Parents can empower their children

with tools to manage their thoughts and feelings

by Kathleen Zachary, Psy.D. x325


        Parenting opportunities abound to teach such things as good manners, to be responsible and safe, to get along with others, and to make healthy choices.  Just as parents can capitalize on parenting opportunities to promote physical and social well-being, they can proactively empower children and teens to manage their emotions and thoughts in effective, healthy ways.  Having tools and strategies to manage negative feelings and thoughts makes good sense as surely everyone experiences them from time to time!

        Parents continually role model management strategies.  Paying attention to how you manage your feelings’ expression and consciously deciding if it is what you would like to teach your child is one way to teach management strategies. Parents can promote feelings’ awareness, encourage appropriate feeling expression, and normalize/validate feelings as a part of the human experience by simply labeling feelings and talking about them in everyday conversations.  Sharing simple and age-appropriate experiences with your children further promotes acceptance and teaches coping strategies:  “I felt frustrated today when I had to wait in line and was running late.  After taking some deep breaths and telling myself to be patient, I felt better.” “I felt embarrassed when I did not know how to fill the tire with air and had to ask for help, but I told myself I can learn by asking when I do not know something.” Role modeling strategies, labeling feelings, and sharing experiences promote awareness, validation and acceptance of feeling states.

        Let’s face it: no one likes to feel bad and no parent likes to see their child struggling.  Naturally parents try to reason with their children and attempt to reassure and comfort them when they feel distressed by a negative thought or feeling.  Youngsters typically feel their feelings physically and seek some form of physical release.  In seeking relief, children are less apt to process their feelings and thoughts intellectually in an effort to “understand” them, but rather are more interested in just feeling better and moving on.  Knowing this, parents can encourage children to release their feelings through creative, fun ways that are in line with children’s natural way of expressing.  When parents encourage and demonstrate ways to handle their upsetting thoughts and feelings, children are provided with an opportunity to successfully manage their feelings on their own and a sense of empowerment and efficacy is instilled.  With practice and encouragement, children learn to manage independently in the future as they encounter upsets. 

        Feelings and thoughts can be effectively managed in so many different ways. What works for one may not work for another, thus the key to discovering what works for anyone is to try, practice, and notice the results.  The following are just two examples of management strategies found to be helpful to youngsters and adults alike.  The first, active breathing, relaxes the body, quiets the mind and provides a “breather” by decreasing the intensity of feelings.  While sitting or laying comfortably, place your hands on your belly.  Breathe slowly through your nose into your hands, filling the deep belly first.  Exhale through your mouth as though fogging a mirror.  You can imagine having a balloon in your belly that inflates on the inhale and deflates on the exhale.  A slow, relaxed breath can be further facilitated by adding counting: breathe in for the count of two and breathe out for the count of two.  You can gradually increase the count as long as the breath remains relaxed; if you experience tension or shortness of breath, decrease the number.  Children enjoy challenging themselves by trying to increase their number. Lastly adding colors which symbolize positive and negative feelings is a powerful way to decrease negative feelings and increase a sense of calm.  Imagine feeling calm or happy or good and choose a color that represents the positive feeling.  Next imagine a color that represents the negative thought or feeling.  Breathe in the positive color and breathe out the negative color. 

        The second strategy, thought shifting, is a cognitive tool utilized to identify negative thoughts and their accompanied negative feelings and challenging the thought with an alternative one aimed at instilling a more neutral or positive feeling.  Take for example a child, after being rejected by a peer, thinks no one likes her and something is wrong with her.  She could challenge her thinking with “Just because someone does not like me, does not mean I am unlikable.” Or “I have friends who like me”.  Helping your child identify their thoughts and how it is making them feel teaches them how they think affects how they feel.  Furthermore, exploring ways to shift their thinking demonstrates one can choose what to think about and ultimately choose how to feel

        Management strategies can be taught through role modeling, labeling and normalizing feelings and thoughts, as well as by active teaching.  Parents can take a proactive approach by preparing their children to effectively cope with feelings and thoughts. When parents feel stuck or are unsure what or how to teach strategies, a professional can assist children and their families in discovering effective ways to cope with difficulties.