Behavior & Environment

How to Model Handling Your Own Difficult Emotions

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Many of us are aware of how important it is to acknowledge our kids’ feelings, especially the negative ones. We do it every day. However, how often do we share our negative feelings, our process for moving through them, and our behavior choices around them? 

It’s easy for us to share our feelings when we’re happy, grateful, excited, or have other positive emotions. It’s a lot more difficult to be honest about how we feel when we’re angry, sad, scared, or have other negative emotions. However, sharing those negative emotions, how we work through them, and the choices we make in spite of them are how our kids learn those emotions are OK, in fact they’re normal, and how to best manage them. We can tell a child a thousand times it’s OK to be angry but if they never see us angry, the message rings hollow. 

Below are a few guidelines for modeling negative emotions. Let’s use an example of getting pulled over for speeding to unpack the steps. In the example, all the steps happen in a short span of time. In more complex situations, they happen over a longer stretch of time.

1. Make it age / maturity appropriate.

Adult emotions can be scary for kids. Share your emotions in a way that allows the message to get through while still holding a safe space for your child. 

  • DON’T go into a screaming rant even if it isn’t directed at your child. An out-of-control adult is always scary.
  • DO name your feeling and allow your tone to reflect that feeling. Saying I’m angry in a calm or chipper sing-song voice just confuses kids and sends the message you’re not allowed to sound angry even when you are. Say something like “UGH! I’m angry I’m getting pulled over! It’s the last thing I need right now.”

2. Verbalize your process for moving through your emotions and making behavior choices.

This process will be different for everyone. 

  • DON’T just keep complaining, continue to get more and more worked up, then argue with the officer.
  • DO ask yourself or others questions – “I wonder why he’s pulling me over? / Why are you pulling me over”.
  • DO listen to your inner voice or others gain clarity – “I think I was speeding” / “You were going 45 in a 30 MPH zone”.
  • DO outline your choices – I can continue to be angry about something I can’t change, the ticket isn’t going away, I know I wasn’t speeding but I can choose to let go of my anger and put my energy into fighting it in court, or I can admit I was speeding, feel disappointed in myself for a bit, and think of the ticket as a good reminder to drive the speed limit. 

PAUSE, CONSIDER, CHOOSE I’m going to admit I was speeding and remember today when I want to speed the next time.

3. When you’ve made a bad choice, admit it, apologize, and make amends if necessary. 

  • DON’T speed. When you do…DO admit you were speeding to the officer.
  • DO tell the officer you’re sorry for breaking the law.
  • DO pay the ticket without complaining.

4. Never blame a child for your feelings. Be fully accountable for your emotions and your actions.

  • DON’T tell the kids you were speeding because they were so slow getting out of the house this morning.
  • DO let them know that no matter what kind of morning you had, you made the choice to speed so getting pulled over (and being angry) is the consequence of your choice.

Sharing your negative emotions can feel very scary at first. Many adults aren’t confident in their “feeling management” tools even though they teach them to kids. Making this a regular practice will help you hone your tools and be a real-world example to the kids you care for.