4 Things We Can Learn from Kids About Handling Our Emotions

A psychologist shares the behaviors we encourage in our kids that we should encourage in ourselves, too.
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A psychologist shares the behaviors we encourage in our kids that we should encourage in ourselves, too.

By the time we reach adulthood, most of us will have seen a grown-up throw a tantrum. It’s equally likely that we’ve thrown one ourselves, well after the “terrible twos” when babies are known to get caught up in fits of emotion.

Though our narratives change as we grow older, the physical and mental mechanisms for stress and emotion remain the same. And according to trained psychologist Lisa Blanchard, adults can learn a lot from the self-management principles we learned as or teach to children. Here’s what to incorporate into your day-to-day for a less stressful life.

01. Take a ‘Time-Out’

“When parenting children, it is important to know what their triggers are and what signals show us they are beginning to feel strong emotions,” Blanchard says. “This is just as important when we ‘parent’ ourselves. We need to know our triggers and signals, so we can catch ourselves before we wind up too far.”

To understand a meltdown, we must first understand how the human brain works. Under normal, non-stressful circumstances, signals from the outside world are first processed by the neocortex (the “thinking” part of the brain) before being sent to the amygdala (the area responsible for memory and emotions) to produce an emotional response. When we encounter a stressful, exciting, or emotional event, sensory signals are sent directly to the amygdala. The part of our brain responsible for conscious thought steps back as our knee-jerk areas take over, flooding the body with stress hormones that feed our fight or flight instincts.

It sounds counterintuitive to managing our emotions. But this all makes sense in biological evolution, where survival depends in part on our ability to react swiftly. But any frequent emotional hijacks like this can wreak havoc in day-to-day situations where we’re not immediately under true threat of harm.

Taking a time-out isn’t just effective for kids losing their cool; it works on adults, too. There’s nothing childish about giving ourselves a break. The stress chemicals flooding your brain and body won’t hang around forever, so even just a few minutes to cool off can help you get back to your normal self again.

According to Blanchard, time-outs can and should vary from person to person: “Some children need the time away from others to calm down, some need music, some need to draw, some need to talk. The same goes for adults—we must recognize what we each need to manage our emotions.”

02. Say, ‘I Feel . . .’

Strong emotions can be expressed in many ways, with behavior being the most instinctive. When we’re angry, we may feel the urge to raise our voice. When we’re sad, we may long to curl up into a safe ball.

As kids, we’re given a set of actions we’re absolutely not allowed to do unless we want to get in big trouble, such as slamming doors, hitting, and swearing. We usually know there’s something else at play and try to get to the bottom of it. As adults, we need to do the same thing for ourselves. “We have such physical reactions to emotions that it is so hard to find the vocabulary to describe what we are feeling,” Blanchard says. “We are quick to label everything anger, sadness, happiness—but there are so many more emotions involved. We need to find the words to understand what is happening and what we are feeling, so we can communicate this to others.”

With the right words, we can express what’s happening inside us, ask for help, and negotiate a peaceful resolution. If you constantly find yourself using the same word to describe your response under different circumstances, consider referring to the The Feeling Wheel next time you’re trying to define the origin of your emotions. Angry, for example, could really mean hurt, threatened, embarrassed, jealous, provoked, or skeptical. Drilling down to identify your specific emotion will help you determine the problem and how you might go about solving it.

Another useful tool is the “When X happens, I feel Y” template for identifying your feelings in an upsetting event. It’s tempting to say that X “made” you feel Y. But this assumes that X is directly responsible for your reaction, whereas there might be more to it than meets the eye. By framing your reaction as correlation rather than causation, you leave room for the possibility of other factors being involved. This is also a constructive way to talk about your feelings with others in a non-accusatory fashion.

03. Have a Plan

Teachers are trained to enforce a series of consequences and rewards for students in their classroom. If a child breaks a class rule, for example, he or she will get a warning. Three warnings may escalate to a bigger consequence, such as taking recess to write a reflection on their behavior or a phone call with their parents. As adults, it can help to impose similar restrictions on ourselves by having a plan, especially if stress provokes us to react in destructive ways.

A well-rounded coping strategy incorporates a variety of techniques to reduce your stress in the short and long term. We mentioned the time-out, which can include exercise, talk therapy, art or music therapy, reading, gaming, or gardening to offer immediate relief from an emotional hijack. Research proves that making a habit of creativity benefits our mental health.

Alongside this, it’s handy to include mental activities that help build your psychological resilience. For example, self-talk and body language exercises such as uncrossing your arms when you’re feeling defensive become psychological assets at your disposal the next time a high-emotion situation arises.

Another recommended technique is emotion journaling, which encourages a focused and analytical approach to identifying, understanding, and resolving your feelings. The biggest benefit is being able to track progress over time, observing any patterns and commonalities in what triggers your mood and how you react.

“Coping strategies are all about knowing yourself,” Blanchard emphasizes. “Doing some daily maintenance to reset your mental state can go a long way to preventing a large meltdown that could have dire consequences. There’s a saying: ‘What you water is what grows.’ If you focus on the negative, the negative will grow. If you focus on the positive, the positive will grow.”

Sometimes a coping strategy may involve letting go of people you care about. As an addict needs distance from their poison, you may need time apart from people who trigger an intense negative response in you. Don’t be afraid to say goodbye if you have to or at least “See you later,” Blanchard advises.

04. Turn Negatives Into Positives

Blanchard cautions: It’s important to pair banning certain behaviors with finding better behaviors as an alternative. “If we tell a child what they can’t or shouldn’t do, they are going to want to only do that. This desire doesn’t always go away with adulthood. Finding an appropriate outlet for expressing your emotions will go a long way,” she says. The trick is to come up with a list of dos for every don’t. Instead of telling yourself, “Don’t snap back,” remind yourself to take three deep breaths. Instead of stalking off, calmly say, “I need to take a walk to clear my head.”

Even with all the love and support in the world, growing up is a tough gig. It’s no wonder that so many of us still struggle with our emotions long after childhood and tumultuous adolescence have passed.

“Generally, children need to feel safe to express their feelings. They may really care that their macaroni is touching their peas, and it’s important that they feel validated about having strong emotions about anything. If they feel safe about expressing themselves, they’ll be open to handling their emotions in a healthy way. This principle applies to adults, too,” Blanchard says. So, be kind to yourself by nurturing your safe space. Developing emotional intelligence takes time and patience, and the pace of self-discovery is unique to every individual.

Photo Credit: Britt Rene Photography