How to help sensitive children manage their emotions

In this podcast (episode #501) and blog, I talk to Alicia, a concerned mother, about helping sensitive children manage their emotions. This is part of a series I am doing on questions you submitted for my new book on children’s mental health. 

This was Alicia’s question: 

“How do I help a sensitive seven-year-old move on after they make a mistake? I have a very sensitive seven year old girl. She likes to follow the rules. However, she does from time to time need some course correction. When I do so, she instantly withdraws, and becomes very quiet and sad, often for a long amount of time. I have a hunch that she’s beating herself up about whatever mistake she made, and I would love some help figuring out how to help her receive correction without being so hard on herself.” 

First, it is important to remember that in situations where we feel that we are affecting our children’s mental wellbeing or when are not sure how to help our child, we need to give ourselves permission to be “messy parents”. As I have mentioned on my podcast and in my blogs, this means embracing our feelings and mistakes and learning from them, using them to grow and learn as parents. It means using our own struggles to help our children understand how to manage the “messiness” and challenges of life through example and open communication. Indeed, one of the best ways we can teach our children how to manage their mental health is by modeling how we deal with life’s difficulties, including how we parent them and how we embrace, process and manage our own mistakes. 

It is also important to remember that no one can truly prepare us for all the things that come with parenting. We can read a thousand parenting books and do a lot of research, but at the end of the day, our experience as a parent will be unique. One of the worst things we can do as parents is to compare ourselves to other parents, even the ones we read about in books or articles. Not only is this demoralizing, it can also lead to a lot of bitterness and resentment if left unmanaged. Yes, we can learn from others and turn to them for support and advice when needed, but we should avoid the temptation to “cookie cut” their experiences onto our own. 

When it comes to raising children, there is no how-to manual that will help us become perfect parents who never make mistakes and never mess up. The conversation on how to be a better parent is a never-ending one, and a lot of parenting is based on experience, even when our children grow up and leave the home! This is why we should embrace, not run away from, “messy” parenting. If we try to hide from or suppress our emotions and missteps, we will never learn from them or grow as parents.     

When it comes to our children and their own mental and emotional struggles, we also want to let them know that it is okay to be a “mess”. We do not want them to think there is something wrong with them if they feel emotional or are sensitive to their environment.  

However, we should encourage our children to also see their emotions as messengers telling them something is going on in their life. We need to let them know that it is okay to be a mess, as long as we learn how to manage this “mess” and find ways of moving forward. We need to validate their emotions AND encourage them to find solutions. We want to help our children find ways of managing their feelings in the moment as they respond to the challenges of life. This is one of the best life skills we can teach our children! 

When dealing with a more sensitive child, it is incredibly important to watch what we say and how we respond to our children. If you feel like you are about to respond in a frustrated or upset manner, give yourselves a few moments to calm down. I personally love what I call “the 10 second pause rule”. Before saying anything, pause and breathe deeply for at least 10 seconds. This will give your mind, brain and body time to calm down, and can help de-escalate a tense situation. You can repeat this three or four times, or until you feel calmer. Focus on how your breath feels going in and out, or how this type of breathing is calming down your mind and brain. You can even visualize what you think this looks like in your brain and support this with a statement like “I can have a moment before I respond.”  

Then, when you feel calmer, think of ways you can let your child know that it is okay to feel sad, disappointed, upset or angry. You can do this by saying things like “I see that you are upset. Let’s work through this together”. Try to avoid statements like “Stop overreacting” or “It isn’t that bad,” which can make your child feel worse, like there is something wrong with them for feeling the way they do.

It is also important to remember than every child is different, so what works for one child may negatively impact another child. Just like us, children have their own unique personalities and needs. This means that, as parents and caregivers, we need to be adaptable, learn from what doesn’t work, and listen to our child and what they are trying to tell us through their words and behaviors.  

We can do this is by creating an open and safe environment where our children know that it is okay to talk about how they feel and come to us when they make mistakes or are feeling sad or alone. One of the best ways we can do this is by being honest with our children about our own feelings and struggles (in a way that is developmentally appropriate). For example, when you are having a bad day, be honest with your child and talk through your feelings while also encouraging them to express their own feelings. You could say something like, “I am not feeling so happy today and we all have days like that. Do you ever have days like that?” or “It is okay to not always feel happy, sometimes we have those moments where everything seems hard. But when I don’t feel happy I try to talk about it or write it down or do things that make me feel better. When you don’t feel happy, what do you like to do?” When you do this, you are not only being honest with yourself and validating your own feelings, but you are also teaching your child to validate theirs and letting them know it is okay to talk about what you are going through. You are creating a safe space where uncomfortable emotions like anger and sadness are normal and part of life. 

Another example is letting your children know when you have made a mistake and how you are going to move forward. When you do this, you show them that failure doesn’t define who you are as an individual. Sitting down and explaining your actions creates a space where your child learns that, no matter where they are in life or what they have done, their failures don’t define who they are or their worth. 

In a similar way, we can encourage our children to embrace their emotions instead of fearing them or suppressing them. We want to let them know that it is okay to feel things like sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety and so on, and that these are normal human reactions to life that we all experience. We can then help them see their emotions as messengers, telling them that something is going on in their lives that they need to look at and address. 

Once your child feels like what they are going through has been heard and acknowledged, then you can help them learn to self-regulate how they are feeling in the moment to find solutions or ways of moving forward. To do this, I recommend walking them through the mind management process I have developed over the past three decades, called the Neurocycle. This is a clinically-researched system that helps rewire thought patterns by breaking thoughts down into their different elements, analyzing them from all angles and creating solutions that help change thinking patterns and habits, which is a way to harness your thinking power to change. (I discuss this in detail in my upcoming book, How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, which is now available for preorder.) 

The Neurocycle has 5 steps: 

First, walk your child through 1. Gathering Awareness of how they are feeling by observing their warning signals more deeply. For example:

- “I feel worried and frustrated.” (emotional warning signal)

- “I have an upset tummy.” (bodily sensation warning signal)

- “I want to cry and not talk to anyone.” (behavior warning signal)

- “I hate school.” (perspective warning signal) 

Next, walk them through 2. Reflecting and 3. Writing/Playing/Drawing what they feel, which will help them better understand what their warning signals above are pointing to. You can encourage them to ask themselves questions like: 

- Why do I feel sad and frustrated?

- Why is my tummy sore?

- Why do I want to cry and not talk to anyone? 

The 4. Recheck step will help your child work out how to make the situation better. In this step, encourage your child to explore their feelings and thoughts and try to find a way to make what happened to them better. 

Lastly, the 5. Active Reach step is like taking a “treatment” or “medicine” each day to help their thinking and feelings get better. Help your child come up with ways they can do this when they are feeling overwhelmed or unwell. This step is characterized by actions and things your child can do that are pleasant and happy, which stabilize what they have learned and anchor them in a peaceful place of acceptance. This step is great at teaching children to try and look for solutions rather than get stuck in their emotions, which is an important part of building a child’s mental resilience.  

For more on parenting and children’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #501). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).     

Preorder my new book How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess before August 7th, 2023 to receive exclusive bonuses, including access to a 1-hour webinar + Q&A session on back-to-school tips and strategies to help your child mentally prepare for the year ahead! You can preorder here.      

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Podcast Highlights

1:52 Alicia’s story & experiences as a parent 

3:45 Why we need to give ourselves permission to be messy parents 

6:32 Why we need to let our children know it’s okay to be a “mess” 

11:26, 14:00, 21:25 How to use mind management to help your child manage how they feel in the moment  

38:10 How our experiences impact our minds, brains & bodies, and how to manage this  

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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