How To Help Your Child Navigate The Murky Waters Of Their Emotions

There was a time when I felt I knew the way children "worked". I love kids. I knew I wanted to work in a field where I could understand and help children. So, what does one do when one loves children and wants to understand them better? One goes to college and gets a degree in a related field. So that's what I did. I got my handy dandy child and adolescent development psychology degree and set off to go understand children into wellness...

 I literally am shaking my head at myself.

To be fair to me and give myself a bit of due credit, I did have a wonderful time working with children in teaching, therapy and counseling. I hope and pray there was a few bits of good or wellness I was able to help bring to fruition in some of these little people's lives. Something happened, however, that caused me to question the very fiber of the fabric of the entire quilt that is the stitching together of my training, my degree and my work. I... became a mom. I had children, two to be exact, boys to be more exact (and that is an important detail, hear me there).

That's my crazy duo plus me. "Let's be cute for this one", I said. 

I really felt like I had some stuff together in this world of child development and emotional intelligence! And let me tell you something, babies are so great. When my babies were babies, it was literally rainbows and butterflies in my world. I was that annoying person. I loved the "baby phase" so incredibly much and even the toddler phase really didn't put a dent in the foundation of my world too much. I really felt like I thrived as a "mom to babies and tots". I had 2 within 2 years, I loved it so much. And no, I did not have easy pregnancies nor deliveries but even that didn't alter the way I viewed those early months and years. 

Then, something happened. My babies grew into young children who are now nearing 6 and the eldest 7 and let me tell you something: IT IS NOT RAINBOWS AND BUTTERFLIES ALL THE TIME ANYMORE. 

There, I said it.

 It's just downright difficult sometimes! My kids are amazing little people with ideas and passions and drive! They are funny, outgoing AND shy. They love others and strive to do the right thing. They are boys that I admire, adore and sometimes gawk at because they are just that beautiful to me. BUT people, they are humans that are becoming increasingly difficult to manage: EMOTIONALLY. 

So, what do I do with this new emotionally charged child in front of me, having a nervous breakdown about (fill in your own personal blank) and how do I HELP HIM navigate his feelings so that he walks away from this breakdown in a better place than when he walked in?

That's the goal, right? Parents? We want to daily be the person in our kid's life that is helping them to be the best version of themselves they can be. Let me tell you something, that looks very different on some days, doesn't it? On some days that means I redirected an argument and turned it into an opportunity for sharing. Some days, it looks like a fit of anger that almost ruined an outing but ended up in a deep hug and meaningful exchange between my kid and I. Some days, it just works. Then there are the days that I look into that precious little perfectly sculpted face that is stuck somewhere between little and big and I just know I'm totally and completely feeling just as lost as he is. 

So, peers of mine, what do we do? 

I'm not an expert (my kids will tell you that I'm sure), but I've got a thing or two to share and if it can help just one person out there, isn't that why we are all here reading this together in the first place? We are on the SAME team, parents! Team, "help turn cute small people into awesome big people". 

Be more emotionally stable than your kids. 

If you're not, you have GOT to fake it until you make it people. I'm so serious about this one. This is probably my biggest and most important tip for you to take away from this semi-experienced, semi-educated gal that has a thing or two to share (wink and a smile). Without getting too technical and boring, your child's brain in these early years (say age 1 through 7 or 8) is not yet developed to a point of being able to understand why they feel the way they are feeling. Bursts of emotions are simply that- bursts. They feel them and as they grow, they feel them begin to take root in certain circumstances such as a dispute at school, a deflating comment on the playground, a disciplinary moment etc. Where once they cried and didn't know why, now your 6 or 7 year old has very clear reasons why they are upset but they still are not old enough to fully control it and navigate how to fix it. That's where YOU come in, whomever you are that cares for the needs of this little person. You have to be well enough in your own emotional state to completely separate your feelings and your emotional response from the breakdown happening in front of you, from your child. And here's the thing: you're not always going to be, but you have to fake this one and become a really good actor. Your child can't process adult feelings and shouldn't have to. Be more emotionally stable than your child so that when your child comes to you with their world crumbling, you are able to set aside your own personal crumbs in order to carefully piece theirs back together. 

Differentiate a mountain from a mole hill. 

This is probably self explanatory, but what I want to say about this idea, is that not every emotional outburst is as bad as it seems at first glance. As I was saying above, young children cannot quite differentiate the way "I lost recess privileges" and "I was called an idiot and pushed" feels. To them it all feels terrible. When your child isn't really vocalizing why they are so upset and you are working on navigating these murky waters to try and figure it out, remember the emotional response they are experiencing feels just as badly for them regardless of the severity. That's where we come in and it's such a tough job sometimes. Try your best to get to the true bottom of the hurt and once there, you can figure out the best way to start the climb up and out. 

Give the benefit of the doubt, but recognize when something seems "off". 

This is a really tough one for some people because we just want to jump when we see a loved one hurt. The protective instinct can kick into high gear, you know what I'm talking about? This is where the "mother bear" term stems from. Protect the pack at all costs. Don't hate the messenger here... but sometimes it takes a second look to see when a member of our "pack" may not be expressing correctly how a situation transpired, thus leaving us to figure out what really went down and how to properly handle it. Again, with the "that's where we come in" and "that's our job" sentiments we all love so much! And on that same note, please do not ignore the feeling in the pit of your stomach when something just doesn't feel right about a situation. 

Last, but not at all least in my book: NEVER be stingy with the hugs, kisses and words of affirmation. 

Let this be your first reaction. Your young one is having an emotional time, just hug him or her tightly. Kiss their head. Rub their back. Tell them "I don't know what is wrong yet darling but everything is going to be OK" and mean it. Reassure their sweet and tender spirit that nothing will hinder your love for them, God's love for them and your full support of their problem, start to finish. This doesn't always mean the end result is going to be happy and it may not even result in a hug or a kiss if there is upset feelings from discipline that can ensue. However, start with a hug when you don't know what happened. This is going to build so much trust in your little person's soul. No parent, I don't care who you are, ever wants their child to be AFRAID to come to them with a problem, concern, upset or woe. If your parenting thus far has created a spirit of fear in your child to talk to you and be open, you can change that. It is NOT too late to begin to reverse those reaction responses and you can see miraculous changes occur in the dynamic between you and your little one. 

I hope there has been a little nugget or morsel along the way through this journey we have been on together today that spoke to you. I hope your parenting journeys are filled with love and compassion, direction and peace. I hope that idea doesn't sound like a far off mythical endeavor. Every child has their own unique challenges that can really throw us off our parenting game sometimes, but no matter what, when you lead with love you're halfway there.


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