There are several strategies to help your child learn how to deal with her emotions and those of others.
There are several strategies to help your child learn how to deal with her emotions and those of others, and they can apply to boys and girls alike.
1. Meet her needs. Babies sometimes cry a lot. It’s therefore important to be there to respond to their distress by soothing them and seeing to their needs. “If a baby isn’t comforted, she may experience a sense of insecurity and stress, and also develop low self-esteem,” says Sylvain Coutu. “It then becomes more difficult for her to manage her emotions and pay attention to the emotions of others around her.”
2. Set an example. You’re a model for your child. If you make an effort to channel your emotions, she will tend to do the same. However, it will be hard for you to ask her to stop having temper tantrums if you get angry for the slightest reason. When the situation warrants it, you can, for example, express out loud what you do to feel better when something bothers you: “I’m disappointed that Martine isn’t coming for supper, but I’ll watch a good movie instead.”
3. Put words to emotions. When Émilie told her family that she was expecting a second child, her mother started crying. Émilie’s daughter, Viviane, couldn’t understand how her grandmother could cry and look happy at the same time. Émilie therefore explained to her that sometimes we’re so happy, we cry. You can do the same and name your emotions as well as those you observe in your child: “I see that you’re angry because your brother refused to lend you his truck,” “I’m sad because grandpa is sick,” and so on. This helps your child learn how to verbalize what she’s feeling. And you don’t need to wait until she starts talking; you can start as soon as she’s born. She’ll learn the vocabulary of emotions as she develops her language skills!
When a parent gets angry
“Parenthood isn’t always a walk in the park, and sometimes we lose our patience. If you feel yourself getting angry, the best thing to do is to step away for a moment before you explode (making sure your child is safe first). If not, you risk unsettling and scaring your child, in addition to making her feel insecure,” explains Nadia Gagnier.
But what can you do if you get really angry? In this case, the best thing is to apologize to your child and briefly go over what happened. For example: “I got a little too angry before. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to yell anymore.” By reacting this way, you become a model by showing her how to behave when you hurt someone.
One strategy to avoid angry outbursts is to set clear and consistent limits for your child. Gagnier explains: “If you aren’t consistent in applying limits or if you don’t set any at all, your reaction to your child’s behaviour can vary depending on your state of mind. When you’re feeling good, you let her jump on the sofa without a word. But the day you’re feeling tired or are in a bad mood, you get angry with her. She won’t understand why and this creates insecurity.” This is why it’s better to always set clear limits and to remain consistent in applying them. Your child will then know that she’s never allowed to jump on the sofa. “For her, limits are a sort of user’s manual on how to behave, and this gives her a sense of security,” says Gagnier.
4. Take her emotions seriously. It’s good to tell your child that you understand that she can feel sad, upset, angry or jealous in a given situation. It will comfort her and make her feel understood. She will have less of a tendency to express her emotions in inappropriate ways, such as by pinching her little sister while you’re feeding her. Of course, if her behaviour is inappropriate, you need to tell her.
Your child will recognize emotions even better if you draw her attention to the body language that accompanies them: furrowed eyebrows when someone is mad, smiles when they are happy, etc.
5. Help her to recognize emotions “When I’m angry, I tell my daughters to look at my face and ask them if I look angry,” says Stéphanie. “I want them to be able to see what people are feeling by looking at their faces.” Her 3-year-old daughter, Auriane, loves trying to guess what characters are feeling in her books. This is actually a good idea because knowing how to read faces promotes positive social interactions by giving the child cues that will help her adapt her behaviour to any given situation.
Psychologist Nadia Gagnier suggests taking advantage of story time to have your child talk about the emotions experienced by the various characters. “Ask her how such and such character feels, what that character could do to feel less sad, or less afraid, etc.” You can also create an album of emotions with your child from different faces you cut out of magazines.
6. Give her tricks to manage her emotions. 3-year-old Arthur really enjoys watching the Kirikou movies, but he’s afraid of the witch. So he repeats to himself: “The witch is far away. She can’t come here.” His parents taught him how to reassure himself this way. “Our son is also afraid of monsters. We tell him that monsters can’t come into our house because it’s protected by a bubble of love. It’s a little mantra that he can repeat to himself when he’s feeling afraid.” For her part, Stéphanie reminds her daughters to take deep breaths when they feel anger welling up inside.
7. Teach her to better express her anger. 3-year-old Erwan tends to get angry when his 16-month-old brother, Axel, stands in front of the television or destroys something he’s built. To prevent his tantrums, his mother, Gaëlle, taught him to say what’s bothering him: “No, Axel. You’re blocking the TV. Move.” Or “Don’t touch my train tracks.” She also suggested that he play on a bigger table that’s out of his little brother’s reach. You, too, can give your child strategies that will help her manage the recurring sources of her frustration. Another trick is to distract her when you feel her anger is building. Stéphanie tries to get her daughters used to stepping away from a situation (by going to their rooms, for example) before exploding.
Too late? Your child is already screaming, rolling on the ground, stomping her feet? “When your child is having a major tantrum, wait until the storm passes,” advises Gagnier. “If you try to reason with her, you’ll only add fuel to the fire.” And if you raise your voice, she’ll only raise hers louder and you risk scaring her in the process. Ideally, you should stay close by, remain calm and wait until the worst is over. Then, you can take her in your arms and get her to talk about what made her so angry. However, it’s better not to give in, or the message you will give her is that her anger is an effective way of getting what she wants.
8. Help her to develop empathy. Empathy, the ability to notice the feelings and emotions of another person and put yourself in that person’s shoes, develops between the ages of about 4 and 6. Nevertheless, children can begin to express empathy much sooner, when they recognize an emotion they have already experienced in another person. “At 18 months old, some children will console a friend by offering a stuffed animal or giving a hug,” notes Sylvain Coutu. He believes that it’s important to recognize your child’s act of empathy because this shows that she is concerned about others. It’s also a good idea to draw her attention to how others react to her behaviour. She’ll realize that her actions can affect others and that other people might have needs and desires that are different from hers. Lastly, you can encourage your child to make someone happy by doing a little something special for them (e.g.: making a drawing for grandpa and grandma, lending a toy to a friend, etc.).
Cultural differences and emotions
A child’s emotions are coloured by the culture she is brought up in. Take disgust, for example. This emotion is universal, but what provokes it is influenced by culture. While in North America, for example, a plate of grilled caterpillar and chicken feet would without a doubt elicit a reaction of disgust, this wouldn’t be the case in other parts of the world. The expression of emotions also varies according to culture. In some places, openly expressing your grief in public is poorly viewed, while in others, it’s normal to cry your heart out in front of everyone.
And just as the culture of your country of origin influences how you express your emotions, so are there differences between families from a common culture. “A family is a microculture,” explains Gagnier. “Each one has its own values, ways of perceiving situations and ways of doing things. All this has an influence on their emotions.”
For example, if in some families, joy or grief is expressed loudly, others may opt for a more reserved approach. Differences have also been noted by gender. In North America, parents tend to be more tolerant of anger in boys than in girls. And they will accept tears from the daughters much more readily than from their sons.
As a parent, it’s therefore important to take a moment to examine your own family culture. Do you really allow your children to express all their emotions, regardless of gender? Are you able to accept that they may experience certain emotions, even if you don’t understand them or believe them to be irrational?
Joy, sadness, disgust, fear, anger and surprise are the first emotions your baby will feel.
Once she knows how to express her emotions and is able to understand them better, your child will be able to control them and adjust their intensity to better face various situations.
Emotional competence will make it easier for your child to succeed at school in addition to ensure she experiences positive social interactions.