As a child developmental researcher, my area of expertise is emotion. I have studied it, researched it, written about it — but there is nothing quite like experiencing it as a parent. These little souls have BIG emotions. It is like they are little tornados of feelings — whether it be excitement or frustration, whether they are 2 or 6 — the emotions can sometimes bowl you over.
As a parent, I have a mantra “emotions are simply energy.” They are neither good nor bad, even though our culture has labeled emotions as something to be suppressed and something to avoid.
As adults seeing all of that energy threatens to engage our stress-system. If another adult came at us with child-sized emotions, our bodies might be right to engage the stress response because most of us have learned to regulate our emotions.
Kids, however, haven’t yet learned how to regulate emotions well. And we can either try to shut-down all of the feels or we can embrace them and teach them about their feelings.
My friend Angela Pruess, a mother and licensed family therapist, will help you give your child the gift of being able to recognize, acknowledge, and work through emotions.
8 Vital Reasons to Teach Your Child about Feelings
There’s one question that has the power to render any child who walks through my door silent, the capacity to single-handedly incite confusion, anxiety, and shock, and is the question that has a direct correlation to the soaring rates of childhood anxiety.
“How do you feel?”
As a counselor, it’s my job to help kids discover their feels. It’s often an uphill battle, to put it mildly, as the vast majority of children reply with an underwhelming, “good’ when prompted to reflect on how they are feeling (when good in fact isn’t technically considered a feelings state).
The experience of emotions is so universal and innate to who we are as human being’s, parents often mistakenly assume that a child’s self-awareness around feelings also comes as naturally.
The truth is, just like any other skill vital to healthy social and emotional development in your child, learning how to identify and cope with emotions needs to be supported and encouraged.
Why is teaching kids about feelings so important?
1. Normalizing feelings decreases anxiety.
Intense emotions are a universal aspect of the human experience. Yet, for a small child, big feelings can feel scary and overwhelming. Making space for your child’s strong emotions and validating their experience allows your child to develop a healthy acceptance of their feelings. When your child doesn’t fight against their feelings, undue stress and anxiety is eliminated.
2. Knowing our emotions promotes emotional intelligence.
Many parents automatically expect their child to know how to let their feelings out in a healthy way. However, the first step in coping with emotions is being able to identify them. When you familiarize your child with a wide vocabulary of emotion language, they are better able to pinpoint what it is they are experiencing. Emotional attunement is a vital building block of emotional intelligence.
3. Learning how to self-soothe reduces unhealthy behaviors.
Once a child develops the skills to identify their emotions, they can begin to develop self-awareness around what calms and soothes them. This is a process of trial and error where you can come alongside your child to help them observe and identify what seems to lower their physiological stress.
4. Working through powerful emotions frees up a child to be their best self.
If a child falls into a pattern of feelings suppression, they will be unable to function to their full developmental capacity. Unresolved feelings linger in the subconscious, where they will compromise the internal resources and mental energy your child needs to function in their day to day environment.
5. Learning about emotions helps parents too.
It is easy to encourage a child’s suppression of feelings through statements such as “stop crying, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t that big of a deal”. Your well-meaning attempt to teach your child reason will be lost on a developing brain that is being flooded with stress hormones. The takeaway? Your child’s (and your own) brain can’t learn while in a heightened state of emotion. When we allow the feeling to come and go, everybody wins.
6. Successfully working through emotions is the cornerstone of good mental health. If expressing our ourselves becomes routine, we’re less likely to engage in negative coping patterns which lead the way to anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns.
7. Emotional health is critical to physical health.
Just as with adults, It is not uncommon for a child’s unresolved feelings to manifest physically through bodily symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, ulcers or high blood pressure.
8. Cultivating good emotional health paves a path for long-term health and well-being.
If we’re being honest, many parents are still trying to figure out how to take care of themselves emotionally, due to having a weak framework of emotional intelligence as a child. Starting early with your child gives them a leg up on long-term emotional well-being.
You can give the gift of life-long emotional health
When you support your child in acquiring the skills to identify and express their feelings, you are contributing not only to their long-term mental health but to their all-around health, and from the view I see sitting in my office chair, I’m not sure I see a better gift that can be given.