“Parents have the potential to contribute to children’s resilience against risk for depression by socializing adaptive and flexible skills for managing emotion.”
– Silk et al. (2007, p. 846)
We all know of those families: the ones where emotions are treated as taboo. Perhaps you were even raised in one of them. Big boys and girls don’t cry, feelings are something silly and unimportant, and it’s a grave sin to “wear your emotions on your sleeve.” When something troubling happens, you should bottle it up and push those feelings deep down inside.
Such environments are extremely harmful to children. In fact, the long-term consequences of such emotional suppression can be just as destructive as outright child abuse. Children who are taught to deny or suppress their emotions do not learn how to effectively manage emotional states. They also grow up feeling as though they are somehow flawed, bad, or incapable of handling life when they experience certain negative feelings, since they’ve always been taught that competency is determined by one’s ability to suppress emotional states.
Resiliency in children is all about learning how to effectively manage emotions. And so a vital part of resiliency is teaching children concepts of emotional intelligence. Here are some important yet simple tips for raising emotionally competent children:
- Don’t train children to repress their emotions. Emotions are a basic human attribute, deeply interwoven into a child’s psychology. Kids mature and learn appropriate ways of dealing with emotions by having their feelings acknowledged while being given guidance in how to manage them. Emotional maturity doesn’t come by being told these feelings are stupid and should not exist. If they need to contain themselves for appropriate social circumstances, a simple “now is not the time, you need to try and get yourself under control and we’ll talk later” will suffice. But don’t repress their emotional expression.
- Try not to refer to a child’s feelings as babyish or say things like, “you need to act like a big girl” when they are distressed. These statements promote emotional repression by teaching them that feelings are a babyish thing that they should be ashamed of.
- When children are upset, have them verbalize their feelings and talk it out. This simple task gets kids in the habit of analyzing their emotions and really thinking about what has them so upset. When kids better understand their emotions, they are better equipped to deal with them. And since a basic step in therapy is to analyze our negative states and work through them, this trains kids in self-coping skills.
- Use statements that mirror what you think the child is feeling: “I can see that you’re upset; it looks to me like you’re excited about this,” etc. Using such statements can foster empathy in children and train them to be more aware of what others are feeling.
- In everyday life, make a distinction between what we feel and what might actually be the case. Rather than saying, “I am angry,” teach children to say “I .feel angry” and then explain what is feeding those feelings. By placing an emphasis on this distinction, it sends the message that emotional states are not necessarily true and accurate for the situation; they are flawed responses that may not reflect reality and can be changed at any time.