Helping Children Deal with Negative Emotions
Negative emotions can simply be described as any feeling that causes one to feel miserable and sad. Anxiety, depression, anger, jealousy and loneliness are often experienced, and each may lead to self-dislike and loss of self-confidence. The sources for such emotions may stem from low self-esteem or insecurity, self-consciousness, embarrassment, or shame, and peer pressure, bullying, victimization, conflict or domestic abuse in the home and fear or uncertainty about the future may also play a part.
Parents can help children deal with their emotions by both respecting the child’s feelings and by paying attention to the way one communicates when listening and responding. Respect for the child’s feelings includes not minimizing, denying or questioning the feelings. Help children learn words to express themselves and understand self-regulation while also keeping your own emotions regulated. Communication is critical, as the two most frequent complaints children have about their parents are that they yell and don’t listen.
“Active listening” techniques can be demonstrated by commenting on what has been said or showing that you understand your child’s feelings. Always verify or clarify your understanding and identify the feeling expressed, but do not restate or interpret what was said.
How you talk to your child is just as important because your responses can easily be misinterpreted. You may be seen as moralizing, criticizing, commanding, questioning or being a know-it-all giving unwanted advice. If your response is interpreted this way, your child can feel incapable, incompetent, inadequate or inferior. They may feel they are blamed, not trusted or that their feelings aren’t justified. You want to show you are interested without interrogating them.
Calming techniques are great for both anger and anxiety. Some of these techniques include taking deep breaths, counting backwards or withdrawing from situation temporarily. Thinking of a peaceful place, like the beach or nature, can also be helpful. Another way to relax is by tensing and relaxing each muscle in turn from head to toe.
For anxiety, the goal is not to eliminate anxiety, but to help the child manage it. Encourage the child to tolerate anxiety. Think things through with the child to explore what could happen and express positive, but realistic, expectations.
For depression, understand that the child cannot simply “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” Try to explore and empathize with the child and try to ignite interest and motivation for something. You can also introduce humor, like watching comedies together or telling jokes, as long as the humor isn’t at their expense.
For anger, it is usually a response to feeling hurt in some way, so try to find the source of that pain. When dealing with jealousy, focus on the positives in the child’s life as well as future possibilities. In some cases, you may be able to minimize what’s envied. If your child feels lonely, it is important to express love and emphasize the value of family. Look for groups or activities that are shared with others to help your child form friendships, but do not pressure them.
While learning how to communicate compassionately does take practice, it always leads to a more positive relationship.
Rhoda Ondov, MS, MFT, is a certified professional coach with a background in marriage and family therapy and advanced training in couples counseling. She has been helping couples and families to repair and strengthen their relationships for over a decade. See ad. page 18.