One of the greatest gifts you as a parent can give your child or teen is the ability to handle their emotions. Said another way, teaching children how to identify, reflect on, and deal with their feelings by the time they leave home is one of the best ways to prepare them for adulthood. In fact, it is my opinion that emotional strength and ability will take a person much farther in life than intellectual ability or a specific ability (like athletic or artistic ability).
So what does it mean to identify and handle feelings? Well, to identify feelings simply means to name them accurately. To handle feelings means to sit with them and be able to tolerate the intensity of them. But how is it that teaching your child/teen to do these two things will prepare them for adulthood? The brief answer is that the events in anyone’s life stir up all kinds of intense feelings inside them. If a child/teen cannot tolerate and handle intense feelings, then acting impulsively or avoiding/withdrawing may be done, often to their detriment. So let’s look at this issue in some detail.
To identify feelings is not a simple thing. In fact, in my work as a psychologist I find that not only children and adolescents but most adults have a hard time accurately identifying their feelings. For example, when I ask clients what they are feeling about a situation, words like “upset” and “frustrated” are common responses. And while those are certainly words that describe emotions, they don’t go very far in terms of detail. In fact, it’s similar to someone looking at a buffet in a restaurant and saying there is “food” rather than naming the many different food items. So for a person to say, “I’m feeling upset,” actually implies the possibility of many different feelings.
To handle feelings is also not a simple thing. Feelings can range from weak to strong in intensity. It’s when feelings get strong in intensity that they become hard to handle. At that point feelings become like a “hot potato” and need to be gotten rid of quickly. In other words, when feelings get too intense is when children/teens will often say and do things like misbehave, throw a fit, talk back, withdraw, etc. So one way to keep a child/teen from misbehaving, withdrawing, etc. is to increase their ability to tolerate their feelings; that is, the greater their capacity for sitting with intense feelings the less likely they are to need to get rid of them (discharge them) via misbehavior.
How do you as a parent help your child/teen tolerate their feelings more so they are less likely to act out? You can think of it as a two step process. First, help them identify what they are feeling by asking them directly. (If they say, “I don’t know,” then you can make guesses with them at what they might be feeling.) Second, “be there” with them, that is, sit with them and stay engaged mentally with them for a brief time. (Keep in mind that just by being with them, whether it’s one minute or thirty minutes, communicates that you aren’t scared off by the intensity of what they are feeling.)
Okay, so now that you know a little more about how to help your child/teen identify and handle their feelings, how can this be helpful in terms of preparing them for adulthood? Put simply, their increased ability to identify and handle feelings will allow them to be more patient when confronted by situations in adulthood that cause intense emotions in them. And more patience will lead to them being more likely to mentally sit back and reflect on possible solutions to the situation in front of them. And of course, more patience and more reflection on most situations in life will lead to better outcomes.