Teaching Young Kids to Tolerate Uncomfortable Emotions

life with borderline personality disorderYour child starts wailing because they want to play with your phone, and you took it away. So you promptly give it back.

Your child is anxious about an upcoming performance at their preschool, so you immediately tell them there’s nothing to be nervous about, and it’ll be perfectly fine.

Your child is sad about a fight with their friend, so you try to cheer them up. You make jokes, tell them not to be upset, and mention that they have sooo many things to be thankful for.

Your child starts crying about anything, and you blurt out: “Don’t cry! It’s OK! What can I do to make you happy?”

According to Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, a clinical social worker and parent coach, this is a common mistake so many of us parents make. We rush to fix our kids’ problems (It’s OK! I’ll get you a new ice cream cone!), and we focus on behaviors, “without acknowledging the feelings behind them” (“We don’t bite! No biting!”).

Of course, we have good, compassionate intentions. But this isn’t helpful.

One of the biggest reasons we gloss over our kids’ emotions is because we can’t tolerate our own discomfort. Maybe it’s because no one taught us (because our parents didn’t know how to either). Maybe it’s because those feelings trigger memories and emotions we haven’t felt in years, and we don’t know what to do with them, Naumburg said. Maybe it’s because processing painful feelings requires time, patience and presence, and we’re too rushed, too exhausted, too stressed out to deal with our kids’ feelings, she said.

Yet tolerating our own discomfort is the best way to teach our kids to tolerate their’s. After all, it always starts with us. (Darn it.)

Modeling and teaching this to our kids is critical because “unpleasant emotions are a part of life,” and they demand expression. “If we don’t find a healthy way to get them out, they’ll show up in unskillful behavior,” said Naumburg, who pens the Psych Central blog Mindful Parenting. In kids that can look like tantrums, resistance (“I don’t care! I’m not listening!) and biting in toddlers. In adults that can look like substance use, compulsive shopping and tantrums, too.

Plus, when we rush to remedy our children’s feelings, we rob them of the opportunity to experience their emotions and recover from them, Naumburg said. And we send “a message that their feelings aren’t OK or worthy of our time.”

So how do you learn to tolerate your own emotions, so you can actually teach your kids?

According to Naumburg, you might work with a therapist and practice a body scan. For instance, in her book The Courage Habit: How to accept your fears, release the past and live your courageous life, Kate Swoboda includes a simple, accessible way to use a body scan: Set a timer for 5 minutes, and start at your feet, asking: “Hey, what’s up today? No pressure. Just curious.” Or you might ask: “What would you like me to know?” or “What feels true?”

Similarly, you can note what you’re feeling—I am sad that he missed our date nightwithout judging yourself, without saying things like I can’t believe I’m upset over something so silly. Why am I still sad about this? What’s wrong with me?

Naumburg, author of the forthcoming book How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t With Your Kids (Workman, 2019), also suggested these additional tips:

  • Remember your child is experiencing an emotion—instead of trying to give you a hard time. Of course, as Naumburg said, they sometimes might be doing that, too. But overall, they’re having a big feeling, and this is a prime opportunity for you to help them navigate it effectively.
  • Help your child identify and label their emotion. “When we name our kids’ feelings, we help them recognize them, and learn that they’re OK.” We also help them connect the dots: something that happened has triggered this feeling. (And it’s great practice for us!) Acknowledging your little one’s big emotions also helps to calm them, she said. For instance, you might say: “You’re feeling mad because your sister took your toy. You’re frustrated because you can’t get the box open.” You’re anxious because you’re starting kindergarten tomorrow. You’re sad that grandma has to go home.
  • Let your child cry. Avoid saying “Don’t cry” or “This isn’t a big deal. Why are you crying?” Show your kids it’s OK and good to release their feelings, whether that includes crying or not.
  • Suggest your child draw pictures about their emotion. You can even make this a daily habit (depending on your child’s age). Have your child keep an art journal, and take a few minutes to draw what they’re feeling that day. This is even something you can do, alongside your child, in your own notebook.
  • Ask your child to describe their feelings, and where they’re feeling them. For instance, maybe they describe butterflies in their belly or an ache in their head. If they’re not sure, you can guide them through a body scan and give examples.
  • Read books about other kids dealing with similar emotions. Regularly read books to your child about different emotions, such as sadness, anger and anxiety. This helps to educate your kids about emotions, and to normalize them. It tells them, too, that they’re not alone (and that can be so powerful). This site includes seven children’s books you might consider.

The above strategies are very helpful for navigating emotions in general. However, if you think your child might be dealing with intense feelings or behaviors, Naumburg suggested seeking support from a therapist who specializes in working with kids.

Feelings are tough to navigate—especially if you don’t have much practice actually feeling them. But the great news is that we can learn. And your kids can, too. And by teaching your kids to tolerate unpleasant, uncomfortable emotions, you teach them to cope effectively not only right now, but well into their adolescence and adulthood.

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