Managing Difficult Emotions with Your Kids

These sure are anxious times, aren’t they? 

Everyone is tired. 

It’s true for all of us, but it’s especially true for single moms. Exhaustion is like our new “little black dress”—it’s become a classic look for moms these days.

We’re basically on lockdown with the kids out of school. Some of you are working remotely, and others still need to report to your essential job post, while still others are not working at all. 

Nothing about this is normal.

In a typical moment of crisis, everyone comes together and is fueled by doing whatever needs to happen next. There’s an adrenaline surge that keeps us temporarily unaware of the fact that we don’t know when or if our normal life will ever be the same.

But the COVID19 crisis hasn’t followed the natural order of things. At all.

It has ushered in so much mess. And loneliness. And overwhelming feelings. 

As a single mom, you probably know what it’s like to create a new normal and grieve the loss of the old normal at the same time. You are resilient and robust, even if you don’t realize it right now. Shepherd’s Village is here to pray with you and encourage you.

Helping Kids Process Difficult Emotions

Your children also need encouragement right now. How can you help your children process difficult emotions during an unprecedented time?

The Underlying Science of Emotions

The movie “Inside Out” takes place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, with five emotions—Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. The emotional characters help Riley navigate her world. While some creative liberties were taken, the film’s fundamental messages about emotion are consistent with scientific research.

There are eight primary in-built emotions: anger, sadness, fear, joy, interest, surprise, disgust, and shame. Secondary emotions are linked to these eight primary emotions and reflect our emotional reaction to specific feelings. These secondary emotions (or responses) are learned from our experiences. 

For example, a child who has been punished because of a meltdown might feel anxious the next time she gets angry. A child who has been ridiculed for expressing fear might feel shame the next time he gets scared.

How we react to our kids’ emotions has an impact on the development of their emotional intelligence. When we teach our kids to identify their feelings, we give them a framework that helps explain how they feel. Once we help them name their feelings, it makes it easier for us to help them appropriately deal with their emotions.

Social researcher Brene Brown says, “Language is a handle. Naming the experience and feeling does not give it power. It gives YOU power.” 

Handling Emotions by Age

Two Ideas for Toddlers

If you’re the mom of a toddler, you know how strong toddler emotions are. Toddlers are starting to understand that certain emotions are associated with certain situations, which means you can help them begin to regulate their emotions. By the time children turn two, they can adopt strategies to deal with difficult emotions, like distancing themselves from things that upset them.

#1: Take Time to Observe Other People’s Emotions

Become an emotions detective with your toddler. Watch people and how they respond. Name the emotions. If you see a cartoon that is laughing, stop, and say, “Oh, look, that mouse looks happy.” Follow up with, “How do you look when you are happy?” 

Everyday opportunities provide occasions to talk to kids about emotions: “He sure looks angry.” “Why do you think he looks so sad?”

#2: Practice Identifying Emotions

Make flashcards with faces and names of matching emotions. Ask your child to identify the feeling based on the face. If you want to make a game out of it, make two sets of the same card and play it like the game Memory. When you get a match, you keep the emotion. As an extra step, you and your child make a face to match the emotion.

Ask questions as you explore emotions. 

“When you look sad, how do you feel inside?” If your child can’t answer, you can share how you feel inside when you feel sad. “Sometimes, when I feel sad, I need to cry. It’s okay to cry when you feel sad, and it’s okay to tell Mommy, too. We need each other.”

Another great question is: “When do you feel sad?” or “What makes you feel sad?” If things turn silly, that’s okay. In the toddler phase, you’re merely showing your child that emotions have names, and you’re a safe person to talk to about their feelings.

A Challenge for Children

Kids experience many emotions during the childhood years, including many secondary emotions—like anger, anxiety, and shame. Children are looking for their feelings to either be validated or invalidated, influencing future emotional reactions.

At this point, emotion regulation moves beyond simply naming and identifying to helping your kids identify what triggers their emotions. 

Different activities can help your child learn to identify what triggers his or her emotionally-driven behaviors. Anything that can help keep track of your child’s behavior, for example, an anger/anxiety diary, is useful to help better understand the response.

