Why we must not be scared to talk about our children's emotions
This week is children’s mental health week - and its a timely reminder of a subject never far from the minds of most parents. In fact its probably one of the most common concerns parents share with me: how to deal with their children’s sometimes powerful emotions.
It's natural that as parents we feel anxious about our children’s mental health. Gone are the days when we can depend on that most simple of hopes for our children: that they will grow up happy. Statistics scream out at us from every newspaper: nearly 2/3 of 10-11 year olds say they worry ‘almost all the time’; dramatic rises in the numbers of children struggling with anxiety; concerns about body image worries in girls as young as 5. We wrestle every day not just with their emotions but with our own anxiety, and the horror of indecision over how we should react and what we should do. Should we talk about some of these topics with our children? Or might it actually make things worse? So how do we react as parents raising children in this 21st century so full of uncertainty where emotional health is concerned? Here are 3 simple rules to follow:
Rule 1: Talk
It's a funny thing, but our most immediate parental instinct when one of our children is experiencing a powerful emotion can be the most unhelpful. “Don’t cry,” we say, encouragingly, when they fall over. “Be brave!” Even these everyday emotional outbursts can test our patience and the temptation is always there to see if we can get away without drawing attention to them. I know I’ve been known to try desperate parental distraction techniques in an attempt to avoid an embarrassing child outburst, yelling ‘BUT LOOK AT THAT BIRD OVER THERE!’ with faux excitement in the hope they might forget the dropped lolly, or stubbed toe. And the thing is - we need to relax sometimes. I’m not saying that every single tear needs to turn into a minor therapeutic session with your child. But there are some circumstances when it can be useful - even important, to talk about emotions with your children.
Think about it like this: your kids are not born with a handbook for their brains. When they are born they have only the simplest brains - without the complexity they will develop over their early years. Many things need to be learned: how to coordinate movement, how to start making sounds (other than screaming - that’s a pretty basic instinct for babies!) - even how to recognise the significant people in their life. Emotions are another thing they need to learn - and are particularly complex things. From birth babies are starting to learn about them: from the vague feelings of discomfort that trigger crying to the gradual development of other early emotional landmarks like that first smile. Move on to toddlerhood and suddenly things are a lot more volatile! As their social brains develop and their emotions become more complex, toddlers can become overwhelmed with emotions which seem to come from nowhere and which they often have no idea whatsoever how to handle or communicate. Every child is different - my first child sailed through toddler hood with only a couple of roughish moments in unwise supermarket trips in the always dodgy pre dinner-and-bedtime hour. My second however, I think may have read some books on toddler tantrums. He approached them like an olympic sport, going through the various aspects of them with amazing accuracy and skill: we did throwing things, shouting, lying on the floor and screaming, the thankfully brief ‘planking’ stage (try putting a child into a car seat when they have gone rigid as a board: my pilates teacher would have been so impressed with his core strength), productions of gallons of snot and once or twice even on demand produced vomit (argh!).
The thing is that although it might have felt like it sometimes, my son was not doing this because of some deep seated hatred of me, or a desire to mess up my day when I most needed him to be civilised. He just couldn’t handle what he was experiencing, and he couldn’t communicate it either, and the two things were a volatile mixture which, although much rarer now (he’s nearly 5) still occasionally produce spectacular results. It was my job as his Mum, apart from trying to keep my cool when he lost his (easier said than done), to try to help him learn and grow and understand better what was going on. So, I intentionally spent time with him - not in the midst of a tantrum as nothing could have got through to him then - but in calmer moments, talking about emotions, thinking about what it felt like in those moments, about how he felt. He learned to use words, to try to avoid frustration by asking for things in a way I understood, but also to express his feelings (one brief breakthrough when he learned to say ‘I am feeling FRUSTRATED’ backfired when I asked him why and without fail he would pause, think, and then say ‘I am frustrated WITH YOU!’). It was the early stages of helping him understand emotions, and realising that words can help.
