sigh and get on with things satisfied with simply being understood and acknowledged. It anchors them in that safe place where failure and emotions are okay. But, many times you will have to move onto step two.
Step Two: Help them problem solve and move through the emotion.
This could be a variety of things. Reminding them that they can try again. Suggesting the next step. Suggesting they take a break.
“Let’s see if we can try again. Here I’ll help you get your hood back on and you can try to get your arm in the other sleeve. This is hard work!” (Notice you are helping, but not putting on the coat completely and your are acknowledging their effort).
“Sometimes it’s hard to be the younger brother, isn’t it? When your legs are longer, you’ll run even faster! There are some fun games you and your brother can both play. What other games do you like to play? What about hide and seek? That would be fun.”
Step Three: Empathize and work on balancing their emotions.
This step is only necessary if they haven’t moved on yet. In that case, they are feeling overwhelmed by emotion and they are having trouble coming back from it. Offer a hug, empathize some more, comfort them. Suggest they take a break, have a sip of water. Offer a snack. Emotional outbursts burn a lot of energy. If they are really upset, problem solving won’t work. They are on the far side of the U and they need you to step in.
Doing this stepwise process with your child will give them the foundation of skills they will need to deal with stress. The message is that: emotion is not to be feared or avoided but worked through. Feeling upset is not a reason to give up. You are helping your child to harness that emotion so that they can get up, try again, dust themselves off, persevere.
They will grow up to be strong swimmers, leaving floaties and shallow waters behind, they’ll be primed and ready to jump into life and will ride the waves.
We can’t stop our children from experiencing stress. We can’t keep the storms aways. But we can give them the tools to sail even in the roughest seas.