Here are some of the things to observe as you help your child develop emotional intelligence.

  • Exactly what happened?
  • How did you feel?
  • Rate your anger on a scale of 1 to 10
  • How did your body feel (a headache, stomach ache, nervous, sweaty palms, heart racing)?
  • What did you do?

Your child cannot learn to effectively manage strong emotions if they do not understand where those emotions started. Teaching him or her to identify triggers is a crucial phase in learning emotional intelligence. From there, you can begin to help your child manage emotions with strategies. 

When we teach kids that their emotions are valid, we help them view what they feel as healthy and manageable. Modeling appropriate behavior is also important during the childhood years. The best way to teach your child to react to anger appropriately is to show them how. 

Two Tips for Teens

The emotion centers of teen brains are developing rapidly in adolescence, while impulse control is less developed. The combination inhibits many teens from the ability to employ proper planning and judgment.

Even without quarantines and unusual circumstances, teen girls face a higher risk of depression, and teen boys are likely to have an increase in risk-taking behavior.

What can you do to help your teen navigate this formative time in life? 

You can help them learn the skills to get through sticky situations and come through as a healthy young adult with few bumps in the road.

#1: Plan Time to Talk

Teens want to talk about what’s going on in their lives, but only with people they trust, who won’t judge or punish them. You can set the stage by letting your teen know that you’re available to listen and be there. Let them know that they’re not going to face punishment if they come and talk to you about the tough stuff. Your message to them should be: I’m here for you, and you can talk to me. 

Right now, it’s critical to build times around when you can have quality conversations with your pre-teen or teen, so they aren’t isolating themselves. Now is the best time to discuss a safety plan for them to know that, when they are free to go out again, you want them to text or call you if they get into any sticky situation—no questions asked. These are the years of peer pressure and experimentation. Maybe establish a code word they can text you if things aren’t going well. 

#2: Provide Grace-Filled Guidance

There is a lot of new territory in the teen years. Romantic relationships begin, either their own or those of their friends. They could face heartbreak, have something hurtful said across social media, or have something else happen that has a more significant impact on them that they may not feel they can share.

Mom, you were given a sixth sense, and the teen years are the time to use it. If you feel like something’s going on with your teen, then go with your gut. Try to remember how hard it is to be a teenager, and don’t discount the influence you still have on their lives. They’ll listen to their friends a lot, but they’ll also listen to you. Take what they say seriously, taking care to not brush aside adolescent moodiness or “young love” as unimportant. Reserve judgment and ensure that punishment doesn’t get in the way of an open and trusting relationship.

8 Ways to Help Your Family Move Forward

Your kids may feel like their worlds are ending right now because their worlds are significantly smaller than ours. Let them feel. Give them permission to feel. Let them see you feel. Navigate your feelings in awkward, brave, and kind ways.

Here are eight things to consider doing right now that will help your family deal better with negative emotions: 

1. Sit down with your family and have regular check-ins right now. 

2. Move your body. You store anxiety and hard things in that body. The more you move it, the better you’ll feel.

3. Eat well. This is not the time to eat like Buddy the Elf. Fuel yourself with healthy foods as much as possible. 

4. Pray and encourage. Now is a great time to start praying together before meals, at bedtime, or at any time things feel hard. Bring words of encouragement and peace.

5. Limit the news. It’s just not helpful for you or your kids.

6. No harsh words and no kind words with harsh faces. If you can work on this, it will improve everyone’s anxiety level in your home.

7. Practice saying you’re sorry, and accept apologies with thank you, or I forgive you. Teach your family not to say, “It’s okay” when someone hurts them. It’s not okay. But it can be forgiven.

8. Laugh. A lot. Pull out all of the mom-jokes, puns and knock-knock jokes right now. Develop “inside jokes” with your kids right now. Laughter is good for the soul. 

We hope you are well and taking care of yourself right now. Find ways to connect with people you love. Don’t forget to focus and breathe. We’re here for you.

One Final Thought

If you are a healthcare worker, social worker, counselor, first responder, store employee, food delivery person, or anyone out there on the frontlines: Thank you. You are our heroes. We owe you so much. If you are someone who loves a frontline person: Thank you. We also owe you so much.