As adults, we can unintentionally use language towards children that suppress their emotions—short term and long term. Be You consultant, DR KATHRYN HOPPS, looks into what this can mean for the child and more thoughtful responses we can use.
I recently overheard one child say to another, ‘You get what you get and don’t get upset’. The words were spoken about what the pair had been served for lunch. Children accepting what they get, without expressing negative feelings about it, certainly makes for a quieter life in the short term for educators and parents.
Unfortunately, expressions like ‘you get what you get’, can function in both the short and long term to suppress children’s emotional expression. Suppressing and not accepting emotions is ultimately detrimental to positive mental health and wellbeing for children now, and in the future as adults.
Being okay with all emotions
Being aware of, okay with, and ultimately valuing and welcoming a range of emotions is important for emotional wellbeing. It is vital that everyone feels emotionally safe at home, in education settings at work and in the community.
Emotions are a very important indicator, for example, that something is wrong —and when adults unintentionally teach children —through our words and our actions—that some feelings are not okay, children learn to suppress particular emotions that adults are uncomfortable with or are inconvenient. One consequence of this is that children learn not only to suppress emotions but also not pay attention to what their feelings might be telling them—for example, to leave an unsafe situation, to speak up, to seek help.
Here are some other common expressions which discourage the acceptance and expression of emotions:
- ‘Stop being a cranky pants’
- ‘Stop crying’
- ‘Put your tears away’
- ‘You are being angry/ you are angry’
It is important to feel all emotions including uncomfortable ones, experience them and give them time. Educators and parents can help children to be okay with all emotions through being in tune with children, by being with children as they experience difficult emotions, and guiding children to learn appropriate ways to express them. The Gottman Institute has summarised the emotion coaching approach for parents into 5 steps. For educators, emotion coaching offers a way to learn how to help children understand, express and regulate their emotions.
Part of learning how to be an emotion coach involves replacing the above list of responses to children’s emotions with some alternatives.
Here are some examples of words that empathise with, name and accept children’s emotions:
- I understand that you feel frustrated/disappointed/annoyed/ jealous…
- It’s okay to feel overwhelmed/sad/angry/nervous…
- I will sit right here with you while you are feeling left out/scared/embarrassed…
- It is upsetting/annoying/disappointing when…
- It doesn’t feel nice/fair/good when [a certain situation] happens
Educators and parents can help children accept their feelings at the same time as guiding their behaviour – as young children are still learning socially appropriate ways to express emotions. We can do this by saying things like:
‘it’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to hit/bite/yell…’
For early learning services and schools seeking to critically reflect together on practices that support children’s emotional wellbeing, mental health initiatives like Be You can provoke deep thinking about the words and actions we use every day in responding to children’s emotional expression. Ultimately this type of reflection on, and learning about, how to better support children emotionally, is one part of how we can improve mental health outcomes for all Australians.
50 fantastic ideas for exploring emotions
By Sally Featherstone, Phill Featherstone and Kay Margetts
Emotional competence is a gift we can give to a child, but it doesn’t develop without adult support, guidance and modelling. Children developing a strong sense of wellbeing is a core outcome in the EYLF, with personal, social and emotional development at the heart of best practice. Click here to purchase a copy on the ECA Shop.