Opening an Emotional Dialogue with Your Young Child
Sometimes it's hard to know how to talk with our young children. Learn how you can open an emotional dialogue with your kids and teach them to communicate their feelings.
A generation ago, there was more free time for kids to hang out with our parents, siblings, and even kids down the block. Divorce was less common, and more mothers were able to stay home with their children. Because of that, there was more oppurtunities for children and parents to talk both about the serious and–just as importantly–the not-so-serious stuff.
Today when a child feels sad or distressed, many parents are unsure about how to address her feelings in a meaningful way. Some parents avoid talking to their children about feelings because they feel ill-equipped to deal with such issues. But ignoring the problem will not help it go away. Behavioral experts, including pediatricians, psychologists, and doctors who have written on the health of families, say that open communication is more important than ever due, particularly in today’s high-stress lifestyle.
Dr. Debra Mandel, licensed psychologist, radio talk show host, and author of Healing the Sensitive Heart, notes, “If we deprive our kids of learning how to express their feelings, they end up living a less-than-full life, often suffering from conditions like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy.”
Dr. Paul Pearsall, author of The Power of the Family: Strength, Comfort, and Healing, comments, “As hard as we have tried to give our children everything, the reality of today’s fast-paced lifestyle has resulted in a kind of emotional homelessness. Families seldom eat or play together, and much of the joy of growing and learning has been replaced with trying to provide material things for our children to give them a competitive advantage.”
“Our children spend more time on the Internet than on our laps,” laments Pearsall. “Daycare centers, computers, and shopping malls are the home that we offer our young people.”
Many childhood experts point to the rise of two-income households, leaving working parents with less time to spend with their kids. According to a 1998 study by the University of Michigan looking at how family life changed for children from 1981 to 1997, free, unstructured time for children between ages three and eleven dropped from 63 hours per week to 51 hours per week. Family experts say that free time for children has continued to drop since 1997.
One Mom’s View
Melissa, a stay-at-home mother of three children under the age of ten, says, “When my children get mad or have had a bad day and I start talking to them, I feel like I just make things worse. The last time my son got really angry and threw his toys after he had a bad day at school, I got really frustrated and just sent him to his room when I probably should have tried to talk to him about how he felt.” She adds, “Usually I just try to make everything better by either buying them toys or making them cookies, I feel really stupid when I ask them to talk to me because I don’t know what to say. My parents never asked me what my feelings were; my mom and dad would try to gloss everything over.”
Melissa explains that when she used to get upset, her parents would just tell her that “everything would be okay tomorrow.”
An Age of Anxiety
For us, life was simpler, less demanding, and, for the most part, everything was “okay” the next day as our parents suggested it would be. Yet as parents, we know that children today face a more complex world than we did as kids.
According to a report in The Journal of Personality and Psychology, schoolchildren in the 1980s reported more anxiety than children of the 1950s. In all, the study found that children in the ’50s diagnosed with mental disorders were actually less anxious than even average kids are today.
The Mental Health Association also reports that one in five children today has a diagnosable mental or behavioral disorder, and up to one in ten may suffer from a disorder such as severe emotional and/or clinical depression or anxiety.
Mandel advises that parents begin talking to their children about their feelings from an early age in an open, honest way that will lend itself to more open lines of communication. Statistics show that kids today show more signs of depression than ever before and at earlier ages. This can only be remedied by learning to encourage them to consistently express their feelings in an honest and safe environment.
“Talking to and with our children is one of the most important things parents can do for them,” says Dr. Mandel. “We must also be good listeners. Children learn how to express their feelings when they have good role models in their parents.”
Mandel advises us that one of the most important things to remember is, “Try to always be patient, kind, loving and non-shaming. While it’s very tempting as parents to try to control our children when we feel they are straying off the path we envision for them, it’s really beneficial to them and will allow them the freedom to grow.”
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