Why it’s so important to learn how to manage our emotions

Melissa Cowan looks at ways to manage your emotions when you are stressed.

When Katie* was driving her four-year-old daughter to daycare, her daughter got teary out of the blue. She said it was unfair her friend got to do swimming classes while she did not. “My instinct was to jump in and point out all the things she does get to do,” says Katie. Instead, she tried ‘active listening’. “As she told me how she felt, I listened, repeating back to her what she’d told me without adding any of my own thoughts or opinions.” Eventually, her daughter was able to articulate that she was feeling left out in her group of friends.

When her kids show signs of distress like crying, or becoming withdrawn when they’re usually engaged, or acting out in a way that’s unusual for them, she asks them how they’re feeling. “If they’re acting strangely but they can’t articulate what’s wrong, I step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Perhaps something has changed in their life that’s unsettled them and they need help dealing with that.”

Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T), a model by Dr Thomas Gordon, has been helpful in teaching Katie to deal with conflicts with her children, or with their own distress. P.E.T encourages parents to ask their child questions and actively listen to what they say without jumping in to ‘save’ them. The hope is that through doing this, she’s teaching her kids to problem solve for themselves. At other times, they need Mum to offer solutions they haven’t thought of. “We also talk about how emotions are visitors, no matter whether they’re good or bad, they’re going to pass.”

It Starts With You

Why is it so important for children to learn to balance their emotions? “Emotions are the core of living a meaningful life,” says Dr Dan Siegel, neuropsychiatrist and author of The Whole-Brain Child. “They give vitality to life, and without them balanced, our life can be both dull and stormy,” he says.

Learning how to manage our emotions starts at an early age, but how can we help our children do this? Offer your child practical strategies (see tips below) to help them ‘stay present’ with an uncomfortable feeling and then calm that emotion, says Dan.

Learning Young

From age three, children become more independent and are ready to make closer friendships, says Dr Jodie Lowinger, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Sydney Adult and Child Anxiety Clinic. It’s crucial they’re able to monitor and regulate their own feelings for these interactions to be effective, she says. “If a child recognises they’re feeling sad, they can learn and apply self-soothing strategies and more readily reengage in their experiences.” A child who can self-soothe grows up to be more emotionally resilient and is able to manage challenges more effectively. They’re also better prepared for school because they’re more open to learn new things, she says. “Research shows children’s academic success is largely due to a child’s awareness and understanding of emotional cues,” says Jodie.

Emotional Labels

Emotional intelligence – the capacity to be aware of, manage, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships empathetically – is learned as children move into adolescence and then adulthood. This guides them in problem solving, emotional expression and in remaining calm in stressful circumstances, says Jodie. “It is strongly associated with increased life satisfaction and lower rates of mental illness,” she says. Parents can begin to help by using emotional labels when talking about their own experiences. “A parent might say ‘I’m feeling frustrated, so I’d better stop and calm down for a minute while I figure out what I need to do.’” There are also a number of practical techniques you can give to your child to use.

*Name has been changed

The Techniques

Dr Dan Siegel, neuropsychiatrist and author of The Whole-Brain Child recommends:

Name It to Tame It

Putting words to feelings helps calm the emotion. This is the first important stage of simply being aware and not becoming lost in a feeling. One of the best ways to facilitate this is to help your child retell the story of the frightening or painful experience. You can gently encourage them by beginning the story and asking them to fill in the details (“And what happened next?”), and if they’re not interested, giving them space and talking later. When your child learns to pay attention to and share their own stories, they can respond in healthy ways to everything from a scraped elbow to a major loss or trauma.

SIFT Through Mind

Your child can be invited to become aware of their inner sensations as they SIFT their minds – focusing attention on Sensations of the body, Images, Feelings and Thoughts. Take time to ask your child how they feel, and help them be specific, so they can go from vague emotional descriptors like “fine” and “bad” to more precise ones, like “disappointed”, “anxious”, “jealous” and “excited”.

Dr Jodie Lowinger, Principal Clinical Psychologist at Sydney Adult and Child Anxiety Clinic recommends:

Body Awareness

You can help your child become familiar with the bodily signs that provide clues to the onset of emotions. Present an outline of a cartoon person and encourage your child to colour in the body parts where they feel the emotion. For example, signs for anxiety might be a ‘funny’ feeling in the tummy, shortness of breath, chest tightness or a racing heart beat. Parents can help their child to recognise that these bodily sensations are not only harmless, but are actually helpful, as they are our body’s way of giving us clues to our emotions. Your child can be encouraged to be detectives to identify these clues.

Feelings Thermometer

It can help for your child to learn that emotions do not have to be an ‘all or nothing’ reaction; that situations can result in emotional reactions to varying degrees. A useful technique for teaching this concept to children is to use a feelings thermometer. Present your child with an image of a thermometer with numbers down the side from one to 10, where each number corresponds with a different level of emotional intensity (e.g. 1 – no worry, 2 – a little bit of worry, etc.).