As children get older their emotions often become more complex: and so do our own reactions. One of the unhelpful things about anxiety is that it tends to instinctively make us want to avoid whatever has triggered it, and when this is your own child saying something or acting a certain way that can be really hard. Its an understandable instinct to react to children’s expressions - of anxieties or worries in particular - by trying to diminish them: ‘don’t be silly, there aren’t monsters, they aren’t real!’ or ‘No, Grandpa won’t die, he’s just a bit poorly!’ We want to extinguish their fears by avoiding them, by brushing them aside, and we worry that anything else might encourage or grown them. But in fact here too we need to recognise our role in helping children manage another complex emotion. Again its often about finding a time to chat about things - a time when things aren’t acutely scary (the moment a feared thing has appeared isn’t really the time to have a nice calm chat about it, as happened to us during Sunday lunch this week when right in the middle of it a large spider descended directly in front of my son’s nose from the ceiling as he was eating!). Again, we can talk about what anxiety is, what it feels like, how it can feel all horrid, but how it often gets things wrong. I use with adults the analogy of a smoke alarm to talk about anxiety and it works well with many children too: just as the smoke alarm’s job is to warn us that there might be a fire, so anxiety sparks up when our brains are warning us something might happen. But just like the smoke alarm, sometimes it goes off un-necessarily, when we’re just making toast…
Remember in these discussions, your job is not to suddenly become an amateur psychologist. Instead it is to help them understand better what these weird emotion things are: why does seeing next doors big barky dog make them feel that horrid squirmy feeling in their stomach? Will running away and hiding help? How do you really make it go away? Help them to name emotions - and to start to feel empowered about how to manage them. Look up some good books and read them together, talk about characters in films or programs they are watching and how those characters might be feeling. The more you have help them understand emotions, and develop a vocabulary for talking about them, the less mysterious - and indeed scary - they will seem, and the more you will give them the building blocks for starting to put together strategies to manage their emotions in the moments they are difficult or strong.
Rule 2: Relax
No - not you (although that’s always a good thing to do!) - them! I know what you’re thinking: I am not sure my child needs lessons in chilling out! But actually research and feedback from all kinds of different sources is telling us that even young children are struggling with stress. Not the kind of stress we think about where they are ‘stressed out’ - but physiological stress caused by the continuous bombardment they experience of stimulation: noise, devices, distractions. 21st century children often need to develop a skill many of us would have acquired naturally - genuine rest and relaxation in their play and down time.
All this comes down to what stress really is. We talk about it as though it was an emotional thing: something we could in theory control if we responded to life better. But actually to your brain ‘stress’ is anything which requires it to make a response. So it could be adjusting to a hot room, or needing to focus attention on something, or needing to coordinate that very specific leap from one sofa arm across the coffee table to the next … (that’s my son again…!). Stress is a great thing, helping us feel alive, excited, focused - but we also need quieter times because we are not designed to operate in continuous high stress. Even children who seem to be continuously switched to ‘overdrive’ need to find quieter times and learn routines which help their bodies and brains switch off. Stress operates on the same physiological system as anxiety, using many of the same hormones and markers - which means that if your baseline stress level is high, you are much more prone to little things triggering what feels like big anxiety. Think of it on a 0-10 scale - if you are already at 7, a ‘two point trigger’ pushes you to 9 - real crisis, lying on the floor screaming level (your child, not you!). Had you been at 0 or 1 you’d probably have managed that two point trigger a whole lot better. We can help our kids manage their emotions better by helping them learn to keep their stress levels down.
So what does this mean in practice? Again, there’s variation in children’s natural abilities and personalities. Some children find it quite easy to relax, and enjoy the kind of things which work really well: think calm activities involving focus - but not too much focus: colouring, playing quietly, building or making things. Others find anything which involves staying still for more than 3 minutes a challenge. With those children it can feel impossible to try to calm them down: but there are things you can do to help. Try to alternate energetic play with calm challenges, think of fun ways of doing things like balancing coins on their heads and seeing how long they can stay still. Exercise will help them burn off some of that energy and the hormones released as a result will then make it a bit easier for them to relax more effectively afterwards. Be realistic and aim low: ten minutes of calm focused activity may well be all some of them can manage at first. And use routines: these should be your bread and butter, particularly at bed time. As soon as you possibly can, get a good clear bedtime routine in and stick to it whenever you can. Particularly for the kids who struggle to switch off, those bedtime cues are vital, helping their brain prepare for sleep. So start an hour before lights out, and be consistent whatever you choose to involve: bath, stories, milk, bed etc. Adapt it as they grow: we enjoyed a phase where my daughter would read to us for some of the time, or we’d alternate pages and work through books we both enjoyed: Harry Potter, many an Enid Blyton, though I did draw the line at the popular range of fairy books she loved. But we always kept to that routine - and she still does now, although she reads to herself these days!
