5 powerful lessons to teach your child about emotions

 In Building Emotional Intelligence

Many of the parents I work with received harmful or unhelpful messages about emotions when they were growing up. Maybe you did too? Messages like, ‘Expressing emotions is a sign of weakness’, ‘Big boys and girls don’t cry’, or ‘Anger or frustration are ‘bad’ emotions and should be hidden away.’ These messages continue to impact many parents as adults. Causing them to push emotions down and ignore them, to feel guilt and shame about experiencing emotions and needing support, to lash out at others or have trouble expressing emotions in healthy ways, and to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to numb or escape emotions. They also make it really difficult for you to know how to teach your child about emotions in healthy ways.

Now most of the parents I work with recognise that these messages are unhelpful, and they want to avoid sending them to their own children. But because they themselves never received healthy information about feelings – let alone tools to manage them – they just don’t know where to start when it comes to teaching their children about emotions in a way that supports healthy development.

Sound familiar? Then read on, because I’m going to tell you the 5 most important lessons to teach your child about emotions. And, I’ll give you some examples of what those lessons look like in practice, so you can go away and actually teach them!

Lesson 1: ALL emotions are healthy

Of course, seeing our children happy makes us feel good as parents! So it can be tempting to try to shield them from what we consider ‘negative’ emotions like sadness or anger. However, it’s important to remember that all emotions serve a purpose, and suppressing them can actually do more harm than good. When we send a message to children that emotions like anger, frustration or sadness are ‘bad’ or not welcome, we accidentally make our children feel bad for experiencing them. They begin to think that they shouldn’t be feeling angry or disappointed, and then they experience secondary emotions like guilt or shame as well. And this can lead to our children shutting down or not coming to us when they need support. It also doesn’t help them learn how to manage those emotions effectively.

So instead, help your child understand that ALL emotions are healthy and normal. Explain to them that everyone feels sad, or angry, or frustrated from time to time, and this is simply part of being human! In fact, it is normal for us to experience the full range of emotions every single day. To really help this message hit home, you can talk to your child about your own experience of emotions throughout the day in order to normalise ALL feelings. It’s also important you are actively welcoming all of your child’s emotions, not only the ‘positive’ ones, and that you are not unintentionally shutting then down when they express uncomfortable feelings like anger.

How can we teach this lesson?

Next time your child experiences a big emotion, try to avoid comments like, “That’s enough!”, “Stop crying!”, or “Calm down!” which reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with how your child is feeling and that it should be pushed aside in favour of emotions like happiness or calm. And instead, simply label what you see and offer your child comfort or support, “Wow you are feeling really sad right now, do you need a cuddle?”

Lesson 2: Emotions come and go

When we are in the middle of feeling big, uncomfortable emotions, it can feel like they are going to last forever. But in reality, the physiological experience of emotions is relatively short – it lasts just 90 seconds! Now of course, our experience of emotions is not only physiological, but it is still important to remember that feelings are transient and certainly do not last forever! Understanding the temporary nature of emotions can help us to be more willing to experience them. And this willingness to experience them is what actually allows us to process them and move them through our bodies more quickly and effectively. Much of the pain that comes along with difficult emotions comes from our struggle against them and fear that we will get stuck in them – which is, ironically, exactly what does cause us to become stuck.

So it’s important that we teach children that emotions are just like the weather and that they come and go. Help your child understand that their feelings of anger or sadness are temporary and that they will eventually go away. Just because they feel sad right now, doesn’t mean they will feel this way forever, and there is no need to fear ANY feelings.

How can we teach this lesson?

One way to help your child understand this is to use examples from their own life. For example, if your child is upset because they didn’t get a toy they wanted, you could remind them of a time when they were upset about something else but eventually felt better. Once your child is feeling better, you can remind them of this again. “You were feeling really sad before huh? But I see now that you are feeling happy again!”

Lesson 3: Emotions are messengers

Every emotion serves a purpose. Feelings are messengers that tell us something about ourselves, our relationships or our environment. They also invite us to take action if necessary. For example, feeling anxious may be a sign that we need to take action to protect ourselves. Feeling anger is often a sign that someone has crossed an important personal boundary. And feeling happy may be a sign that we’re in a safe environment with safe people.

It’s important that children understand that emotions are happening for a reason and that it is helpful to listen to them and tune into what they are telling us, so that we can work out what to do with them.

How can we teach this lesson?

Help your child understand the messages behind their emotions by encouraging them to ask questions. A fun way to help children understand that emotions have purpose is to talk about them as visitors and to get curious about why an emotion might be visiting. For example, if your child is feeling nervous about an upcoming test, you could ask them why they think nervous is visiting them? What do you think nervous is trying to tell you? This can help them understand their emotions better, identify the root cause of their emotions and take steps to address it.

Lesson 4: Emotions don’t come from nowhere

Once we understand that all emotions serve a purpose, we can accept that they absolutely do not come from nowhere! Something I hear often when working with children and adults, is that they are feeling an emotion for no reason. They will say things like, “I don’t know why I feel like this! It just came out of nowhere!”. But just because we do not yet understand why we are feeling an emotion, does not mean it ‘came from nowhere’. Emotions are a response to something that has happened or is happening in our lives. The triggers may be internal or external, but there are always triggers.

When children believe that emotions come from nowhere or happen for no reason, they become unpredictable and scary. This belief sends a message that there is nothing we can do about emotions and this fear can cause children to push emotions down or try to avoid them in order to feel a sense of control. But over time, this can cause children to become shut off from their experience of emotions and actually prevent them from recognising triggers and cues within their bodies. And it’s incredibly hard to manage big emotions when you can’t notice them coming!

How can we teach this lesson?

Help your child identify the triggers for their emotions by encouraging them to reflect on their day or week. Ask them to describe what happened that made them feel a certain way. Help them to link their emotions to events, to behaviours and even to physical sensations in their bodies. This can help them develop self-awareness and learn to manage their emotions more effectively.

Lesson 5: You can choose how you respond to emotions

Young children often experience big emotions as overwhelming and uncontrollable. And many of us grew up receiving one of two messages about how much control we have over emotions. Either we learned that emotions are beyond our control and something that just happens to us and therefore, something we have no power to change. Or, we learned that we should be able to “control” emotions and should simply ‘choose’ not to feel a certain way. And neither of these perspectives is particularly accurate or helpful for our children.

While it’s true that we can’t necessarily control how we feel (emotions are a physiological reaction in the body that happens beyond our consciousness), we can control how we respond to those feelings – or at least, we can learn to respond differently. And when children understand that they have the power to move emotions through their body, to do things that help them feel better, to get support with big emotions that is actually helpful – that is SO empowering.

How can we teach this lesson?

We can support children to manage their emotions by teaching and modelling healthy coping skills like deep breathing, positive self talk and mindfulness. We can use these strategies ourselves, and encourage our children to practice these skills when they are feeling overwhelmed. However, it is important to keep in mind, that children will need lots and lots of practice with these skills before they can use them independently and this is not really our goal anyway. Our goal during childhood is simply to lay the foundations. To help our children understand that there are lots of things they can do to manage emotions and that we will be there to help them every step of the way!

Teaching your child about emotions is crucial for healthy development. And as parents, it’s our responsibility to help our children navigate this complex world. By providing a safe and supportive environment for them to express themselves and teaching them these essential lessons, we’re setting them up for a lifetime of emotional well-being. So, take the time to teach your child about emotions. Talk to your child about their feelings, and encourage them to express themselves in healthy ways. With your guidance, they CAN learn to understand and manage their big emotions, and grow into emotionally healthy adults with happy, fulfilling lives and relationships.


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