Parents want their kids to be happy and successful in life. But to raise kids who become well-rounded, emotionally healthy adults, it's important to let them experience life's emotions – both the good and the bad.
Occasional disappointment, anger and sadness are normal, and kids need to learn ways to recognize and cope with those feelings when they happen.
"As caregivers, it's important to build an open and accepting environment – one that teaches and talks about human emotions," says Jennifer J. Hoover, Psy.D., Pediatric Psychologist at Children's Health℠. "This way, kids learn to handle difficult emotions in healthy ways as opposed to unhealthy ways."
Why is it important to teach kids about their emotions and feelings?
Talking openly about feelings helps kids learn that their emotional health is just as important as their physical health.
When parents stress happiness as the only acceptable emotion for their kids, it may unintentionally send the wrong message. If feelings aren't talked about or coped with, it "may result in negative behaviors, social withdrawal and even physical problems," Dr. Hoover says.
Of course, dealing with feelings such as jealousy, anger, sadness can be difficult. But when you build a home environment where emotions are discussed often, kids feel safe turning to their parents when they need help coping with their feelings.
What is the right age to start teaching kids about their emotions?
It's never too early to begin to teach kids about their emotions.
"From infancy on, children learn to regulate their emotions through their caregivers," says Dr. Hoover. "By building kids' vocabulary for emotions, children learn to express their feelings, rather than acting out with misbehavior."
By talking about emotions, parents can help even very young children recognize the feelings they're experiencing. There are many age-appropriate books, games and charts about feelings that can help – even starting with board books for babies and toddlers. These can help children find the right words to express and communicate their feelings.
How can I raise emotionally healthy children?
Teaching kids to recognize emotions is one of the first steps to raising emotionally healthy children. Helping them learn how to handle those emotions is the next. Dr. Hoover offers seven tips to encourage emotional health.
1. Talk about emotions daily.
Make it a habit to check in with your child about how they're feeling – and listen. This helps your child know you are there when they need to talk. Ask your kids specific questions about their school day: How were you feeling before the test? How did it make you feel to be left out of the game at recess? This can help them learn to recognize their emotions and brainstorm ways to cope.
2. Recognize your child's emotions and respond compassionately.
Be aware of how you respond when your child expresses sadness, fear or anger. It's easy to use phrases that may seem helpful but actually dismiss your child's feelings. Try to use words that let your kids know they're being heard and that their feelings matter.
For example, if your child is feeling afraid, don't say, "There's nothing to be scared of!" Instead, help label the emotion and provide comfort: "You're feeling scared. I'm here with you." Or if your child gets upset, try to avoid common reactions like, "Big kids don't cry," or, "Don't be sad; be happy!" which may make your child feel ashamed of their feelings. Instead, try saying, "I can see you're upset, and that's OK," or "I can see you're feeling sad. Do you want to talk about it?" Your acknowledgment and presence can be a huge comfort.
3. Model healthy responses to your own emotions.
Kids learn how to manage their emotions by copying coping strategies they see being used by the adults around them. To raise an emotionally healthy child, it's important to take care of your own emotional well-being so you can model healthy emotional responses.
"If a parent is feeling anxious about an event, they could say to their child, ‘I am feeling worried right now. I am going to take some deep breaths to calm down,'" Dr. Hoover says. This shows your child that everyone experiences challenging emotions from time to time.
4. Help build a "toolkit" of healthy responses when hard emotions strike.
For some kids, talking about their feelings may help. Others may prefer to work through their emotions through journaling, exercising or listening to music. Still, others might cope best by enjoying some alone time with a book or craft supplies. Help your kids explore a range of healthy emotional coping strategies to see what works best for them.
5. Incorporate mindfulness activities into your routine.
Mindfulness activities – such as guided meditation or deep breathing exercises – can also be a great way to handle anxiety, anger or sadness.
"Research has shown that mindfulness provides a host of benefits, including decreasing stress and anxiety, and it is associated with emotional regulation," explains Dr. Hoover. Try setting aside time together as a family to explore mindfulness techniques. You can then learn how to incorporate these activities into your daily routine.
6. Provide experiences to learn and grow.
Give your children time to grow emotionally through a variety of social experiences. Let them explore clubs, sports and other activities so they can meet other kids with similar interests. For example, joining a soccer team can help your child learn to deal with the joy of a win – or the sadness of missing a goal or losing a game.
7. Work to foster empathy and compassion for others.
As your child learns to recognize their own emotions, help them learn to recognize others' emotions as well. This helps build empathy and compassion for others. Ask your child about experiences during the school day and how they may have made their classmates feel. "For example, you might ask, ‘Who in your class seemed excited today? Who seemed embarrassed or angry?' Then, you can follow up with healthy ways to handle the more difficult emotions that were discussed," Dr. Hoover says.
Remember that raising kids who are equipped to handle the hard emotions helps get them ready for adulthood. Teaching kids to recognize and cope with emotions is important for their overall health and well-being, not only in childhood but throughout their lives.
Talking openly with children about their emotions helps them cope with their feelings. Learn how to raise emotionally healthy kids from an expert at Children's Health.
If you feel your child is having difficulty coping with feelings of sadness, anxiety or depression, our team of psychologists and psychiatrists at Children's Health can help. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health.
You are now subscribed to the Children's Health Family Newsletter.