Experiencing and Processing Difficult Emotions

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

(listen to article read by the author)

putting a happy mask over sad face

What are you teaching your kids to do when they experience difficult emotions? How do you respond when they are scared, anxious or overwhelmed?

Your response teaches them how to handle their difficult emotions. Some kids learn that certain emotions like fear, anger or jealousy are unacceptable. Instead of expressing these emotions and letting them go, they learn to push these emotions down and put on a happy mask.

Unfortunately, emotions that aren’t expressed don’t magically disappear. These suppressed emotions hang out in the recesses of your mind waiting for an opportunity to be released.

Disregarding Difficult Emotions

Emotions arise from thoughts about situations. The thoughts may happen so quickly or unconsciously that they aren’t easy to notice.

For example, pretend you see a child standing by the side of a pool hesitating to jump in. What thoughts might this child be having? Perhaps he is thinking about how cold the water might be or how scary being submerged under water might be. These thoughts are leading to feeling nervous.

Someone may try to dismiss this child’s feelings of nervousness by saying things like:

  • It’s not that scary.
  • You can handle this.
  • Just jump!
Hearing this might change his thinking or make him feel even more uncertain. How might someone acknowledge this child’s feelings instead of disregarding them? It might sound like “You look a little worried about jumping in. Maybe you want to start by dipping your toes in the shallow end.”

Escaping Difficult Emotions

Your kids experience difficult emotions as part of everyday life. They may feel scared, bored, angry, lonely or sad. Do you feel responsible for fixing these feelings and keeping your kids happy?

If so, you may be unintentionally teaching them to run away from their difficult emotions. For example, if they complain about being bored do you try to fix it? Many parents use various electronic devices to help their kids escape feeling bored.

What happens when your children tell you they are feeling anxious about something? How do you respond? Do you figure out a way they can avoid the situation that is causing the anxiety?

Nancy described how upset her daughter, Julia, was because she was required to give a short presentation in front of her class. Julia was in tears. Her stomach hurt and she hadn’t slept well the past couple nights due to dreading this presentation. Nancy contacted the teacher to see if Julia could skip this requirement or perhaps give the presentation just in front of the teacher. The teacher agreed to let Julia give her presentation after school to only the teacher.

What did Julia learn from this experience? Instead of gaining skills for addressing her anxious thoughts, she learned how her mom could help her avoid situations like that. Although Nancy acted out of love for her daughter, the unspoken message was that Julia could not handle this challenge on her own. Julia did not gain confidence from discussing her fears with her teacher. She is more likely to look for ways to opt out of uncomfortable situations in the future.

Staying Present with Difficult Emotions

What else could Nancy have done to help Julia? The first step is for Nancy to realize this is Julia’s problem, not hers. Nancy can provide help by listening to Julia. By holding space for Julia to talk about her concerns, Julia has the chance to clarify and question her own thinking. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean it’s true!

Nancy can show empathy by saying something like “You feel anxious about standing up in front of the class. You’re afraid you’ll forget what to say or stumble. The other kids might laugh.” Acknowledging Julia’s emotions will help her to feel understood.

She can guide her to figuring out her next step by asking a question like “What do you think you are going to do?” She can listen to Julia’s ideas and help her think through how those ideas might work out. If Julia wants other suggestions, she can provide a few more ideas.

She can then show confidence in Julia’s ability to solve the problem. Nancy might ask Julia to let her know how it goes when she gets home from school tomorrow. When Julia acts to resolve her problem, she builds her self-confidence and her own problem-solving skills.

What tools could you share with your children that could help them handle difficult emotions? One tool is to use your breath to breathe through the feelings. You can deepen your breathing by breathing in for a count of five, holding your breath for a count of five, breathing out for a count of five and then pausing for a count of five.

Another tool is tapping meridian points as you talk through the problem. Many people also find meditation helpful in releasing difficult emotions. Your parenting goal is not to prevent difficult feelings. Rather, you want to guide your kids in developing healthy ways to express their emotions. These are skills your children can use the rest of their lives.

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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