How to Raise an Emotionally Healthy Child
Understanding and teaching emotional health.
Posted Jan 31, 2019
Children want to feel good. It’s a fact of life, like all of us. But being a child isn’t necessarily always simple or easy. Boys and girls get teased, fail exams and get picked last for the sports team. But despite these challenges—and maybe even because of them—children can learn how to become emotionally healthy while using their everyday life experiences.
Psychologist Paul Ekman stated, “It is our responsibility to learn to become emotionally intelligent. These are skills, they’re not easy, nature didn’t give them to us—we have to learn them.” And this is precisely why teaching children earlier, rather than later matters. Boys and girls that learn how to handle their emotions, especially the challenging ones, can develop emotional intelligence, and begin steering themselves toward more positive life experiences.
What is Emotional Health?
Instinctually, we all know what emotionally unhealthy behavior looks like—such as screaming, slamming doors, sassing your mom back and teasing other children. But what does emotional health look like? It begins with a child learning how to identify his emotions, and then express them constructively versus destructively. So instead of pushing Jorge on the playground, Josh learns how to walk away and take deep breaths when angry. This is step one.
Of course, emotional health is a complex topic, which begins with identifying and expressing emotions constructively, but includes much more. The emotionally healthy child is learning how to be flexible, develop the mindset of emotional health, build their character and make smart choices even when emotionally challenged. The way isn’t necessarily smooth, but possible for most children. Some of the skills that children (and yes, us adults) develop in the process is self-control, self-awareness and decision-making abilities.
In my book, The Emotionally Healthy Child, I share the ideas children need to learn and the strategies that help them begin expressing their emotions constructively. Both the ideas and habits together help move a child in a more positive direction.
How to Model Emotional Health
Emotional health is something we learn throughout our lives. Said differently, it’s not a box to check and we’re done with it—we’re constantly learning how to move towards better feelings and release challenging emotions more constructively. But how can we as busy parents and teachers model positive emotional health? Here’s a few ideas:
- Create an Emotional Vocabulary. Helping children identify their emotions is always step one. For example, it’s much easier to handle frustration or irritation then epic anger—so being able to spot emotions and name them when they’re small is essential. One tool I use is “Anger Name” which teaches children to name their anger and creates self-awareness (pg. 78).
- Be Honest (about your feelings). When you’re having a tough day, you can say, “This has been a hard day and I need to take some deep breaths.” Remember children learn more from who you are than what you say—so be honest about your feelings (in age appropriate ways) and do your best to find healthy outlets for them.
- Use Strategies (to calm, and constructively express emotions). Emotionally healthy children learn how to use strategies to calm and manage their emotions intelligently. They may take deep breaths, sit in the “reset chair” in their classroom, or learn another technique—at home or school—that helps them come back to emotional balance. For example, bubble breathing is an exercise in my new book, which helps children learn to use their breath to calm (pg. 80-81).
- Learning Together Whether today’s emotional challenges involve helping your child disconnect from devices, cope with a disappointment or something else—your son or daughter needs your support in learning about their emotions and what to do with them. Remember, a child who is “behaving badly” simply doesn’t yet have the skills to handle them, but with new ideas and tools they can do something differently (and feel better!).
Healy, Maureen (2018). The Emotionally Healthy Child. Novato, CA: New World Library.