Adopt these strategies to help your child better cope with their emotions and those of others.
With your help, your little one will learn to recognize different emotions and put their feelings into words. Little by little, they’ll learn how to respond or adapt their behaviour when they experience an emotion. For example, they’ll be able to tell you they’re angry, instead of yelling or hitting.
Here are a few tips to help your child better regulate their emotions and respond to those of others.
1. Meet your child’s needs
Babies can sometimes cry a lot. If your little one is distressed, it’s important that you respond by comforting them and offering appropriate care. “If no one comforts them, they may develop feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and low self-esteem,” says Dr. Sylvain Coutu, associate professor in the department of psychoeducation and psychology at the Université du Québec en Outaouais. “As a result, they may have a harder time regulating their emotions and responding to those of others.”
2. Teach by example
If you make an effort to regulate your emotions, your child will tend to do the same. When you’re not happy about something, say out loud what you’ll do to feel better. For example, you might say: “I’m disappointed my friend Rayan won’t be coming to dinner, but I’ll get to read my new book instead.”
If you feel your anger rising, step away for a moment and cool off. (Make sure your child is safe before walking away.) If you’ve really lost your temper, apologize to your child and briefly discuss what happened. For example: “I overreacted just now. I shouldn’t have yelled like that. I’m sorry, I should have taken a calming breath before I spoke. I’m going to make an effort to stop yelling.”
3. Put your emotions into words
Try to get into the habit of naming your child’s emotions as well as your own. For instance: “I can see that you’re angry because your brother won’t lend you his toy truck,” or “I’m sad because Grandpa is sick.” Your child will learn from you and start to put their feelings into words. No need to wait until your child can talk! If you start as soon as they’re born, they’ll acquire an emotional vocabulary as their language skills develop.
4. Take your child’s emotions seriously
If your child is sad, upset, angry, or jealous, try to acknowledge their emotions. They’ll feel comforted and understood, and they’ll be less likely to express themself in problematic ways (e.g., pinching their little sister when you’re feeding her). Of course, if your child does act inappropriately, it’s important to tell them.
5. Help your child identify emotions
Your child will have an easier time identifying emotions in others if you teach them how to read emotional body language. For instance, we frown when we’re angry and smile when we’re happy.
Alexandre and his son often play at imitating emotions. “I put on an angry, happy, or sad face then ask Justin to imitate me,” he says. “Then I name the emotion: ‘Oh! You’re angry! You’re happy!’ He loves it.”
This is another good exercise, because knowing how to read faces will help your child relate to others. They’ll be able to adapt their behaviour to each situation.
Dr. Gagnier says that, during storytime, it’s a good idea to encourage your child to talk about the characters’ emotions. “Ask them how a particular character is feeling or what they could do to be less sad or scared,” she suggests. Together, you can also create a feelings scrapbook filled with magazine cut-outs of faces that show different emotions.
6. Give your child tips on how to manage big feelings
When Ian was 3 or 4, he would sometimes feel afraid of the dark or of ghosts at bedtime. His mother, Irma-Nelsy, is Colombian. She tells us, “I taught him to soothe himself by saying a prayer or singing a song.” She also encourages Ian to share his feelings when he’s sad. Now, when he feels down, Ian hugs a stuffed animal and says that it’s sad, too. He also seeks out his big brother, who is 21, for comfort and a hug.
7. Teach your child how to express anger appropriately
Magali tells her 4- and 6-year-old daughters to scream into a pillow or squeeze a stuffed animal really hard when they feel they’re getting angry. Justin’s parents also try to avoid certain frustrations. For example, they let him know what he’ll be doing next. That way, he doesn’t get angry when it’s time to stop an activity he loves. His dad, Alexandre, explains, “We crouch down to his level and tell him we’ll read one story, then it’s bedtime. Then we ask: ‘How many stories will we read? And what happens next?’ Having him repeat it makes him more willing to cooperate.”
“If it’s too late, and your child is already screaming and throwing a tantrum, wait for the storm to pass,” psychologist Nadia Gagnier advises. “Trying to reason with them will only make the situation worse.” If you raise your voice, your child will only yell louder. Plus, you might frighten them. The best strategy is to stay nearby, keep calm, and wait until they quiet down. Then, give them a big hug and ask about what made them angry.
Keep in mind, however, that you shouldn’t give in to their demands when they throw a tantrum; otherwise, they’ll learn that anger is an effective way to get what they want.
8. Help your child develop empathy
Empathy—the ability to recognize the emotions of others and put yourself in their shoes—develops around ages 4 to 6. However, children may begin to show empathy much earlier, when they recognize an emotion they’ve witnessed in someone else. “Some 18-month-olds will try to console a friend by offering them a stuffed animal or giving them a hug,” says Dr. Coutu. He says it’s important to praise your child’s empathetic behaviour, because it shows that they care about others. You can also point out how your child’s behaviour makes others feel. They’ll learn that their actions have consequences, and that not everyone has the same wants or needs. Finally, you can encourage your little one to do something thoughtful. For instance, they can make a drawing for their grandparents or lend a toy to a friend.
Cultural differences and emotions
A child’s emotions are coloured by the culture in which they grow up. Take disgust: this emotion is universal, but its triggers are linked to culture. For example, some foods that tend to make North Americans gag are considered tasty in other countries. How emotions are expressed also varies from culture to culture. In some countries, crying in public is frowned upon, whereas in others, it’s perfectly normal to weep in the middle of the street.
What’s more, expressed emotion can differ across families who share the same culture. “A family is a microculture,” says Dr. Gagnier. Each has its own values, points of view, and ways of doing things. All this affects how they experience emotions.
For example, some families express their joy and sorrow loudly, while others keep these feelings private. Gender is also a factor. Some parents will tend to be more tolerant of their son’s anger than their daughter’s, for instance.
As parents, it’s important that we take the time to consider our own family culture. Are we allowing our child to express their full range of emotions? Are we accepting their emotions, no matter how intense, even when we find them baffling or irrational?
Joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger, and surprise are the first emotions your baby feels.
When your little one understands and can express their emotions, they’re better able to manage them.
Learning to regulate their emotions will help your little one develop strong relationships with others.
Source: Naître et grandir magazine, May-June 2023 and February 2014
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Nathalie Parent, psychologist
Updated: May 2023
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Photos : GettyImages/malija, Nicolas St-Germain et Maxim Morin.