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Parents should take care in how they handle their children's emotions

Children’s mental health and emotional issues have become a more significant concern for some parents, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The author believes that a warm and responsive parent helps children’s social and emotional development in general.

The author believes that a warm and responsive parent helps children’s social and emotional development in general.

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Children’s mental health and emotional issues have become a more significant concern for some parents, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mental health is a very important aspect of health, and mental issues may influence physical health.

Children’s mental and emotional problems also affect their other aspects of development, such as cognitive development, social development, academic performance, and later achievement.

During the past two years of Covid-19 pandemic, helplines and support chats have reported a surge in the number of cases they received, with even young children seeking help. As adults, how can we promote children’s mental health?

What can we do to help children understand, communicate, and regulate their emotions? These are some questions that many parents may have thought about.

Environment is an important factor for children’s mental health. For young children, parents are key characters in their environment.

A warm and responsive parent helps children’s social and emotional development in general.

A secure relationship between parents and children can also give children a chance to openly talk about their feelings and help them to manage and regulate their feelings.

The way parents interact with children and react to their emotions impacts children’s emotional understanding, emotional regulation, and emotional wellbeing.

PARENTS’ TALK ABOUT EMOTIONS AND THOUGHTS

Shared book-reading, dinner time, and bedtime are all great opportunities when parents can talk about feelings with children to help them better understand and manage their thoughts and emotions.

For toddlers, parents can talk about preferences and desires with their children. For example, during play, parents can say something like: “Do you prefer yellow or pink?”

During mealtime, parents may say: “You want carrots!” While reading books, parents may ask: “What does the bear like?”

These words about desires and preferences can scaffold little toddlers’ understanding about their own and others’ thoughts and emotions later.

For preschoolers, parents can talk more about cognitions (thoughts and knowledge) and emotions and engage in deeper discussions about emotions with them.

For example, when parents read storybooks, they ask questions such as: “How does the bear feel, happy or sad?”, “Why is he happy?”, “What is she afraid of?”,  “Would you be afraid if you were there?”

For older children, parents can engage children in more complicated conversations about emotions, such as the emotions they and others feel in the situation, the causes and consequences of the emotions, as well as the strategies to cope with such emotions.

Labelling emotions and discussing their causes can promote children’s ability to understand and manage their emotions and help them handle emotional situations better.

They will also perform better in social and academic situations, and even become physically healthier.

SUPPORTIVE VS NON-SUPPORTIVE STRATEGIES

Another important way to socialise children’s emotions is through parents’ reactions to children’s emotions. For example, in a shopping mall, a girl wants a toy, but she cannot get it for some reason.

Then she becomes angry and cries loudly. The parents may feel like everyone is staring at them. How should the parents react to the child’s tantrum?

In another situation, a boy is building blocks. He builds a high tower and feels very proud of it. However, the tower is knocked over and falls apart. He is so upset and cries hard. What should a parent do in such situations?

Researchers have found that some parental reactions promote children’s social and emotional development, while other reactions may have a negative impact. How often do you use each of the strategies below to react to children’s difficult emotions?

Help children solve the problem. For example, parents try to help build the blocks or discuss ways to build them. (a)

Help children calm down. For example, parents may comfort children, distract them with other things, or talk about some funny things. (b)

Encourage children to express their emotions. For example, parents tell children it’s okay to cry, encourage children to talk about their feelings. (c)

Punish children. For example, parents tell children that they cannot watch television any more if they keep crying. (d)

Minimise the significance of children’s emotions. Parents tell children it’s not a big deal or say: “You are overreacting!” (e)

Distress. Parents get upset themselves. (f)

Each parent may use more than one strategy or use all these six strategies with different frequencies in different situations.

Most research suggests the first three strategies (a, b, c) are relatively supportive, whereas the last three strategies (d, e, f) are relatively non-supportive.

Children whose parents use more supportive strategies (a, b, c) tend to be better at coping with emotions and have fewer emotional and behavioural problems, such as anxiety or aggressive behaviours.

On the other hand, children whose parents react to their difficult emotions in more non-supportive ways (d, e, f) are more likely to have emotional and behavioural problems.

When children express difficult emotions, parents are encouraged to use more supportive strategies, such as helping children solve the problem, comforting children’s emotions to make them feel better, or encouraging them to express their emotions.

On the other hand, parents should try to use non-supportive reactions less frequently, such as punishment, minimising, and becoming distressed themselves.

In sum, parents can try to promote children’s emotional wellbeing by creating a caring and supportive environment and discussing emotions and other mental states (such as desire, preference, cognition) with children during play, shared-book reading, and other everyday interactions.

When children show difficult emotions, parents can try to use more supportive reactions such as comforting, helping children solve the problem, and encouraging children to express their emotions.

At the same time, they should try to avoid using non-supportive reactions, such as punishment and minimidation.

However, parents are human beings and cannot be perfect. It’s understandable to have some down moments.

Many studies have shown that, among many factors, the mental health of parents, especially mothers, is the most significant factor that contributes to children’s mental health.

As parents, while taking care of children, we should also take good care of ourselves. If you feel overwhelmed and have mental health needs, please seek professional help.

Happy parents, happy children.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Yang Yang is a Research Scientist at the Office of Education Research at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

 

Related topics

mental health emotions Parents children

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