How to Offer Emotional Support to your Children
When our kids are babies it’s fairly easy to emotionally support them, it’s all about responding to needs, cuddling, and soft voices. When they get into toddlerhood and beyond things start to get tricky, boundaries are fuzzy and it’s way easier to tell when you’re doing it wrong than when you’re doing it right. What’s a parent to do?
Being a parent is a never-ending learning experience, whether you have one kid or ten they are all different little people with different needs and personalities. Offering emotional support is important of course but how can you be sure you’re not doing too little or too much. Aside from that, how can you even know if you’re being effective? While every situation is different, there are some basic guidelines that you might want to keep in mind.
De-escalate with precision
When your child is upset it’s very tempting to want to fix the situation immediately. It’s just plain uncomfortable when they are upset. Our love and caring can get in the way of important lessons if we’re not careful though.
Make sure when you’re calming them down you’re not dismissing their feelings or doing something that could intimidate them into feeling that they can’t share with you.
Mindfulness exercises are a great way to get a situation from over the top to manageable. Make sure your child learns how to self-calm, but in the beginning, they may need more guidance. Breathing exercises, learning to work through anger, anxiety, and fear by centering yourself and focusing on something calm can help process information and feelings more efficiently.
Be a safe space
Nobody is happy all the time and it’s not reasonable to expect that from a child, especially not a child. Children feel everything bigger, stronger, and faster than adults who have learned to cope with disappointments and unexpected situations.
Your child may feel angry, sad, lonely, anxious, or even out of control and all those feelings are valid and real. It’s not wrong to be angry, so don’t punish your child when they show anger. Make yourself into someone who does not judge them for their feelings so that they will feel safe to share them with you.
You can’t always fix everything, or even fully understand why they feel the way they do, but you can listen without harsh words or actions on your part.
Acknowledge their feelings
Resist the urge to fix everything. Discomfort is part of life, acknowledge their feelings and discuss the situation with them. Use mirroring so they can tell you understand.
“What I hear is that you’re sad we can’t go to the park today even though we had planned to. I am sad too, I didn’t know it was going to rain.”
It’s okay to have every kind of feeling, but we must learn to feel them without hurting others. Acknowledging feelings and finding ways to experience them safely is key. While it is okay to feel angry, for example, it is not okay to throw toys or hit people. Help redirect your child to healthy ways to deal with emotions first by talking it through with them, but also by being a good example. When you get frustrated, be sure to use some time to compose yourself and they will see that everyone gets angry, but that it’s what you do during that time that counts.
Know when to lean in, and when to walk away
As children grow they will hopefully learn to manage their emotions on their own and your role will shift from modeling and teaching to listening and supporting. Be careful not to be too reactive and adding to the drama. Also, be careful about being too hands-off which can be seen as cold or uncaring.
Imagine yourself as scaffolding for a new building, your job is to support it before it can support itself, but one day you’ll be removed and the building will stand without you. Little ones need a lot of help, but as they grow you’ll set new boundaries and start to step back more letting them lead the way.
As your child grows they should be solving more of their problems by themselves. A playdate for 3-year-olds might require an adult to monitor sharing, a playdate for 6-year-olds should not unless things are really out of control. Help your child learn when to ask for help and when to try to navigate on their own.
Don’t fully step out of the picture though, make sure you’re watching and listening for signs of when you need to lean in.. If your child’s teacher says they’re not getting along well with others, it’s time to have a talk. Let your child try to come up with an action plan, and offer advice if it’s helpful but try not to be too preachy. You are the facilitator of their social life, not the manager.
Know when to ask for help
If your child is struggling in more than one area of life, if a bad mood or attitude lasts a long time, or if you feel out of your depth to be sure to bring up emotional and behavioral problems with your pediatrician. Counseling may be needed if your child is in a rut and can’t get out alone.
Your doctor can be a partner in making changes at home and school to help your child learn to cope with whatever comes their way, but you have to ask.
Being an emotionally supportive parent can seem overwhelming between figuring out your role in each instance, learning when to let them figure it out or when they really need help, so make sure you also have a safe space to talk with another adult, a person who can emotionally support you is invaluable during the parenting years. Trial and error are the names of the game, each child will be different and you’re probably going to make some mistakes. Apologize, talk it out, forgive yourself and try again next time armed with your new knowledge.