Updated: Nov 7, 2019
As children across the US (and around the world) go back to school and adjust to their new routines, their parents, too, are adjusting. With the transition from summer break to school comes a lot of feelings for children, from excitement and happiness to anxiety and disappointments about friends, coursework, teachers, and so much more. And as parents, we try to help our children cope with the mixed bag of emotions that they bring home every day.
Starting school is a big deal. Parents know it and kids feel it. The emotions kids have weigh heavily on them. How a child navigates and manages their emotions is integral to their success at school, both academically and socially. As one child recovers quickly from a loss and is able to move on, another may struggle, delaying development of new skills, learning the next lesson, or getting along with friends.
So how do parents help their children with their emotions?
Helping your child emotionally doesn’t need to happen in the moment. In other words, if a child is rebuffed by a friend at school, a parent need not be there at that moment to help their child understand that encounter. Instead, by being available to process their day after school parents help their child emotionally so they can return to playing, learning, and socializing the next day.
Being available consists of four things that children need from parents to help them process, understand, and move past unhappy feelings. All of which are things that parents likely already do for their spouse, colleagues, or friends. The first one is listen.
It sounds simple but 'just listening' can be quite challenging for parents, especially when your child is upset. It’s natural for parents to want to “fix” things for their child, but fixing things can cause children to feel unheard or dismissed, and in the end doesn’t aid the child in learning how to cope with or manage their feelings. It’s important to understand that your child is unhappy, but does not want to feel this way, they simply haven’t learned how to navigate their way out of their unhappiness yet and they need your help.
When parents meet unsettling emotions, whether through a conversation, passive-aggressive behavior, or a tantrum, reiterate what your child is expressing and/or experiencing so they know you are listening. And always respond in a concerned manner. For example, if your child is older and has the maturity to express themselves verbally, repeat what they are saying so they know you are listening. An example may be a teenager who comes home from high school and slams her bedroom door. Her mom knocks on her door, acknowledges her daughter’s unhappiness by saying “I can see you are upset”, and then let’s her daughter know she is available if she wants to talk. “I’ll be downstairs if you want to talk about it.” Later, her daughter comes to her and says “When I said ‘hi’ to Meghan, she acted like she didn’t hear me, and walked right past me!” Her mother responds, in a concerned manner, “Meghan didn’t acknowledge you or say hi?!!” Continue to listen and reiterate what they are communicating. This will encourage them to continue to open up, as well as feel important, because they have your undivided attention.
If your child is expressing passive-aggressive behavior, reflect their emotions. For example, a mother picked up her son from school, and he asked for a snack. When the mother said they can have snack at home, like usual, her son lashed out at his mom saying, “You never have a snack for me! I’m starving! Why do you do this to me?!!” His mother can respond with, “Wow, you are really upset! When we get home I can fix your favorite snack, would that work?” And on their walk home, his mother remains calm and gently asks how the day went and learned that her son forgot his gym shoes and couldn’t play his favorite game. His mom reiterates what she is hearing without offering advice. (Telling her son he should have kept his shoes at school in his locker does not help him emotionally.) Instead she reiterates what he is telling her, “Oh no! You didn’t get to play kickball?” And she continues to listen.
Younger children tend to communicate their feelings through behavior. When they are acting out, reflect what you are seeing. For example a young child comes home from preschool and gets upset when their favorite snack is not available. They start crying, screaming, or exhibiting other forms of behavior that is all but happy. You can respond by saying “You are really upset! You really want Teddy Grahams!” These words alone will not alleviate the tantrum. You are simply communicating that you are listening. Then, stay by them and ensure they stay safe through their tantrum, offering your patience and kindness. The outburst will subside. This may be the most challenging behavior for parents because at this young age children aren’t mature enough to evaluate why or what about their day made them so unhappy and the best approach is to reflect what you are seeing and hearing.
When children are upset, it’s common for parents to feel like their child is mad at them, but this is usually not the case. It takes a lot of energy for children to “behave” in school, and home is a safe space for them to express their true feelings. Know that you didn’t do anything to warrant this behavior and their behavior is not directed towards you – this is simply how children express unhappy feelings.
In general, when people feel listened to, it alleviates stress caused by their unhappy emotions and makes them feel better, even if they don’t yet understand what’s initially caused them. In other words, getting unhappy feelings out is crucial for moving past them.
The next step is to empathize. When we are able to empathize or sympathize with what our children are feeling, their feelings are validated, they feel connected and supported - all things necessary to build healthy self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence.
It’s important at this point to not “correct” your child. Their experience, whether you agree or not, is their experience and is very real to them. Telling them they are “wrong” or highlighting the gaps in their knowledge only increases their anxiety and self-doubt, try to really see things from their point-of-view. Remember too, this doesn’t mean you are condoning behavior or that you won’t be able to offer perspective on the situation later.
Phrases like, “That is really hard, I’m sorry”, “I would be upset too if that happened to me”, or “I’m sorry that happened,” begin to heal the emotional wounds from their day.
The third step is helping your child turn to an activity, hobby, or relationship that brings happiness. Depending upon the age of your child and their interests, it could be a hug, reading a story, a stuffed animal, playing a game, riding bikes, walking the dog together, etc. Through this exchange, parents are showing their children how to move past sad and unhappy feelings.
The last step is to be prepared. Often children’s sad emotions tend to surface during other stressful events or situations like getting out the door on time for school, going to a doctor visit, or any other activity they don’t particularly enjoy. Ready yourself with patience and understanding. If they refuse to wear a coat on a cold day, just bring it along for when they do get cold. Allow for extra time and be prepared if some sad feelings arise.
Negative emotions are distractions that prevent children from being able to pay attention in school, overcome obstacles, be resilient, and enjoy learning. Through listening, sympathizing/empathizing, guiding, and being prepared you help children learn about their feelings and show them what to do with their feelings afterwards. An added bonus is that you will also be nurturing your child’s confidence and self-esteem, but the biggest reward is that you will be strengthening your relationship with your child and able to watch your child blossom because of it.