Emotions are an important part of life and children sometimes feel them intensely. The ability to relate to emotions in a healthy way is referred to as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence allows children to talk about emotions, learn from what they are feeling and respond in an appropriate manner to what they feel. Parents and caregivers can nurture emotional intelligence in children through validating emotions.
Validating a child's emotions means to acknowledge their feelings without criticism. Sometimes parents may feel uncomfortable with the feelings of their children. It is okay for a parent to say in a matter-of-fact manner that sometimes strong emotions are uncomfortable, but that she is there to listen and be with the child. Children feel heard and have the space to express how they feel when parents validate emotions by listening and reflecting feelings. If a child is screaming and kicking a parent can say, "It seems like you may be feeling really upset or angry." Allowing children the space to feel helps nurture trust, which can result in more cooperation, according to child psychologist Laura Markham.
Strong feelings can be very intense for children. Anger and sadness can feel overwhelming. A child may lash out because he does not know what to do when he feels big emotions. When parents validate emotions through listening and labeling feelings children learn ways to communicate about what they are feeling. If the parent asks the child to clean his room and the child slams the door or throws a toy the parent can say something like, "I see you may be feeling very frustrated about being asked to clean your room." This simple reflection gives language to the feeling so in the future the child can talk through the feeling instead of slam the door.
Feelings have a purpose. They are communicating something to the child. Sometimes the child may not know the purpose. He may just feel wronged. Sometimes he is correct and sometimes he may need some gentle help figuring out the purpose of his feelings. When a parent validates his emotions by helping him identify them he has a doorway into himself with the potential for learning. If a child is crying the parent may reflect, "I see that you may be feeling very sad. What is that sad feeling telling you?" This starts a conversation so the child can talk about what he feels.
Children who are able to talk about their feelings can learn to respond appropriately when they feel them. When a parent validates the child's emotions he begins to listen to his feelings and learn that he can respond by choice when he feels upset. These times can be used for understanding. Markham suggests discussing appropriate ways to respond when everyone is calm. For example, if a child regularly screams whenever it's time to leave a friend's house, the parent can talk about the strong feelings and some alternatives to screaming such as stating how he feels, taking a few deep breaths, asking for what he wants or asking for a hug.
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