A question I am often asked by parents is, “how can I help my child to manage their emotions?” Parents who bring their children to me for counselling want to know that their child can talk to someone in confidence and receive support, but also want to know how they can support their child as well. After all, therapy is often a long term intervention: there are no “quick fixes”, no over night changes. Wouldn’t it be great if I had a magic wand and could change things instantly? Sadly, I’m no fairy godmother (though the wings and wand are appealing!) But whilst therapy can take a while, parents want to know what they can do NOW - how do they help their child in the short term?
And here’s my answer …
“Be their anchor”
Being an anchor means being grounded, offering security and stability.
Here are my 6 tips for supporting your child emotionally:
Be aware of any changes in mood: your child becoming more tired or withdrawn for example. Or perhaps they are appearing more irritable. What is their behaviour telling you? Listen and notice changes in attitude, appetite, activities, etc. And be aware of your own responses. How are you modelling your emotional responses?
Make sure they are eating well and getting enough sleep. And don’t forget about yourself! Encourage your child to practise some self care and self compassion, and model it for them. Hopefully we're getting the idea of self care... A hot cup of tea, a manicure, a bubble bath, an early night or a good catch up with friends are just some ideas. But self compassion is a little bit different. It's the way we treat ourselves, speak to ourselves, think about ourselves. Do we forgive ourselves when we make a mistake? Do we speak kindly to ourselves when we are vulnerable? Think about the compassion we show our friends and family. Do we do the same for ourselves?
Keep talking, but also listen. Make sure you communicate, whether it’s via text or face to face. Offer cuddles, hugs and reassurance. But pick your moments: if your child is in the throes of a meltdown, give them a little space. Choose a moment when things are quieter and calmer to talk to them about what you’re noticing. Encourage family conversations, too. Try a “worst bit, best bit” activity around the dinner table (I’m a big believer in families eating together where possible) The idea is that each family member offers their worst bit of the day and their most positive. There’s no need to “fix” the worsts bits or dissect them, just listen and acknowledge. Hopefully this will give everyone the chance to feel they have a voice, but also to be aware of how everyone is feeling and to respond accordingly.
Be truly present when they are talking. Yes, it can be easy to lose concentration and listen with half an ear as they list their litany of woes of the day (from the supply teacher getting their name wrong, to having soggy sandwiches at lunch) but the danger of not fully being present is that you might miss the little thing they slip in, which is actually the thing they are really upset about. Practise active listening, letting them talk without jumping in, and reflect back what you’ve heard, so they know they have been heard, but also so you can help them put a name to the emotions they are expressing: “it sounds like that really embarrassed you…”
Offer, don’t insist. If your child seems upset, angry or worried, of course you want to jump straight in and “fix it”. But sometimes they need to be able to figure things out for themselves. This is how their problem solving and resilience develop. And if you fix everything, sometimes they come away with a sense of helplessness and failure: they need to be able to manage things themselves sometimes, to develop a sense of achievement and independence. Recognise and acknowledge that you can see they are unhappy/anxious/frustrated, offer to listen and do just that: listen. Let them talk, let them figure it out. And if they can’t, then offer to help, but give them the chance to work it out first.
Try and keep an eye on trends, music, slang that is popular amongst your child’s age group. You don’t need to join in, but just having an awareness might help you understand them better.
Aislinn Marek is a qualified person-centred counsellor, registered with the BACP (British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists). She has extensive experience of working within the fields of mental health and education.
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