From childhood to adulthood, we all have to deal with our emotions; they will never leave us, they are just part of us. But what are emotions?

The term ‘emotion’ is used by psychologists to refer to feelings that are expressed when important things happen to us. Emotions can affect our behaviour, in the way we act and conduct ourselves, especially towards others. It can also have an influence on decision-making, what and how much you spend money on, or eating habits, which are common coping mechanisms to deal with negative emotions. We can experience positive or negative emotions depending on the nature of the stimuli and our prior experience to it.

In 1972, Professor of psychology Dr Paul Ekman proposed a set of six basic emotions experienced and recognised universally; surprise, anger, sadness, disgust, fear and joy. In later years, he expanded this list to include a number of other basic emotions, including guilt, embarrassment, excitement, shame, pride, satisfaction, amusement and relief.

Why emotions are so important for children?

At any stage of life emotions are important, but for children, understanding what these emotions mean and how to cope with them is a challenge in itself.

Emotional development is an important aspect of children’s overall development but can be somewhat overlooked other milestones such as walking, talking and learning certain tasks.

Sadness, anger, joy and fear are the emotions which present themselves first and can be seen in babies. These emotions are generally expressed as physical
reactions to their surroundings. As children get older, their awareness of themselves opens them up to new emotions like shyness, shame and surprise.

The importance of experiencing emotions is immense; it is the first insight into self-awareness, rationale and reasoning that children experience. How these emotions are managed is key to ensuring a child’s overall emotional wellbeing and emotional maturity as they get older.

Children must experience emotions to rationalise how they can deal with certain situations, make decisions and react appropriately. Their experience of emotions at
younger ages can also influence their actions when they get older; they may do what they can to either avoid or pursue a certain emotion.

Managing emotions in children

According to Eliane Whitehouse & Warwick Pudney in their book, “A Volcano In My Tummy”, there are a number of ways that parents can help their children manage and deal with their emotions.

•• Help your child self-regulate – This applies mostly to young children. It is extremely important for an adult to help the child regulate their emotions during moments of anger. Parents should acknowledge their child’s feelings but at the same time be calm and firm in setting limits to the ways emotions can be expressed, and coach coping mechanisms to enable the child to deal with frustrations. Helping your child recognise and understand emotions is key. If a child is a little older, ask him to think about if there is a real need to be angry. Invite the child to self evaluate their own problems and find solutions, directing them if necessary. Ask, “Is this a big, little, or no problem?” and, “How can we resolve this?” Coach instead of control.

•• Prevent negative emotions from happening – Identify triggers and avoid them. For example, organising yourself so you avoid a hungry and overtired child before going out shopping might be a good way to prevent the flourish of negative emotions. Do not put unrealistic expectations on children to avoid frustrations. Look for age appropriate activities with developmental capabilities that the child is good at performing. Don’t compare one child to another, remember every child is different!

•• Increase your child’s self-esteem – Apply 5:1 rules. We need five praises or acknowledgments before we make one criticism, and this criticism is towards the behaviour, not the child. Good self-esteem means less need for negative emotions.

•• Build a wide emotional vocabulary – Help children identify and communicate different types of feelings. This in turn helps them manage emotions in a more productive way, and instead of acting out or being withdrawn, they can talk about their emotions. Drawing might be a way of emotional communication especially for young children that don’t have many skills to express their emotions in words.

•• Role Model – Children learn from what adults do, not from what they say! Regulating our emotions as parents using healthy coping mechanisms is essential to teach children how to best manage their own emotions. Use the anger rules model proposed in “A Volcano In My Tummy” which says “don’t hurt others, don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt property.”

•• Connect with your child – Be in tune to what’s happening with your child. Observe body language and behaviour, listen to what they have to say and be with them. “Children don’t need more things. The best toys a child can have is a parent who gets down on the floor and plays with them” according to Dr. Bruce Perry. By connecting with your child, you are building successful parent-child relationship, which is directly linked to development of emotional competency.

•• Shifting negative emotions – Even anger can be useful as a powerful motivator. Use your negative emotions to bring a positive outcome. Shifting towards a healthy activity such as doing exercise is a good strategy.

Marcus Aurelious once said: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”

You can’t always prevent an emotion from happening or stop a thought coming into your mind but you can learn to control your behaviour, and use different strategies to shift negative emotions into positive outcomes. In this way, you strengthen positive paths and connections in your brain.