8 Steps to Teach Your Child to Unleash the Power of Unpleasant Emotions

By Dr Helen Stallman

Unpleasant emotions like fear, guilt, sadness, anger, and frustration are a natural part of being human. While they might not feel great, they play a crucial role in our lives, alerting us to potential threats, losses, or harmful actions. Teaching your child to manage these emotions is essential for their development. Here are practical steps to help your child unleash the power of unpleasant emotions.

  1. Gain the Knowledge to Support

Complete the Care Collaborate Connect: Psychological First Aid online training to gain the knowledge and skills needed to support your child effectively without undermining their ability to cope.

  1. Be a Positive Role Model

Children learn by observing adults. When you experience unpleasant emotions, acknowledge them and use your healthy coping strategies to feel calmer. Consistently modelling this behaviour will encourage your child to do the same.

  1. Listen and Connect

In our busy lives, it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking for quick fixes for problems. This doesn’t help children learn to cope with their emotions.

Take time to notice when your child’s upset; sit with them for a while if they want you to. Listening and understanding is the first step in supporting their coping process.

  1. Enhance Emotional Vocabulary

Help your child develop a rich vocabulary to describe their unpleasant emotions. Avoid vague terms like “anxious” or “depressed.” Ask questions to help your child identify their feelings precisely, such as, “Are you worried about failing an exam or concerned about our opinion if you don’t get a high grade?

  1. Use Care Collaborate Connect

Use your newly acquired Care Collaborate Connect skills to help your child feel calmer. Remind them that problem-solving is more effective when emotions are not running high. Feeling calmer may take minutes, hours, or even days in some cases.

  1. Encourage Healthy Coping

Everyone, including children, has innate healthy coping strategies—things they do to feel better. Help your child identify what strategies work best for them. If they’re old enough you can introduce them to the My Coping Plan app to normalise the idea that we all have healthy ways to cope when upset. If they have a smartphone, suggest they download the app and enter their own strategies.

  1. Explore the Message in the Emotion

Emotions serve as survival mechanisms, helping us stay alert to potential threats. Help your child understand the message behind their emotions. Here are some examples.

EmotionPossible thought
worriedSomething bad may happen.
sadI’ve lost something important to me.
guiltyI’ve hurt someone else.
frustratedI want things to be different.
angryI don’t like this.

After they’ve identified the message the emotion is trying to communicate, help them explore the message. Ask questions such as, Is it a real threat? Can you survive if the threat happens? Do the benefits of doing something outweigh the potential risk of not doing it? Can I cope if the worst happens? Do I need to solve a problem?

  1. Collaborative Problem-Solving

Ask your child if they want or need your help to find solutions to their problems. Don’t assume just because they’re upset that they need help solving the problem. If they want help, use the problem-solving steps you learned in the Care Collaborate Connect training to guide them. Avoid telling them what to do or what you would do, it needs to be their solution. Be sure to check in with them after they implement their solution to see how it went.

Things to Avoid

  1. Using the term ‘negative emotions’: Refrain from labelling these emotions as ‘negative’ since it implies they are bad or unhelpful, when, in fact, they are beneficial and essential for our survival. Instead, use the term ‘unpleasant’ to convey that we may not enjoy these emotions without adding negative connotations.
  2. Supporting your child to avoid situations or experiences associated with unpleasant emotions: Unless a situation poses a genuine threat to their safety, avoidance usually leads to increased fears and missed opportunities for valuable life experiences.
  3. Externalising or villainising their feelings: To foster a healthy, integrated sense of self, children must embrace all their emotions and thoughts and not be afraid of them. Refrain from creating external representations of unpleasant emotions, like “worry monsters” as they can lead children to disassociate a part of their emotional experience from themselves.

Key Points
Remember life is a mix of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. By teaching your child to embrace and manage these feelings, you give them the knowledge and skills to navigate life’s small and large challenges effectively. This reduces the likelihood of your child developing mental illnesses. Your support and guidance are invaluable in helping them unleash the power of their emotions.

Dr Helen Stallman is a leading expert in psychological wellbeing, coping and suicide prevention. Her research has explored the intersection of health and wellbeing, challenging outdated constructs and advocating for a comprehensive perspective on wellbeing. She works to develop a community of care and coping.

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