Navigating Emotions: A Guide for Parents

Emotions, as defined by the Miriam Webster dictionary, are “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as a strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body; a state of feeling; the affective aspect of consciousness; feeling.” While this definition may seem straightforward, the understanding of emotions, considering all the factors involved, remains an ongoing discussion in the field of psychology. As parents, we strive to assist our children in comprehending this aspect of themselves. So, what is most beneficial for children to be aware of when it comes to their emotions?

The internal experience of emotions – how they manifest physically in our bodies – is deeply personal. Helping children articulate their internal sensations and connect them to emotional labels can assist them in developing emotional language. Starting with basic feeling words such as mad, sad, and glad, and gradually introducing more nuanced terms like frustrated, hopeless, and optimistic, expands their vocabulary. Additionally, helping children recognize that individuals often feel several different feelings at the same time and encouraging them to name each emotion can be helpful. It is also important for our children to witness us embracing both comfortable and uncomfortable emotions, processing them transparently, and welcoming them into our shared spaces.

Understanding that emotions can ebb and flow is important for children. This understanding is especially poignant because, with limited life experience, many exposures are new or nearly new, evoking strong emotional responses. Adults have more context to relate to. Add hormones to the mix and you might as well call it a rip tide. Teens are known for being emotional shape shifters. No wonder it only takes a brief pause to impede a potential act of self-harm. If we are honest, most of us made some pretty ridiculous decisions in our youth and likely it was related to strong emotional reactions we were having at the time.

A challenge when addressing emotions is that we tend to censor our thoughts and feelings, often unaware of our internal script. Out of self-protection, we may fixate on uncomfortable emotions due to a sense of threat, or we might suppress them. This takes a significant amount of energy, and it is the emotions to which we give strong attention that affect us most profoundly. Like a wagon forming ruts in a muddy field, the more we revisit them, the stronger the connections our brain makes, making it easier to move into dark spaces.

What practical steps can we take to empower our children regarding their emotions? Here are a few activities designed to do just that:

1. Put up an emotion chart and check in a few times throughout the day. Notice how quickly the emotions shift together. Keep track.

2. Be curious. If you could sit down and have tea with the emotion, what would it tell you? What do you need?

3. Use visualization. A popular illustration from Dr. Dan Seigel involves envisioning emotions as clouds. Practice noticing them and letting them drift by. Another illustration commonly used involves sea waves. They roll in, hit your toes, drift out, and are replaced by new ones.

4. Do the opposite of what a feeling is telling you to do and notice what happens. For example, if you are feeling depressed and want to head back to bed, put on a cozy outfit, grab a refreshing drink, smile, and head out for a walk in the sunshine. This isn’t meant to ignore that emotion, but simply to help you recognize that it does not have ultimate power over your choices.

Why not experiment with some of these techniques? Choose something from the list to try this week and see what you learn. Share your experiences with your children – communication is key! With these tools, everyone in your family can learn how to better express their feelings, recognize that feelings change sooner than imagined, and that there is power to accept, learn from, and respond to their feelings in the ways that serve them best. Enjoy riding the waves together!