In Australia and the U.S., anxiety is now considered a childhood epidemic, and the rates of depression and suicide continue to climb. In my counselling practice, I sit with numerous young girls who lack coping skills to deal with the fears they face around school, being separated from their parents or other anxiety-inducing situations. I also see young men who have no ability to regulate their emotions. Their only "coping skill" is to explode, with little regard for family members caught in the aftershocks.
How a child develops emotionally often dictates who he becomes as a spouse, friend, co-worker, and even, someday, a parent. That’s why two colleagues and I have compiled a list of emotional, spiritual and social milestones we believe kids need to reach. Here are four emotional milestones that parents can be looking for and cultivating as their children grow:
When I sit with parents of toddlers, there is one primary emotion those parents describe seeing in their children. You might have guessed it — anger. Anger is what psychologists consider a secondary emotion. That means that generally another emotion is underneath the anger.
The child having an angry outburst may feel sad over having her feelings hurt by a sibling. Or he may feel fearful and disrupted by transitions (often an indicator of anxiety). But, because the child has not yet learned to name his feelings, they are all funnelled into the emotion of anger.
For our children to have healthy relationships and healthy emotional lives as they grow, they need to be able to accurately identify and articulate their feelings. When I speak to churches and schools, I take along a basic feelings chart. One family created their own chart. The 8-year-old girl who made it included the traditional emotions of sadness, fear and anger with the correlated expressions, but added a surprised face with, "I didn’t see that coming!"
A feelings chart will help children accurately learn to name their feelings. This can be a natural learning process if you talk about emotions often. And if you develop the skill of clearly naming your own feelings, you will model how this is done with your children.
Have you ever seen the pain scales that hang in the ER? These charts list numbers one through 10 with faces representing the varying degrees of pain. In my practice, I’ve started talking a lot about pain scales.
Many children, of both genders, seem to live at level 10. It doesn’t matter if the emotion is fear, sadness, anger or excitement. They skip one through nine and go straight to 10. As adults, most of us would say life actually happens in the two to seven range. Children need to learn to distinguish between levels of emotion so they develop a healthy perspective on life.
In a calm moment, I’ll say, "Tell me the worst thing you can imagine happening. What’s a 10 on your scale?" From there we can discuss what level of emotion is appropriate for different circumstances because of that baseline.
You can do the same with your child to help him regulate his emotions. When he gets into the car after school and says, "This is the worst day of my entire life!" you can begin with empathy: "That sounds really tough," and then reference your scale: "What number do you think it was on your scale?" This demonstrates that you’re listening and seeking to understand, but the goal is to move the child to a place of perspective.
Helping our children learn to step into someone else’s shoes is profoundly important. We want them not only to show compassion, but also to have empathy for others — to understand what life feels like from someone else’s viewpoint. This is one of the foundational building blocks for relationships, and one that I see diminishing, particularly during adolescence.
From a developmental standpoint, most teenagers struggle in the empathy department. They’re thinking about themselves most of the time. And social media doesn’t help. Here are a couple of ideas that you might use to help move your children in this direction:
- Take your children to volunteer at a soup kitchen
- Read true stories together that talk about another’s struggles
- See movies that highlight someone else’s difficulties
- Go on a family missions trip
Then ask questions, such as, "What do you think that character feels?" or "What would you do if you were him?"
A friend recently said, "I wish my mum had said, ‘You’ve got this,’ more than, ‘Let me get this for you.’ " As parents, we need to be willing to step back and allow our kids to handle more on their own. They are lacking resourcefulness simply because we’re too often being their only resource. Ask yourself:
- What can my son do that I’m doing for him right now?
- How can I give my daughter more responsibility?
- Where can I ask questions rather than give answers?
Questions help children think for themselves and connect the dots without the parent feeding answers to them in small bites.
As you seek to develop the fruits of these four emotional milestones in your children, don’t forget about yourself. How are you doing at naming your feelings, keeping perspective, demonstrating empathy and exercising resourcefulness? Our children learn more through observation than information. If we want them to be reaching these milestones, we need to be living them out ourselves.
Psalm 144:12 offers this encouragement: "May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace." As we lead our kids toward emotional maturity, they will become more of who God intends them to be. They’ll mess up, of course, and take a few steps back occasionally, but then they will move forward again. God’s grace will cover their steps — and ours — along the paths He has laid out for us.