Teaching our kids emotional language is essential.
Supporting them in the acceptance and exploration of ALL emotions, inclusive of those feelings that don’t feel great is extremely important to their development; it will provide them with crucial life long mental wellbeing tools. While as parents we are somewhat primed to mend that tantrum or flood of tears with a temporary fix, doing only this enhances the risk that they will not be able to identify, explore and express how they are feeling independently, without us to navigate that world for them.
8 people a day die by suicide in Australia. 6 of those are men; men who are still told it is not manly to talk, it is not masculine to share or seek support for their mental distress. I wonder, out of those 6, how many were taught that it is ok to feel, explore and express their emotions… For those who want a nicer rationale, this image below from Kids Help Line is a great one.
Our babies are born with a unique toolkit to communicate their emotions. They cry, they smile, they giggle, they frown. Somehow, as they grow, we (as a community) often fail to help them replace those basic communication methods with a language to match.
Our children then become teenagers grappling to manage their emotions, let alone describe them. Our teens don’t become adults and suddenly evolve into a human with a customised boxed set of emotional intelligence skills. We need to teach it. Of course it is easiest to learn and teach as a baby grows, but you are never actually too old to learn this skill.
I like to refer to this communication set as Emotional Language, but you could hear it referred to as Emotional Intelligence or Emotional Agility. I can hear you saying, ok, if this is a learned skill and I don’t have it, how am I supposed to teach my kids? Great point. That is why the rest of this post is about sharing some tips and resources I have found useful in guiding our boys to develop their own Emotional Languages and for us, as their parents, to continue to develop ours.
Start early. When that toddler cries, ask how that feels inside them. Physically, you might help them point to the part of the body where they can identify the upset? You might assist them to identify the source of their emotion and then talk about how it makes them feel. Help them find the right words, if they cannot.
“Oh, so you feel mad that the dog ate the cat’s food and that is why you are frowning? Point to your forehead.
“You feel sad now that your brother has gone to school and that is why you are crying?” Point to the tears.
Ok. Language part. Tick. What now? Well, certainly comfort them or reinforce boundaries with them, but try to make the focus talking with them. Don’t rush or hush their emotions away. Teach them acceptance of their all their emotions; especially the anger, the fear, the loneliness. Teach them emotions are transient and not to be feared. If there emotions are triggering negative behaviours, apply this learning to the behaviour, not the emotion. Eg: “I can see that you are frowning. I can see that you are crying. I can see that your fists are clenched. I can see that you must feel very angry. It is perfectly normal to feel angry. Everyone feels angry sometimes. It is not ok to hurt people when we are angry though. Let’s talk about other ways you might feel better when you feel this again.”
Help to brainstorm strategies for emotions that are distressing. Could a run on the spot help? What about screaming or punching into a pillow? What about loud music and our favourite dance? Deep breathing or meditation might bring some calm? Encourage them to try the strategies. Perhaps even practice with them.
So, there you are; Teaching Emotional Language. Simple isn’t it? Oh, hang on. Then…
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
And as you repeat over the years, adapt your emotional language to your child’s age and developmental level.
You want this Emotional Language Toolkit to form the basis of all your communications. It doesn’t need to shine bright like a diamond, but it does need to be practiced and nurtured along the years. A child, a teen, an adult who then experiences mental distress and potentially a full and chaotic brain, will be able to reach this language with more ease, communicate it to seek the support they need and require. May it prove to be as positive in your family life, as it has in ours.
Other great resources for developing Emotional Language.
Tuning Into Kids -my favourite emotion research and practical strategies go to. Great parent groups that are run by Tuning Into Kids, but also many other organisations now.