There are times when the awesome responsibility placed upon me as a mother overwhelms me. When I stop and consider the long game of motherhood—churning out a well-adjusted, emotionally mature, and functioning adult—I can’t help but worry it all amounts to an impossible task. Is it actually feasible for my husband and I to do everything necessary to keep our girls healthy, safe, happy, and engaged in the world around them? I mean, it sounds like an awful lot of work, right?
And yet, parents have done this work every day since the dawn of humankind—which is just another way to say motherhood must be simpler than it seems. On an easy day, I can remind myself kids just need love, perhaps a vegetable at every meal, and someone to hold their hand in crowded places.
It also helps that I recently received perspective-rocking advice about teaching emotional intelligence to children. And I’m relieved to say it starts with an easy first step: naming your own feelings for your kids. It turns out setting our children on the path toward emotional maturity might not be as daunting as it seems. Read for advice from experts on how to begin and why it’s important.
Name Your Emotions
“When parents name their emotions in front of their children, they are normalizing the human emotional experience, saying ‘I’m human, and I feel things, and that’s always OK,’” said licensed child psychologist Dr. Emily King. She said that as our children grow, they will be influenced by their friends and the media they consume, inevitably receiving mixed messages on what showing emotion means. That’s why it is critically important for parents to “model vulnerability” and transparency about the way they are feeling.
As anyone with a small child understands, children are natural imitators. How many times have you slipped and dropped a curse word only to hear your toddler echo it moments later? Harness that parrot-like quality for good by talking about your emotional reactions in front of your kids.
“When parents label their emotions, children will increase their emotional vocabulary and pick up on nonverbal cues associated with different emotions,” said Dr. Carrie Jackson, a graduate student in West Virginia University’s Clinical Child Psychology Program. “Building a child’s emotional vocabulary is just as important as having children learn letters, numbers, and colors.” She explained that a healthy understanding of their emotional lives has a real and lasting impact; decreasing the risk of developing anxiety, increasing resilience when it comes to stressful situations, and improving self-esteem.
Focus on Coping, Not Problem-Solving
The practice of naming your emotions is as easy as it sounds. In the moment, simply let your child know your emotional reaction by saying something like, “I’m feeling frustrated right now,” or “I’m feeling hurt.”
Dr. King added that parents need to follow up on their statement with an action to help manage those feelings. For example, you might tell your child you’re feeling sad about something and that’s why you’re going to take a walk together. Getting fresh air and moving your body, while also spending time with someone you love, helps to lift your spirits. “Normalizing our coping strategies is just as important as normalizing our emotional experience,” she said.
But naming emotions doesn’t have to end with you. Parents can also continue the practice while watching TV shows or reading books with their kids, taking a moment to name a particular feeling, and talking about ways that characters might cope with them. And no matter what form your emotional chats take, Dr. Jackson issued a word of caution: “While many parents may want to jump into problem-solving mode with their own emotions, they should avoid minimizing them or immediately moving into problem-solving,” she said.
Practice the Process
When talking about big emotions with children, it’s important to remember that doing so is a two-step process. First, label your feelings. Second, follow up with an immediate action to help navigate those feelings. We want to be careful, Dr. King explained, that we’re not creating anxieties in our kids if we bring them up without actions attached to them. She cautioned parents that if we don’t explain our action plan to our kids, they might misunderstand us and assume we’re asking for their help.
“We want to be clear when naming our feelings that we are showing vulnerability to normalize the human experience and then model the problem-solving process of asking for help to feel better,” she said. “Naming (a worry) and explaining you will seek counsel from a friend or professional shows your child that you have a human emotion that you are not sure how to handle on your own.”
Recognize the feeling and ask for the help you need to feel better and get back to enjoying your life—all the while modeling the process for your child to follow.