If we mention the word ‘education’, many people will think of the 3r’s – Reading, wRiting, and aRithmatic. But these aren’t the only things that our children need to learn. Teaching emotional skills might not be something we consider, but learning them is just as important learning as hard facts (if not more so!).
What Are Emotional Skills?
Emotional skills are tools and experiences that help us to manage our emotions. Life has its ups and downs for all of us and we can’t get rid of the tricky times that our children will face, but we can help them to learn some ways to manage the emotions they feel.
Different skills will be appropriate for children of different ages. Some will be skills that they build on as they grow up. There will be things that work for some children but not others because we’re all different. By teaching a range of skills, our children can figure out those that work for them.
‘Emotional regulation’ might sound like a mouthful, but it just means our ability to recognise and manage our emotions.
For example, a child might have a tricky day at school, come home, and start an argument with their sibling. They might not be able to name their emotions or link the tricky day at school to the argument with their sibling.
What might be happening, is that they’re stressed, tired, frustrated, confused, upset, have an element of sensory overload, and all of this has contributed to a bubbling over of emotions. They have no emotional capacity left to cope with small annoyances that usually wouldn’t bother them. So, when their sibling does something that they can normally cope with, their emotions bubble over and an argument ensues.
Emotional regulation is about helping our child to identify their feelings, and to cope with them in safe, healthy, effective ways. In the above example, we could have previously helped our child to create a metaphorical toolbox of things that help them when everything feels ‘too much’. It might include things like punching a pillow, going on a run, sticking some music on and having a dance party, writing things down, drawing, talking, playing with slime, or sitting quietly playing games on their phone for a bit. Rather than arguing with their sibling, they could whip out a tool or two, and use them to regulate their emotions, stopping them from bubbling over.
Trying to teach these skills to them at a time when stress levels are high isn’t usually effective. It’s often more helpful to reflect on a situation once everyone’s calmed down instead.
An emotional skill that can help our children to regulate their emotions before it gets to the ‘bubbling over’ point, is one of balance.
Outside of school, children might spend time with friends, go to clubs or classes, see family, have caring responsibilities, or do any number of other activities. Even if they want to do these things, we could find that they’re frequently hitting a point where they’re over-tired and struggling to cope. Learning to balance our energy levels and choose those activities most important to us is really tricky, but it’s an important skill that can carry us through life.
We could start by helping our children to recognise when they’re beginning to feel over-tired or over-stressed. For example, if our child has had a tricky day at school, we could encourage them to pause, recognise that they’re tired, and reduce their planned activities that night, rather than, wolfing down their tea, running out of the door, and doing back-to-back activities for three hours, before bubbling over once home again.
Another helpful tool is a visual timetable. On this timetable, we could plan our activities in blocks of time (including downtime). We can then see whether we’re trying to fit more into a day than we have space for. Colour-coding these blocks in themes can help us to see whether we have a good balance between work, rest and play, too.
Taking breaks can be such a difficult thing to do.
As children go through school, pressure mounts, especially as they approach internal assessments and external exams. ‘Revise’, and ‘do your homework’ is often drilled into children and young people, and many won’t prioritise breaks, especially when very stressed.
Prompting our children and young people to take (proper!) regular breaks, can help them to form healthy habits. Doing something fun or silly can help to provide a proper, ‘take your mind off it’, laughter break. There’s a bonus of this particular emotional skill; to prompt our children to take regular breaks, we have to take regular breaks ourselves.
Self-soothing is a vital emotional regulation tool. It’s an emotional skill that many young children do quite naturally, but as we get older, we often stop doing it.
Lots of children will run to an adult for a hug and suck their thumb when they’re upset. Many will have a cuddly toy or blanket that goes everywhere with them. Some will seek out the dog or cat for a stroke and a cuddle when needed. All of these actions are examples of self-soothing. We’re reaching out for something that we know helps us to feel calmer (whether we know that’s what we’re doing or not!).
As children grow up, leave the house more, and start to cope with more complicated emotions, they have to learn ways of self-soothing in different environments.
Some examples of self-soothing tools children could use when out and about include putting lip balm on, using a rollerball, playing with fiddly things, keeping a smooth stone in their pocket, using breathing exercises, drinking cold water, or listening to a certain playlist. At home, they could wrap themselves in a blanket, watch a comfort TV show, have a special teddy (no matter how old they are), ask for a hug, use differently textured blankets, have a lava or bubble lamp, or spend time with a pet.
Different self-soothing techniques will be suitable in different circumstances. Having a range of options to draw on can be helpful. If our child is struggling a lot at school, then we could talk to their teacher about allowing them to use some helpful things that might not ordinarily be allowed in school. For example, some schools don’t allow lip balm or only allow (discrete) fiddle toys in certain circumstances.
When our emotions are reaching ‘bubbling over’ territory, we need a release. Many children and young people, don’t have the language to explain their feelings, which can create an additional layer of frustration.
Various things can offer us some release; different people will have a preference for different methods. Teaching our child lots of ways to release their emotions can help them to find one, or a few, that work for them.
