If you’re a parent, then you have no doubt witnessed some BIG emotions in your children. And a lot of the time, those big emotions can really leave you feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to respond. But of course, you do want to help your children in these moments, right?! So maybe you try to do or say things to ease their distress.
However, our attempts to help our children are sometimes not very effective, or can even make the situation worse. And that’s because we often attempt to distract them from their emotions, or try to convince them that things are not so bad. And while this is well intentioned, it can be experienced by our children as dismissive and invalidating. Do any of these sound familiar?
Unfortunately these responses can make our children feel worse, by adding secondary emotions like guilt and shame into the mix, and by creating a disconnect between us and them. When we respond like this, our children receive the message that we don’t understand how they feel. Or worse – that we don’t care.
So what can we do instead? We can acknowledge how our children are feeling and label their emotions!
Research tells us that the simple act of labelling emotions can help us feel calmer. When we name the emotion we are experiencing, something amazing happens inside the brain. Brain imaging studies show that when we are experiencing heightened emotions, labelling those emotions activates the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) and reduces the activity in the amygdala (the feeling brain). Which means naming emotions decreases our emotional reactivity – it puts the “brakes” on our big emotional reactions and helps us feel calmer.
Dr Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child coined the phrase Name it to Tame it to describe this process. He describes it as one of the first steps in managing big emotions and reducing our emotional reactivity.
Of course, a calmer brain is a super important reason to practice labelling your child’s emotions. But it’s not the ONLY reason. So just in case you’re not convinced yet, here are some more reasons to begin labelling your child’s big feelings!
Labelling your child’s emotions shows them that you understand what they are going through. It helps them to feel seen, heard and understood. When children feel that you understand their experience, they are better able to process their emotions and let them go.
Labelling your child’s emotions and validating their experience might sound a bit like this:
Often when I’m working with teenagers in therapy, they really lack the words they need to talk about feelings. They tell me they feel “bad”, or “upset”, or “not great”. But they really struggle to identify the specific emotions they are feeling. And of course, without the language to describe how they feel, children can’t begin the “name it to tame it” process. So processing and moving on from how they feel becomes more difficult. They stay “stuck” in the same old (often unhelpful) patterns of feeling and responding to difficulties.
And of course, when children do not have the words they need to describe how they feel, they will instead show us how they feel. Young children who lack the vocabulary to tell us how they feel will show us with their behaviour. And often this behaviour is disruptive at best (like big meltdowns and tantrums), and harmful at worst (like aggression and lashing out at others). And of course, as children get older, the potential for their behaviour to cause significant harm to themselves or others becomes greater. So we really want to help them build this vocabulary while they are young.
How do we find a solution, without first knowing the problem? We cannot find an appropriate coping strategy for our children if we don’t know what the emotion is that they are feeling. “Upset” really doesn’t tell us much about their internal experience, or what we can do to help, right?
But once we identify the specific emotion, we can begin to understand where it’s coming from. And then, we can work on collaborative problem solving with our kids, or we can guide them towards an appropriate coping strategy. For many people, the coping strategy they use when they feel angry, will be different to the strategy they use when they feel sad, or frustrated, or embarrassed. So it’s important to know what the specific emotion is, and to recognise how it feels in the body, before we move onto problem solving.
When children learn to identify and label emotions in themselves, and have had the experience of someone respectfully guiding them through the process of understanding and managing those emotions, they become skilled at doing this with others, too. When we consistently talk to children about emotions, they learn to identify what those emotions look and feel like in their bodies and in others. And of course, children learn by modelling. So if we are able to help children label and process their emotions, we will notice that they become skilled at helping others through this process too.