As the need for support for some children with relaxation grows, many more resources are popping up that can help them. Locally to us a new course recently offered 6 weeks of classes in mindful meditation for children aged 6-10. All spaces filled within one frantic day. If you know you have a child who struggles with relaxation then think about investigating something like this and look into what is available in your area. But do always check out the credentials of any teachers and ensure they are skilled and trained in working with children and the approach they are offering.
Rule 3: Ask for help
So, this comes to the third and possible most important rule. On the whole parents who come to me to ask for help with their children’s emotions have been worrying about them for a long time. It is something they have wrestled with, downplayed in their own mind, cried over, then felt stupid for worrying about, lain awake thinking about and spent many fevered hours on the internet reading up on. So the last rule is a simple one: don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Let me reassure you: the vast vast majority of children I have been approached about have turned out to be fine. In fact it is amazing how extreme some entirely normal childhood behaviour can be where emotions are concerned - that is where things are going on that they will work through - grow out of, to use a more commonly spoken phrase - and which will not trouble them long term. Particularly where anxiety is concerned it is within the normal range of childhood experiences to go through phases where anxiety can produce some potentially alarming behaviour. But several of these children have caused considerable hours of worry, additional wrinkles and the onset of grey hairs for their parents. Parenting is hard! In my own case I was so glad that I was a psychologist when managing my own son’s tantrums because although it didn’t feel like it, I knew I was doing the right stuff, and that he was basically ok - just causing rather a lot of angst to us trying to raise him in a culture which didn’t even have a word in their language for ‘tantrum’ (it’s true, they don’t. Apparently French children just don’t have them). But I was so lucky to have some GREAT friends who listened, produced tissues when needed (for me or the afore mentioned bodily fluids he was producing!), offered advice and reassured me I was doing a great job. And I had expertise I could call on to help me manage his emotions as well as possible and help him navigate his way through a challenging phase.
Never be afraid to ask for help. So many parents feel it is an admission of some kind of failure, are scared of someone over-reacting (‘he does WHAT?!’), or perhaps of their worst fears being recognised (‘What if they DO think there is a problem?’). But think about it: if there was something going on that they needed some additional help with: someone with some additional expertise to support them: wouldn’t you prefer they got that help sooner rather than later? Perhaps you getting some support might even avoid things getting to that stage. Or help you manage things better so they were less frightening or bewildering for them. The best parents are the ones who do ask for help and recognise that they cannot do this on their own. Parenting was never supposed to be a lone wolf project. Heard the phrase ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Well, it’s true. But many parents are trying to do it on their own. Find places you can connect with other mums or Dads, work out who runs groups and clubs so knows where to get further advice, figure out who is the best GP in your practice for talking to about the stuff a bit more complex than the ear infections and croup. Be careful of informal sources of apparent ‘expertise’ - remember online forums automatically tend to be made up of the groups of people who have struggled more - with more extreme difficulties or with finding good treatment. As a result, stories shared there are often worst case scenarios and not the norm. So get off your phone, and instead find some reliable sources of advice, and use them.
Emotions: they all have 'em!
The single most important message we need to recognise with our children’s emotions is this: they all have them! It is SO easy to slip into the trap of thinking that ideally we wouldn’t have any of the tricky emotions at all: no nasty fear or anxiety or sadness or frustration. But all those emotions are vital: and they are all part of the amazing brain and body God designed. You wouldn’t want a child without any anxiety: hopefully some of that is what stops them from throwing themselves off the top of the climbing frame with no thought for what might happen next (note: this awareness of the potential for harm or serious injury takes a surprisingly long time to develop in some children!). So here are some truths about your kids: they will experience all the emotional colour of life: highs, lows, scary moments, sadness and red hot anger. But it need not throw them off course. It need not define them and it need not break them. In our anxious times we need to remember that some emotions are normal, and we should not aim to keep our children from all of them because they need to learn how to manage them. We must recognise our role in helping them achieve this, and we must build our confidence that we are up to the challenge.