Some examples of ‘release tools’ include kitchen dance parties, sport, punching a pillow, loudly singing to their favourite song(s), sending a scream to Iceland, driving to the middle of nowhere and shouting into the air, doing an active workout, or trying some crafts (particularly those that involve banging or poking things).
Similarly to ‘release’, when our stress bucket is overflowing, we need a way to express that.
Expressing feelings is particularly difficult for children and young people who might not have the language to do so in the way they want to. Thankfully, there are lots of different ways to express things without using the ‘right’ words.
If our children are creative, they might like to try painting, drawing, or colouring. For those who are very ‘huggy’ but don’t know how to ask for one, a code can work; for younger children, this could be a phrase like ‘I feel messy’, for older children it might be as simple as messaging a particular emoji. Active children might like to make up a dance to demonstrate their feelings. Some children might find other people’s words helpful, and like sharing quotes or song lyrics.
Explaining that there isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ way to express our feelings, can open up the lines of communication between us and our child.
At times when we’re calm, and our children are calm, we might find it helpful to talk to our children about specific emotions, and what they might feel or look like. This can help them to name their feelings in future.
With older children, part of learning to express their emotions might be learning to be assertive when they don’t feel okay about something. Often, as children and young people, we’re told that we have to do certain things whether we want to or not. Learning to listen to our body and communicate any uneasiness we feel is an important skill. Encouraging our children to let us know if they don’t feel okay about something can help to build these skills.
When we start to struggle, we often stop breathing properly. We become tense, our breathing shallows, we might start to get pins and needles in our hands and feet, or even lose feeling in them altogether. The more we struggle to breathe, the more stressed we become. Often, we’ll end up breathing in too much and not breathing out enough. This can make us dizzy, so we think we’re not breathing in enough, our breath becomes even shallower as we breathe in more, and the panic cycle continues.
Taking time to pause and breathe properly is an important emotional skill which can can help to keep oxygen flowing around our body, reduce our stress levels, and help us to feel less tense.
For some, who experience panic or anxiety attacks, learning ‘SOS’ breathing techniques can be helpful. This could include things like square breathing, breathing in for four and out for six, or breathing in and holding our breath before we breathe out again.
Preventative, or routine breathing techniques can also be useful. We might like to introduce our child or young person to mindfulness, meditation or yoga. Guided meditations on apps such as Calm or Headspace can help with this. We could practice stretching each morning or evening, or doing a body scan each day, consciously tensing and relaxing each muscle in our body.
Doing these activities with our children can help us to implement them in our own lives, too.
Despite regularly being presented with questions and problems throughout school, our children aren’t always taught problem-solving skills. In the UK, children are often taught how to answer things. They’re not often given the opportunity to figure out a solution themselves. This can mean that when faced with problems in later life they get stuck because they’re not used to problem-solving.
There are lots of different tools that can help with problem-solving. For example. mind-mapping, breaking problems into small parts, trial and error, FACE (Find, Action, Coping, Evaluate), 8-step problem solving, or following an action plan. There are lots of different problem-solving worksheets freely available online which we could work through with our child.
Investigating and exploring solutions to problems can help our children to practice perseverance and increase their overall confidence and resilience.
Being curious can be good for our mental health. Younger children are naturally curious. Most parents of toddlers probably hear the word ‘why’ in their sleep it’s asked so often.
For a lot of children and young people, this curiosity wanes as they grow up. A sense of ‘not knowing’ can begin to feel deeply shameful and uncomfortable, rather than an opportunity to learn. Those who struggle academically can begin to think they hate learning (though they might just hate school).
Teaching our children that questions are okay, and it’s okay not to know stuff, can be such a valuable skill. Building on their interests, encouraging deep-dives into different subjects, and exploring topics together, can help our children to stay curious. When we’re interested in their interests, and properly listen to what they tell us, it can inspire them to keep learning. Looking things up together can also help our children to learn that it’s okay to not know stuff.
As our children grow up, encouraging them to question and think critically about different topics not only helps them to stay curious but can also help them to build a strong sense of identity. Through questioning norms and thinking critically about the information they’re receiving, young people can begin to figure out their own opinions and beliefs, strengthening their sense of self and overall confidence.
Learning to create goals can be a valuable emotional skill. Children and young people have goals placed upon them all the time. From birth, they’re measured and monitored to ensure that they’re hitting ‘key milestones’. In school, they’re instructed to learn certain things, write in specific ways, and achieve 5 A*-C, or ‘9-4’ grades at GCSE. Rarely are they consulted when it comes to these goals, it’s just expected that they will want to reach them.
Goals are so important for our wellbeing and motivation. They can provide us with purpose, a sense of autonomy, and ownership over our actions, as well as a sense of achievement when we reach them. Goals encourage us to figure out what we like and don’t like, and to self-motivate.
When setting goals, SMART is a useful acronym. It stands for: Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Relevant, Time-bound. If the goal is too hard, then it can damage our confidence and eventually de-motivate us. We can begin to feel as though we’ll never reach it so there’s no point in trying. Conversely, goals that are too easy don’t encourage us to try very hard; we can reach them with little effort. Having specific goals at an appropriate level of challenge helps us to feel motivated and gives us a purpose.
