Teaching kids how to understand & navigate emotions, feelings & thoughts

In this podcast (episode #493) and blog, I talk to Oyindamola, a concerned parent, about her preschooler’s emotional reactions and how to help him manage how he feels in the moment. This is part of a series I am doing on questions you submitted for my new book on children’s mental health.

This was Oyindamola’s question:  

“Why does my preschooler (4 years and 5 months) tend to cry at a range of issues which seem understandable e.g. stubbing his toe or spilling a meal to others less so such as, his nanny leaving before he could say bye, water touching his face during a shower (despite the fact this is part of the process every morning)? It could be said that these examples have in common a perceived lack of agency but they seem to vary in magnitude quite a lot. We try various things: listening to the issue in his own words, asking him to take deep breaths, acknowledging his feelings, and asking him to proffer solutions but sometimes it just doesn't seem to work.” 

One of the best things we can teach our children is how to communicate how they feel from young—to teach them how to tell their own story. Even though children learn how to say how they feel as they grow and develop their language skills, this doesn’t mean they don’t feel, understand or experience what happens to them in deep, intense ways. Indeed, children understand more than we give them credit for! It is up to us as parents and guardians to teach and encourage them how to communicate what they are experiencing by not only giving them the tools to say what is on their mind, but also making sure that we are creating a safe space at home that lets our children know that they can approach us and express how they feel without being shut down or judged. 

We can help our child learn how to navigate what they are going through and how to communicate how they feel by teaching them how to manage the emotional and mental energy they experiencing in the moment. We want to help our children channel this energy in a healthy direction so they can better process and manage the intensity they feel.  

To do this, we can lead our child through a calming exercise to help transfer some of this pent-up energy. I call this a “brain preparation” exercise, and I discuss how to do this in detail in my upcoming book on children and mental health, How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess, which is now available for preorder. The purpose of the brain preparation exercise is twofold. First, they prepare the mind, brain, and body for the process of digging up the roots of the thought, which can be an emotionally challenging exercise. Second, brain preparation exercises are also useful as general calming exercises. These activities are something you can use to calm your child’s mind and brain whenever they are worked up, upset and can’t focus. 

One of my favorite brain preparation exercises is deep breathing. You can help your child learn how to do this by teaching them to take a deep breath in for three seconds, then forcefully expel it out for seven seconds. Your child can do this standing up, sitting, or lying down—whatever is most comfortable for them. You can describe the process like this: “Put your hand on your tummy. Now, take a very big, deep breath in while I count to three, then push it out as hard as you can while I count to seven.” For younger children, simply tell them to copy you taking a deep breath in and a forceful breath out, as they may not be able to follow your counting. Of course, we need to remember that every child is different, so you can adjust this exercise for your child depending on their capacity to hold their breath or what feels comfortable for them; we don’t want to make them more stressed out than they already are!

Next, we want to better understand what our child is feeling in the moment and why (the root), so we can help them walk through the process of managing how they feel in the moment. This will give them the tools to better handle their own emotions and mental health in the future—it is one of the most invaluable life skills we can teach them! 

To do this, I recommend using the 5-step Neurocycle process I discuss in detail in How to Help Your Child Clean Up Their Mental Mess

Walk your child through the first step: gathering awareness of how they are feeling by observing their warning signals (their emotions, behaviors, perspective and physical reactions) 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 it when my nanny leaves.” (perspective warning signal)

Next, walk them through reflecting and writing/playing/drawing what they feel, which will help them better understand what their warning signals above are pointing to—the root of what is affecting them. 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?

Following this, encourage them to draw, act out, or play out how they feel and their responses to the reflect questions. 

Next, help your child work out how to make the situation better. This is called the recheck step, where you encourage your child to explore their feelings and thoughts and try to find a way to make what happened to them better. For example, you can say something like:  

“You may be sad or frustrated because you miss your nanny. You know it is okay to be sad, and this won’t stop you from seeing your nanny again and having a great time with her. Next time, you may be sad even if you don’t cry, and that’s okay, because we all get sad when someone we love leaves. You know you aren’t bad because it’s okay to cry or miss someone—this is something we all experience and have to learn how to deal with.” 

The final step, the Active Reach, is like taking a “treatment” or “medicine” each day to help their thinking and feelings get better. In this step, help your child come up with ways they can manage how they feel when they are upset, overwhelmed or unwell. These are actions and things your child can do that are pleasant and happy, which help them stabilize what they have learned in the previous 4 steps and anchor them in a peaceful place of acceptance ( where they transfer all that chaotic energy into positive mental energy).  

A good example of an Active Reach involves getting your child to practice a statement like “I can do this even though I miss my nanny” while enforcing this statement with an action, like reading an encouraging quote, looking at a beautiful drawing, tapping their feet, hugging a pet, or doing a breathing exercise when they feel like crying again. 

Remember, throughout this process, give yourself permission to be messy! Parenting is hard, and we all make mistakes. As long as we are trying our best to support, love and care for our child, and we are willing to grow along the way, then doing the best we can in the moment while accepting and learning from our failures is one of the best things we can do as parents. 

For more on children’s mental health, listen to my podcast (episode #493). 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.        

This podcast is sponsored by:   

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Podcast Highlights 

2:40 Helping a preschooler navigate intense emotional reactions 

4:33 The importance of teaching your child to tell their own story & communicate how they feel  

5:20 Children understand a lot more than we give them credit for!

7:10 Messy parenting is normal & okay! 

9:00, 38:44 How to use mind management to help your child manage their thoughts & emotions  

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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