One thing I learned from traveling around the world and sitting at the feet of happiness teachers is that emotions work in a certain way. When I was surrounded by a band of monkeys on a mountain in India I was terrified, and when I was welcomed with open arms in London by new friends I was delighted. Emotions are par for the course in our everyday lives, but how we handle these ups and downs is informed by our understanding of what emotions are and how they work.
In this article, we’ll discuss how to help children get a handle on how emotions work, and what they can do to move themselves in a healthier direction. The ideas presented may sound simple, but I have found that if you don’t get the small stuff correct, it’s harder to move up to the bigger things. If Frankie doesn’t learn to handle his frustration over sharing his toys with his sister, for example, he may miss out on the enjoyment of having someone to play with.
My goal is to provide you with simple yet life-changing ideas to nurture your child’s emotional health, and ultimately, happier life experiences. Of course, they’re not magic, but they are the seeds of emotional mastery, which when learned young can put a child on a positive trajectory. Each idea needs to be shared at your child’s appropriate age level, and then deepened over time.
1. Emotions are temporary.
No matter what emotion you’re experiencing—happiness or anger—it’s temporary. Boys and girls, especially those who suffer from sadness, often mistakenly think that emotions are permanent. They think the big, dark cloud over their heads will never leave, but that’s not true. By thinking a new thought, they can often feel a new feeling, and the clouds will pass (most of the time). “This too shall pass” is a motto used by many adults to remind themselves of the temporary nature of emotions and can be helpful on a hard day. Children can also create their own mottos such as, “Big feelings come, and big feelings go.”
2. Inside of you (at the center) is joy, your natural state.
At the center of our being is goodness, which equates to pure positive energy or joy. This is your child’s natural state. But his or her challenging feelings—anger, sadness, worry, panic, frustration, disappointment, and jealousy—can cloud that natural state. But if your child learns to let these challenging emotions pass by like clouds, the inner sun (goodness) can shine again.
Learning how to let feelings—especially tricky feelings like anger—come and go takes practice. But using a tool like mindful breathing, which Thich Nhat Hanh calls his “anchor,” can help a child slow down and let the big emotions pass by as he breathes through these challenging moments.
3. There are different types of emotions.
Children experience a full range of emotions, from misery to happiness, but they don’t necessarily understand the different types of emotions. Some types are: fast and slow, big and small, challenging and easy, and positive and negative. For example, anger is a fast emotion and also often feels very big and can be hard to tame without training (like a big lion). But when a child realizes she is bigger than her anger, she can muster her courage and learn how to let her anger go without making not-so-smart choices.
Helping children learn about the different types of emotions and how to connect with them in a healthy way happens over time. When reflecting on a big feeling in a calm moment, some conversation starters may be: “Did that emotion feel bigger than you? Did it happen quickly? Did you feel it when it was small? If so, where in your body did you feel it?”
4. Mixed emotions are common.
Children often feel more than one emotion at the same time, such as when a pet passes away. Ten-year-old Helene had known Moby, her black Labrador retriever, her whole life and was incredibly sad when she died. But Helene also felt relief that Moby wasn’t suffering anymore in her old age. Helping children name their emotions, especially when they’re mixed and complicated, is the first step toward helping them constructively express them.
Once Helene named her feelings as “sadness” and “relief,” she could begin letting those feelings move through her. She painted a special rock for Moby and laid it on her grave, which helped Helene feel a little better.
5. All emotions are useful.
Your emotions are simply sending you signals about what’s happening inside of you, so every emotion is useful, whether it feels challenging, like disappointment, or easier, like excitement. Learning how to spot emotions when they’re small (like a little frustration before it becomes a volcano-size anger) will help you constructively express it. No emotion needs to be wasted—everything can be used as a stepping-stone to your next best feeling.
Helping children realize that emotions are neither good nor bad but simply signals is essential to their positive emotional development. Conversation starters around this subject include talking about street signals (stop signs, police sirens, and traffic lights: red, yellow, and green). What do they mean? Are emotions like anger, joy, sadness or silliness sending signals, too?
6. You can learn how to increase certain emotions (the helpful ones) and reduce other emotions (the challenging ones) with practice.
Once children begin to realize that they can turn up the volume on certain emotions and lower the volume on others, the world is their oyster. There is nothing they cannot accomplish. The first step is giving children the ideas, and then the tools, while nurturing inner qualities of positive emotional health.
Being thankful is not just reserved for Thanksgiving Day. Gratitude is an emotion that moves children in a positive direction, no matter what. Every night, Hayyam makes a gratitude list as he lies in bed reflecting on his day. He’s been thankful for everything from jelly beans to a new karate teacher, and feeling this appreciation, instead of focusing on what he doesn’t have, helps him realize how good things really are in his life.
7. No one can do it for you.
Children must learn to take responsibility for their emotional lives and realize that they’re the captains of their emotional ships. They can learn to steer toward calmer waves and through the rough ones with more ease. Just like ship captains, they must get training on how to navigate the “high seas of emotions” of anger, rejection, embarrassment, hurt, and feeling left out, for example. But with ideas, tools, and practice, children can become fully themselves in an authentic, meaningful way.
Excerpted from the book The Emotionally Healthy Child. Copyright ©2018 by Maureen Healy. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.