On any given day, a visit to a local playground will uncover a wide range of children’s emotions. When expressed properly, these emotions foster growth, maturity and happiness in children.
How do children learn to understand their emotions? And what can parents do when a child explodes in anger or hides in sadness?
In her book “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents,” sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., explains how emotions shape everything children do and learn.
Carter cites research that shows children who understand their feelings and learn about emotions form stronger friendships with other children, calm themselves more quickly when they get upset, do better in school and get sick less often.
Erin Frazier, M.D., pediatrician, Norton Children’s Hospital Medical Group – Broadway and medical director for the Children’s Hospital Foundation Prevention & Wellness of Norton Children’s Hospital, says most of that starts with the parents.
“Every child is different and parents need to know how to react, how to handle it or what’s appropriate for a child,” said Dr. Frazier, a mother of three.
Carter and Dr. Frazier offer steps to “emotion coaching” — the key to raising happy, resilient and well-adjusted kids. Parents spend lots of time teaching children important things such as reading, brushing teeth and tying shoes. Taking time to help children learn to understand their feelings is important too. Here’s how it works:
Parents are the most important role model
Parents like to tell their children that they have eyes everywhere, yet children are the best observers of their parents.
“My No. 1 advice to parents is to role model everything,” Dr. Frazier said. “If you don’t want your child to hit, then you shouldn’t do that. If you want your child to use manners, you should use manners. If you want your child to listen to you, you need to listen to them.”
Dr. Frazier adds that parents need to role model good reactions. If a parent is losing their temper, they should tell their children what the emotion is and what they are going to do about it.
“Parents should say ‘I am getting upset. I am going to take a few breaths and then we can discuss this in a minute.’ Then the child learns what they should do in the same situation,” Dr. Frazier said.
Family meals are an important part of a happy family. Studies show that kids who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are more emotionally stable, less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and less likely to develop an eating disorder.
According to Carter, among all singular efforts by parents, family meals “offer a concentrated dose of nurture and nourishment, two of the greatest and most fundamental human needs.”
For the family meal to work, who is sitting at the table matters more than what’s being served or where it’s being served.
“It doesn’t just have to be dinner,” Dr. Frazier said. “Have a meal, put the phones away and talk about your day. That’s how you make a great connection.
Too often, parents want to do whatever they can to prevent their children from feeling discomfort and disappointment.
According to Carter, one of the most important skills children need to learn is to be resilient in the face of difficulty so they can find a way to “get back to their happy place when things inevitably go wrong.”
Life inevitably involves pain, disappointment, failure and loss. As much as we would like to protect our children from these things, we cannot. We can, however, teach them to cope with difficult and painful emotions.