How do I help my kids work through their emotions? (The First Step)

How do I help my kids work through their emotions?

This has been a long journey for me. I feel that teaching my kiddos the tools to work through their emotions is one of the greatest gifts I can give them. They will need these skills for the rest of their lives!

I did a quick google search of “how to help kids with their emotions.” A plethora of articles came up on how to help kids “manage their emotions” and easy steps to help kids learn to “control their emotions.” I really don’t like that language when talking about emotions. We can’t manage them, nor can we control them. And expecting my children to be able to do that is a bit ridiculous (not even their mom can do that!). So I was not impressed with the results of the search.

But when I typed in “emotion coaching for kids,” I found some really great articles, lots of good research, and some very helpful steps of what parents can do during a child’s emotional situation.

But you know what? Eight years ago, I would not have gotten very far on these well-meaning steps. My kids’ emotions triggered so many emotions in myself that I could not fully be present with them when they needed me most.

PROBLEM: I could not be present with my kids in their emotions because their emotions made me too uncomfortable with myself.

I remember when this realization occurred to me. I was sitting in a parenting class at a HeadStart school. My oldest was two, attending the preschool, while I gathered with the rest of the parents to receive the “The Circle of Security” training, an attachment theory applied to parenting. (This training was was revolutionary for me!)

The instructor asked us to draw a circle on our paper, and then gave us a list of emotions. She told us to place each emotion where we felt comfortable with it: if we could be with others in that emotion, we were to place it in the circle. If it was too uncomfortable for us, we were to put it outside the circle. (Ironically, “The Circle of Security” is not called that because of this circle, but because of a different circle it references to. Check out this website for more.)

This is what my circle looked like:

past circle

I felt okay sitting with someone who was sad or afraid. I could comfort and console. But it was too difficult for me to be with someone who was angry. I could not bear it. I wanted them to Stop. Being. Angry. Now.

This was a HUGE realization for me; however, it did not change the fact that I could not experience someone else’s anger. As my girls grew, and we added more to the slew, I was given many experiences where others were angry (i.e.: tantrums, LOL). In those moments, I resorted to time outs, punishments, or even battling with a loud voice to try to get the child to stop feeling angry so I could stop feeling uncomfortable. For me, my child’s moment of anger was never about them. It was always about me stopping their anger so I could feel better.

But wait! It get’s better!

I discovered two things about anger. First, that my child’s anger had no reflection of me as a parent, of my skills as a parent, of my value as a parent, or anything. None whatsoever. It had nothing to do with me. It was about them.

And second, that the true meaning of anger was not that my child was out of control, but that there was something we needed to know about the situation. Karla McLaren says anger is a message to you that your boundaries have been violated. Something must be protected or something must be restored. Knowing this about anger, and having the goal to help my children discover what must be protected or restored in their anger, helped me take myself out of the equation, and focus more on helping my child discover the message in their emotion.

SOLUTION: Understand the meaning of anger (and every emotion), so that my misconception of it (that it was a reflection of me) could be corrected and I could feel more at ease in looking at the real problem: the task of identifying the emotion’s message.

So now, my circle looks like this:

now circle

And thankfully, I’m still given a lot of practice when others are angry (i.e.: more tantrums, LOL). Guess what? I don’t feel uncomfortable when my children are angry any more. I don’t send them to time out, I don’t punish them to get them to “stop being angry,” and I don’t battle and yell to get them to stop. Why is it different now? Because I can now see their anger as a breach in their boundaries (Karla McLaren’s book The Language of Emotions explains this).

What does your circle look like? What do you need to do to get all those emotions in the middle?

P.S. This post doesn’t say much about working through emotions. So if you want to know more,  click here to download my free flowchart giving easy steps to guide you until you are comfortable on your own!

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