How to Help Kids Process Strong Emotions Without Shutting them Down

Is it wrong for Christians to have strong negative emotions?

Because the Bible speaks against anger, hatred and other strong emotions, we often cover them with a veneer of cheerful Christianity while they churn beneath the surface like Mount Etna waiting to erupt.

While I believe throwing tantrums is not a healthy way for a child to express emotion, does that mean they should not be allowed to express emotion at all?  (Read about tantrums here)

Shutting down strong emotions may seem like a quick solution, but it’s counterproductive.

Shutting down emotions in kids

What’s wrong with not allowing kids to express emotion?

  • It teaches the child that their emotions are not valid and not worthy of expression.
  • Because children view life through their emotions, a denial of the emotions denies their very being, who they are.
  • Not allowing expression of emotion can lead to the shutting down of all emotion – good and bad. The child may grow to adulthood unable to express how they really feel about anything. This will affect their marriage, working relationships, and every other relational interaction.
  • Studies have shown that people who suppress emotions are less able to repair their negative moods in spite of masking their inner feelings. They experienced fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions, had less life satisfaction and less self-esteem.

Suppressing emotions does not remove them, it only inhibits their behavioural expression. The child still experiences the emotions, but it takes continuous effort to control and suppress them and can result in feelings of inauthenticity (not being true to themselves).

Instead of suppressing emotions, children should be encouraged to express them. However, there are unhealthy expressions of emotion that should be avoided.  

Unhealthy expressions of emotion:

  • Tantrums
  • Prolonged crying
  • Sulking
  • Silent treatment
  • Staying in their room for prolonged periods of time
  • Swearing, verbally abusing others, shouting, biting, slamming doors (a child allowed to express anger physically may very well continue to express it that way as an adult)

Encourage positive expression of negative emotions

Let’s face it, kids face people that bully them, tease them, or treat them unfairly. They face situations that frustrate them, sadden them, and cause them anxiety.   

Instead of figuring ways to ignore, or shut down, unpleasant emotions, let’s talk about how we can help kids process their emotions in a healthy, positive way.

We can do this by teaching emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

 “Emotional intelligence is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and manage and /or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goals.” [i]

In plain English, that means perceiving, understanding, and regulating emotions. An emotionally intelligent person is aware of emotions in themselves and others and uses reason to identify, understand, and deal with those emotions effectively.

They recognise their negative emotions but are able to use reason to override them.  

Emotionally intelligent people:

  • Can identify what they are feeling
  • Know how to interpret their emotions
  • Understand how their emotions impact others
  • Regulate their own emotions
  • Manage other people’s emotions

Before you can teach your child emotional intelligence, you must possess it yourself.  

How to regulate and process emotions as an adult:

Don’t react right away.

Learn to practice the pause when you feel a strong emotion. As Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

Pray.

In that space between stimulus and response, pray and ask God to help you understand why you are feeling the way you do.

Own the emotion.

Recognise the emotion and allow yourself to feel it. Don’t deny it. We often try to suppress emotions through eating, shopping, playing games on our phones, binge-watching Netflix, scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, or looking at porn. But these things don’t remove the emotion, they only suppress it. Owning the emotion means you must enter into it and feel it.

Label and verbally express the emotion.

“I am angry. I am hurting. I am frustrated. I am afraid.”

Release the emotion through surrendering it to God.

Say, “Lord, I give you my frustration (anger, sadness, hatred). I give you permission to take it from me and replace it with your peace.” It may take some time for the emotion to simmer down. That doesn’t mean your surrender was ineffective. Keep on surrendering it to God.

Reframe your thoughts.

Bring your thoughts into captivity to Christ by surrendering them, but then choose to think right thoughts about the situation you are in. This is important because thoughts influence feelings. I tend to slip into excessive guilt when I mess up. I reframe my thoughts by saying to myself, “Yes, I messed up and so-and-so is probably upset with me – and they have a right to be. But I have apologised, and will make it right with them. This is not the end of the world.”

How to help your kids process strong emotions:

Acknowledge the emotion.

I made the mistake of trying to stop my children’s anger, frustration, or sadness too soon and it didn’t work. The emotion must run a healthy course. Recognise your child’s emotion as real: “I can see you are frustrated with that puzzle. It is hard to figure out where the pieces go.” Acknowledging your child’s emotion validates it and immediately starts the processing of it.    

Name the emotion and express it.

If your child can’t name what they are feeling then help them. Ask them, “Are you feeling angry? Frustrated? Sad? Unfairly treated?” If your child is too young to express how they feel in words, then try to understand WHY they are acting the way they are. Look at the heart and not just the behaviour and then deal with the root cause.  

While it’s not acceptable to hit others, throw a tantrum, swear at people, and bash or break things, it is OK to say, “I am so angry right now.” It’s OK to cry (not uncontrollably or for a prolonged period). The job of a parent is not to get the child to stop crying as quickly as possible. Tears are a healthy expression of emotion. They heal the hurt.

Allow your child to own the feeling.

Let them acknowledge how they feel and why they feel that way. Help them by asking why they are feeling angry or frustrated. Get to the root of the issue and deal with that. The strong emotion will dissipate.

Help your child pray and surrender the strong feeling to God.

If they are too young to pray for themselves then get them to say the words after you. If they are too young for that then pray on their behalf and surrender your child’s heart to God. Ask for the Holy Spirit to come and calm the storm in your child’s heart.  

Processing kids' emotions

Allow a little time for the emotion to simmer down

it will – like a wave crashing on the beach it will flow up and ebb back again. Hold your child, stroke their head or back, tell them it’s OK. They may need some time alone – in their room, on the couch, or alone outside, but don’t make this a punishment.

Doing something physical – a chore or a bicycle ride or jumping jacks -distracts the mind from the strong emotions and lessens the intensity of the feelings.

Talk about the situation after the emotions have simmered down.

You can’t reason with strong feelings, but once the wave has crashed and ebbs back again, follow up and help your child process the situation.

Emotional regulation skills can be learned. As parents, we need to learn and apply them ourselves so that we can help our children process their strong feelings in healthy ways.

How do you help your children process their emotions? Are you able to process your own?


[i] Wikipedia.org

About The Author

Jennifer Lovemore

Jennifer has diplomas in relationship counselling and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), is a certified SYMBIS facilitator, and is certified in TPM (Transformation Prayer Minsitry). She lives in South Africa, has three grown children, and is married to her best friend – Richard.

3 COMMENTS

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