What Do We Do with Emotions? Modeling and Teaching Children How to Process Feelings




When I was a kid my family defined for me which emotions were good and accepted and which ones were not ok to express. In my house if I expressed anger, I was punished. Most of us did not grow up with emotional literacy (identifying emotions, communicating them, and coping with challenging feelings), but likely developed ways to repress certain emotions.  

I work with adults when I’m not working with students at MTS. The vast majority of my adult clients did not grow up in homes where certain emotions were talked about and expressed.  Many people were not allowed to express anger, so it either had to be buried or expressed in other ways (for example, crying, blaming oneself). Other people were not permitted to express any “negative” emotion at all and grew up with the expectation that looking put together was paramount. Some others learned that being sad and crying was a sign of weakness or perhaps a burden for others. Parents may have said things like “you’re just too sensitive,” “put yourself together,’” “can’t you take a joke?,” and “boys don’t cry.” Sometimes parents would stress that their children should focus on the positive and ignore their feelings, to be grateful at all costs.  The bottom line is that most of us were not taught how to effectively process emotions.  

So how do we raise a generation of children that are emotionally literate? One thing I feel is healthy is to model a range of emotions for our children. We are often afraid that our feelings will overwhelm our children. As with most things, an extreme and consistent display of anger or sadness may frighten children, but moderate and occasional displays of emotion are healthy and natural. When our children witness our emotions and how we deal with them, they may learn to express and process their own.  

When we become angry with our child, we can name the emotion, narrate what we are going to do to try to cope (count, take deep breaths, take time by ourselves to cool down, etc), and to talk it out with them after we are calm. If we have a moment where we yell, we can talk about what we could have done differently and make a repair attempt by apologizing for the behavior-yelling. Anger is harmful if it becomes an abusive pattern of behavior (where physical, emotional, or verbal abuse is evident).  

The same is true for sadness, fear, and anxiety. Our children are observant and notice when we are feeling an emotion or when something feels different. It is helpful for them to understand what’s happening. This does not mean we need to share all of the intimate details about our horrible day, but we can tell them we had a bad day and that’s why we are feeling the way we do. As with most things, communicate in a way that is developmentally appropriate for your child.  

It’s okay for our children to see us cry or to know we are sad. The only time it’s potentially harmful to our children is if we are depressed and unable to care for our children emotionally and/or physically.  

When expressing fear to our children, we need to reassure them that they are safe and communicate that we will keep them safe if there is actual danger present. We often experience fear as a result of a perceived threat rather than an actual threat.  

With anxiety, it can be helpful to externalize anxiety for children. We may share with them that we are anxious or worried, but that this emotion will pass. Sometimes the metaphorical anxiety gremlin (or whatever imagery we can come up with) visits and makes us believe things that aren’t true (perceived threat). We can tell our children that anxiety is really here to try to keep us safe from danger, but it sometimes thinks things are dangerous when they actually aren’t. We can even describe the concept of flight, flight, or freeze or how the amygdala sometimes hijacks our brains. We can tell our children what we plan to do to calm our amygdala down/how we will soothe the anxiety gremlin.

It’s often tempting to rescue our children from emotions. We will help our children most by allowing them to express their emotions and to develop skills to cope with them. The biggest challenge for me is disappointment. I have to literally talk myself into saving space for my kids to be disappointed. I really want to jump in there and save them from it, but I can’t. Disappointment is a feeling we all experience, and we ultimately cannot be protected from it. If we protect our kids from emotions, they likely will not develop the skills needed to deal with them and in the long run, that results in challenging teen and adult years.  

One of the skills that can be hard to learn if we did not grow up in a household where feelings were talked about, is to learn to validate our children’s emotions and experiences, to actively listen, and to empathize with our children. Most of the time when our children are experiencing tough emotions, what they need most is for us to be there and to truly see them. This is the best gift we can give our children.  

The last thing we need to consider in helping our children with emotional literacy is to develop an awareness of our own personal triggers around emotion (often related to our own experience with emotion during childhood). For example, I know that because I was not allowed to express anger in my household, I’m often triggered by my own children’s anger. Being aware of what is triggering for us can help us respond versus react to our children’s emotions and to develop a plan for how we may deal with our triggers.  

It’s sometimes a challenge to parent without a roadmap. I truly believe in the concept that parents do not have to be perfect to raise emotionally literate children. We do need to be emotionally aware of our own triggers, to model attempts at regulating our own emotions, and to be vulnerable enough to let our children see that emotions are part of being human. Emotions are complex, but pass. If our kids can learn these skills now, they will be ready to face the world and its challenges.

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