November 08, 2023
Raising Emotion Scientists
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
After a sporting event this weekend, I’ve been mulling over what constitutes real success and what success means to different people. When you think of success, do you think of a dream job? A big house and luxurious holidays? Winning gold medals or trophies? Achieving top grades? Fulfilling an ambition? Having strong interpersonal relationships? Well, Professor Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, once told me that, “True success is learning how to use your emotions wisely to achieve your personal goals and wellbeing.” Food for thought.
For both us and our children, evidence shows that a well-developed level of emotional literacy is not only beneficial for mental health and wellbeing, it also enhances our relationships with others and boosts academic achievement. Research has shown that we are drawn to those who are supportive, compassionate, empathic and who create a positive emotional climate.
We know that when children are able to recognise and name different emotions, and articulate how they feel at different times, they are less likely to become intensely frustrated or upset when they meet inevitable life challenges. When they can understand their feelings and determine their source, they may feel more able to tell someone when they are having a bad day. When they have developed a bank of effective coping skills to keep in their psychological rucksacks, they are less likely to feel emotionally overwhelmed. It likely sounds obvious, but as Professor Brackett acknowledges, all this is far from simple. In fact, it’s something that we all need to work extremely hard to achieve as “developing true social-emotional skills is hard and lifelong work”. It requires effort, perseverance, consistency and meaningful, practical strategies to become what he calls an ‘emotion scientist’.
According to Professor Brackett, emotion scientists try not to react in the moment, without taking time to think first. They are curious, inquisitive and analytical. They listen carefully to what others say and do, and focus on facts, rather than making assumptions. They are good friends to other people. They care about how others feel and when they ask, “How are you?”, they really want to know the answer. They like to reflect and think carefully about their own emotions and are keen to explore different ways of managing them through trial and error.
Sounds great! But how can we help our children to become emotion scientists? What tried and tested methods can help them to understand and regulate their emotions better?
Well, the first step is to value and work on the extent to which both we and our children experience, share and express emotions within family life. We need to model how we regulate our emotions rather than letting them regulate us and, as families, share strategies for dealing with the rainbow of emotions that characterises daily, human experience. Being aware of how we deal with our own feelings and being conscious of what we model to our children is the first step in building their emotional literacy.
In his excellent book, Professor Brackett issues a stark warning to parents about legacy and the importance of modelling the approaches we wish to see: “Our attitudes [to emotions] get passed along to our children, who learn by taking their cues from us. Some learn to suppress even the most urgent messages from deep inside their beings, as we may have learned to do”. The cost of not acknowledging how our emotions affect our bodies, our actions and our relationships with others is probably higher than we want to consider.
Perhaps it is worth us all taking a moment to consider how often we share our own feelings? Do you talk to your children when you have had a bad or a ‘meh’ day? Do you talk about why you are feeling well and content? Do you speak about feelings in simple terminology, or do you utilise the vast and nuanced range of emotional vocabulary available to us? Normalising the everyday ups and downs of our emotional lives is key here. Take a moment to reflect. Do you think that you try to hide your own struggles? If so, the next time that something doesn’t quite go to plan, why not be a little more open about the problem and about the strategies that you use to help - in age-appropriate ways of course.
We all have a toolkit of things (people and activities) that tend to make us feel better when we are overwhelmed and which help us to respond calmly to situations, rather than react in a potentially damaging way. Perhaps you reframe negative situations? Distract yourself with music, a dog walk or a bath? Get an early night? Make time for physical activity? Whatever you do, talk about it with your children. Help them to work out what helps them!
It’s vital not to dismiss children’s feelings if they have a bad day, or if they express anger, anxiety or sadness about something. Take time to chat about tangible experiences from their daily lives. Perhaps they had an argument with a friend? Perhaps they found some work at school frustrating? Perhaps a parent was late picking them up? How did it make them feel? Listen carefully, ask exploratory questions and show empathy. If you have ever been lucky enough to be asked these kinds of questions by a genuinely curious questioner, you will appreciate that having others taking an interest in our feelings can help us feel deeply valued.
Children and teens may struggle to understand how to answer questions about feelings. Younger children may not possess the vocabulary to furnish an adequate response. It can be helpful to point them to images and emojis. Talking about characters in stories, picture books, cartoons and films, and how characters might be feeling can be an effective way to kickstart conversations. You might ask, Have you ever felt like that? It can be hard for teens to ‘open up’, but we should try to teach them that vulnerability is a strength. They might be interested in Professor Brackett’s free app, How We Feel (we are huge fans at Tooled Up). It encourages users to check in with their feelings daily and help them to learn the right words to describe their emotions, spot trends and patterns, and practise simple strategies to regulate their emotions in healthy ways.
We can all strive to improve our ability to take a breath before we react emotionally to a situation. Mastering this ‘meta-moment’, as Professor Brackett calls it, requires conscious thought, but it can help us to avoid making potentially damaging decisions as a result of temporary emotions. It’s a skill that we should try to build early in life, as equipping our children with this ability is likely to reap rewards in their later experiences and relationships.
Want to give it a go? Firstly, be aware of what activates you and sense the change in your emotions when it strikes. Secondly, before you react, take a moment to step back and breathe. Thirdly, see your ‘best self’ and fourthly, reach for one of your go-to coping strategies and respond through this lens. Professor Brackett advises that we can make this a creative and exciting process for our children. Our children already have vast experience of social and academic challenges, emotional ups and downs, disappointments and thrilling adventures. We should remind them what they are capable of and that it is simply about dusting off coping skills, rather than cultivating them from scratch. If you’d like to learn more, check out this article.