As our children grow up, we might find that their self-talk changes. It tends to become more of an internal thing, but the nature of it can change, too.
At school, they might learn that to receive praise for something they’ve done, they have to say it’s rubbish. It’s a bit of a strange one, but something we commonly hear, even as adults. Many of us will recognise the situation of going to tea at a friend’s house, the friend apologising for the food, saying it’s ‘not their best’, and others around the table responding that it’s really nice and not to be silly.
This kind of conversation is so common that we might not realise how odd it is. But it can mean that we internalise the idea of ‘I’m rubbish’, and learn that being proud of ourselves is ‘bragging’.
Helping our children to be proud of themselves and to recognise their effort, achievements and progress, however small, can help to build positive self-talk. Encouraging a growth mindset – the idea that by working hard they can achieve their goals can build positive self-talk, too.
Many children and young people are taught to love their neighbour and to be kind. Unfortunately, when we teach them to be kind to others, we often neglect to mention the need for them to be kind to themselves.
Self-kindness is hard. We all deserve self-kindness; we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we would a loved one (even if we’re not feeling all that self-loving at the time!). But many of us struggle with it.
Having a culture of self-kindness within our home can help to introduce this idea early on. Gently reminding our children to be kind to themselves can encourage them and give them ideas of things to try. Being open about the things we do to be kind to ourselves, can also help to create this culture. We don’t need to make a huge announcement whenever we personally carry out an act of self-kindness. But including it in everyday conversation, can help to make self-kindness something the ‘norm’ within our household.
To teach our children about boundaries, we could explain what they are and what that might mean in practice. We could encourage them to assert their boundaries in a firm but fair way.
If our child does assert appropriate boundaries, then we need to respect them and encourage others to respect them, too. This isn’t necessarily comfortable; if Granddad asks for a kiss and our child says ‘no’, then asking Granddad to respect that might feel icky. But it’s important that we do. If we don’t respect our child’s boundaries then how can we expect anyone else to? To flip it around, if we constantly ignore our child’s boundaries, how can we expect them to respect anyone else’s?
There might be times when sticking to our child’s boundaries isn’t doable. Sometimes we do have to ask our children to do things that they don’t want to do. Getting the balance between safety, discipline, and boundaries isn’t straightforward. When we do need to make decisions that push at our child’s boundaries then acknowledging them, talking through our decisions and explaining our reasoning shows that we still respect their boundaries and view them as important.
Asking For Help
Very young children tend to be quite good at asking for help. But as we grow up, it becomes harder and harder.
This could be for various reasons. At school, children are sometimes told to stop asking questions. Sometimes, children interpret things like ‘you’re growing up’ or ‘you’re a big girl/boy now’ as ‘I need to cope alone and not ask for help’. Some children and young people might desperately want to ask for help, but not know how to. There will also be children who struggle with embarrassment or shame. Sometimes, they fear what the response might be.
Learning to recognise our needs and identify times when we need to ask for help is important. Sometimes, we need to try and figure something out alone first before asking for help. At other times, we need to ask straight away. Teasing these situations apart can be really difficult. Many adults find it hard.
When children do ask for help, the response we give them can affect their future help-asking.
Sometimes they’ll ask us for help with something that has us stumped. We might have no idea how to help. In these situations, we could work to figure out a solution together. For example, they might be doing their maths homework, but the method they use is alien to us. Asking them to explain their understanding so far, then looking at solutions together, can help our children to feel heard and empowered.
Children and young people might ask for help with things that are hard to hear. For example, they might ask for support with suicidal feelings. We might not have any answers and may need support ourselves (which is absolutely okay!). If we do need to reach out to others, then where possible we should let our child know who we’re speaking to, when, and why. Reminding our child that asking for help was the right thing to do, and keeping them involved and the lines of communication open can help them to feel respected and in control.
Modelling Emotional Skills
When teaching our children any emotional skill, our actions must match our words as far as is reasonably possible. Children and young people are very good at picking up when we say one thing and do something different. It can affect their trust in us, and their ability to learn what we’re trying to teach them. By modelling these skills within our own lives, not only will we help our children but we could start to feel more in control of our emotional health, too.
Support Don’t Rescue
When teaching our children emotional skills, it’s important to remember that we can’t ‘save’ our children from difficult situations. We can support them. But we can’t force them to pick up healthy habits. We can’t do it for them, and can’t ‘rescue’ them from the natural ups and downs of life. All we can do is make space for their feelings, and do our best to support them.
Nobody Is Expecting Perfection
This parenting and caring stuff isn’t easy. It doesn’t come with a guidebook and we don’t tend to get time off. There will be days when we snap or forget something and times when our patience is wearing thin.
Nobody is perfect, and nobody is expecting perfection. The most important thing is that our kids are safe and loved. Building in emotional skills can be an important part of that but may take some trial and error. We won’t always get it right – and that’s okay.
Caring is sharing: please share this post with anyone you think might find it helpful.