Four Steps to Boost Your Child’s Emotional Agility

A child I led to the play yard door refused to wear or carry his jacket. I gently reminded him again to go and get it. He protested and began to cry loudly. We’ve all been there: a distraught child stands before us and we, as caretakers, need to help. What do we do?

My thoughts flashed, “How can I turn this situation around? I need to help this child get outside with his jacket as quickly as possible. Should I not acknowledge his whining and repeat the direction? Do I go get his jacket for him? Do I invest the time to try to calm him down so he’s able to get it himself?”

If it were my son and we were at home, I’d have scooped him up without a  blink, plucked his jacket from the hook myself, then carried him outside on one arm, his jacket on the other.

Before I could act on any of these thoughts, however, Teacher Susan swept in and helped the child move through his feelings with ease in just a few seconds.

Promoting our kids’ emotional agility

We all want healthy, emotionally balanced kids. But sometimes we don’t have the tools to help our kids through these tough moments. Little did I know the article Teacher Susan sent me two days before outlined  the exact tools we’re featuring on this post.  I thought, “Yes! Bingo! This is exactly what Susan did with this child.”

Here are four steps outlined by Dr. Susan David, an expert in emotional agility, to build emotional intelligence in our children.

  1. FEEL the feeling fully.

Instead of trying to reassure, “It’s okay, don’t cry,” try acknowledging the emotion and your child for having his/her own very real feelings.

Teacher Susan knelt eye-level in front of the boy and said calm and low, “You’re upset, you don’t want to get your coat.”

2. SHOW the feeling.

Often we’d prefer our child not cry in a restaurant. Instead of having “display rules” as Dr. David calls them, try as much as possible to allow your child their feelings when and where they are processing them.

Susan acknowledged the situation as she assessed it. The child was eager to join his playmates in the play yard. He didn’t want to slow down and he wasn’t thinking about needing access to a coat to warm him up.  She talked with him then and there, in the midst of the busy transition outside.

3. LABEL the feeling.

When we identify and name the feeling ourselves, it helps us to see it in other people. We begin to distinguish between anxiety, frustration, or stress.

Susan empathized, “Honey, I think you’re feeling anxious as your friends head out to play.  And it’s frustrating to stop to gather your coat.”  Then she calmly reiterated the daily agreement about jacket-wearing or carrying. Predictable, consistent practices help children feel safe and sets them up for success. “You can wear it or carry it,” she smiled.

4. WATCH the feeling leave.

Feelings are transitory. Helping kids see the passing of hard feelings often helps ground them and make them understand that these tough moments pass, and most importantly, ties our positive interaction to the passing of these feelings.

Teacher Susan not only acknowledged his feelings, she also avoided a power struggle by empathizing with his resistance and then lovingly holding firm to the expectation. The child scooped up his jacket and handed it to her to help him put it on.

Dr. David reflects,

We can also help children to remember that we don’t necessarily feel the same emotion every time we have a similar experience. The high dive is scariest the first time. We might feel a lot of anxiety at one party, or in one science class, but have a different experience the next time.”

When I asked Susan  her perspective on nurturing children’s emotional intelligence, she shared:

Feelings give us  important information. We can support emotional literacy by listening to, naming, and validating children’s feelings as they arise. When children are in conflict with one another, we can coach them to notice their own anger, disappointment or frustration. We can help children notice the tightness in their chest or their friend’s furrowed brow. When children invite each other to play or lend a hand to another, we can mirror back their  excitement, joy and satisfaction.  We can help them notice a child’s twinkly eyes or wide open smile.  The problem is not in having the feelings, it’s in stuffing, denying or belittling the feelings when they arise.

When we feel rushed or uncomfortable with a child’s feelings, we sometimes we distract children from their feelings, or plow over their feelings, telling them they’re fine. The irony is that children usually dig in deeper or get stuck if they’re not given the space to actually have their feelings. Adults can play an essential role in helping children move through charged feelings simply by staying connected to children and acknowledging the presence of those feelings. We can teach children self-awareness and compassion by slowing down to honor their feelings. As we do, the feelings will move on, paving the way for the next experience.

The full article in the New York Times by 

For more information about supporting children with a range of emotions, check out Hand in Hand Parenting.

Photo from Flickr user Jessica Lucia.

One thought on “Four Steps to Boost Your Child’s Emotional Agility

  1. Pete Giordano says:

    Part of supporting children’s emotional literacy is honestly sharing about our own feelings as adults. A number of parents are upset right now. A number of us are deeply disturbed by the results of the presidential elections as we fear the President Elect will undermine the rights of many Americans. I think it’s wise to let children, even young children, know that directly. We can tell preschoolers that we are sad and angry because we believe in kindness and we fear that the president elect does not share that basic value.

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