Finally, we want to encourage our children to be kind to themselves and that means being kind to ourselves too. It might be worth considering how you talk or think about yourself. Do you ever beat yourself up over little mistakes? When we model an approach that is steeped in kindness, forgiveness and compassion, towards ourselves and others, our children will be less likely to talk or think about themselves in such harsh tones. Why not try to use self-affirming phrases within family life and see if you start to hear your child using them too?
Of course, sometimes, emotions can simply become overwhelming and this can lead to a meltdown. In simplest terms, a meltdown is a stress response. They might occur because of sensory or cognitive overload, lack of movement, a change to predictable routine or masking (where children conceal or hide their inherent traits for extended periods - often during the school day).
Meltdowns are often part and parcel of life with younger children. It takes time for children to develop the capacity to manage big senses, feelings, stimuli and demands, and sometimes a meltdown is an unconscious reaction to the stressor. For children with autism, meltdowns may be stronger and more frequent. The most critical thing to remember is that meltdowns are not a choice and your child will be doing the best they can with their emotional resources.
When our children have meltdowns, it can leave us parents feeling unsettled, confused, de-skilled and helpless. But, in a situation that might feel chaotic and out of our control, it’s empowering to learn that there is plenty that we can do to be effective emotional co-regulators in the moment. The following tips were given to me by neurodiversity and early childhood specialist, Kerry Murphy and they are really useful to bear in mind if your child experiences big, uncontrollable emotions.
Firstly, in the event of a meltdown, we need to manage our own emotions. Meltdowns can feel messy, uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing. Our own stress levels rise in response to our children’s stress and the impact that their behaviour is having on them, us and others in our immediate environment. Whilst this is challenging to manage, try to remember that if we weigh in with our own strong emotions, we are simply adding fuel to an already raging fire.
If a meltdown occurs, best advice is to pause and take a moment to ensure that our own strong emotions are regulated and that we keep our own stress levels in check (a meta-moment if you like!). Kerry advises taking a long inhalation to ground ourselves, actively relaxing muscles as we are likely to have tensed up and purposefully relaxing our voices slightly. We want our body language and tone to be non-threatening and calming.
Remember that in moments of meltdown, our children’s capacity for logical thinking is diminished. Trying to get them to tell us what is wrong or asking questions about how they are feeling is unlikely to be fruitful and may escalate the situation. We’ve probably all used the phrase, ‘use your words’, especially with young children, but during a meltdown is not the time. Instead, it’s more effective and powerful to simply let them know that you are going to stay with them, or that you will both move away to somewhere quieter. Having some calming phrases that you know help your child is useful. As parents, our aim in these moments is to de-escalate the situation. You know best whether loving, tactile support or a hug is likely to help your child or add to their stress. Older children might be able to copy your deep breathing. It’s always important to avoid physical restraint, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Kerry also suggests giving yourself and them plenty of time to decompress before embarking on any reflective conversations. Whilst addressing the situation by encouraging your child to think about the meltdown, focusing on strategies that they could use to help prevent it happening in the future and talking through any family rules that have been broken is vital, immediately after a meltdown is not the time for a teachable moment. There needs to be a rest period, for both child and adult.
As there can be many causes of meltdowns, providing blanket advice for preventing them is tricky. However, in general, the following might be helpful. Try to identify sensory triggers and sensory soothers in order to alleviate any sensory pressure felt by your child. Where possible, break down information and demands, so that they are less likely to become overwhelmed, strengthen communication by using visuals, props and predictability, and encourage autonomy by providing (limited) choices. Try not to view any differences in their interests or personality as problems that need to be fixed. When we affirm who our children are, they are under less pressure to mask and are less likely to experience prolonged experiences of stress. It's also a good idea to incorporate familiar routines and rhythms into their day, and strengthen these using visuals, prompts and regulating rituals.
Finally, remember that meltdowns are challenging to deal with and we won’t always get it right. Make sure that you cut yourself some slack. If it happens when you are out and about, you may feel like everyone is staring at you, but mainly, they are looking on with sympathy and have likely been there, done that, themselves in the past.
If you’d like some further reading on meltdowns, Kerry thoroughly recommends The Explosive Child by Dr Ross Greene.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
Parents in Tooled Up schools and organisations already have access to a wealth of resources designed to promote emotional literacy in children from a young age. To find them, simply browse the resource library and select the resource topic, ‘Emotional Literacy’. As a starter, take a look at our Quick Guide, which will point you in the direction of numerous relevant resources. Make sure that you also check out our book list, which is packed with relevant reading material for young people of all ages.
If you’d like to hear all about emotional literacy straight from the expert, listen to our interview with Professor Marc Brackett, to learn how to become an emotion scientist and discover some practical tips for promoting emotional literacy at home. We’ve also created activities to help both younger and older children to think about the skills they need to become emotion scientists.
You can also…
Use our Mood Thermometer with younger children to help them identify how they are feeling, in the moment.
Understand anger better by watching our webinar with clinical psychologist, Dr Anna Colton.
Use our Describing Anger activity to expand children’s vocabulary around anger, help them to explore this emotion and develop strategies to manage it.
Promote active coping with our Coping Menu. Use it as a family!
Find out more about meltdowns from Kerry Murphy.
You might also be interested in our Q&A with consultant psychiatrist, Dr Anna Conway Morris, which is in the library now and includes advice on a variety of topics including ADHD, autism, anxiety, tics, friendships, homework and empathy.