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What's your emotional style? How your responses can help children navigate this crisis | Lea Waters | Life and style


Most families are going through the full gamut of emotions right now. Gratitude, worry, fear, love, compassion, frustration, restlessness and so on – a fragile kaleidoscope of emotions. A fluctuating pattern of colours that changes radically with the slightest nudge.

How do we help children deal with the emotions of something that we can’t wrap our heads around ourselves?

Research shows the resilience children have is influenced not only by the adversity itself but also by the emotional responses of the parents. Studies have found that parents generally fall into one of two categories when it comes to the way they deal with their children’s emotions: emotional coaches or emotional dismissers. Often, your style was passed on to you by your own parents and has a lot to do with their beliefs about whether emotions are best avoided or embraced.

Some among us were raised by parents who saw talking about emotions as a waste of time, self-indulgent, a sign of weakness, or shameful – this is the emotionally dismissive response. Others had parents who understood the importance of expressing one’s emotions for good mental health, for bonding, for learning and for building resilience – these are emotional coaches. Regardless of what you inherited, your emotional style is something that can be changed.

Psychologists and neuroscientists have found that children who grow up with parents who use emotional coaching have a calmer central nervous system, a lower resting heart rate, a healthier emotional brain circuitry and better coping skills. These are the kids who stay cool under pressure. Exactly the kind of coping skills our kids need right now.

So, what can we do during Covid-19 to become an emotional coach for our kids? Here are four simple strategies you can incorporate into your daily family routine during lockdown that can also be turned into fun school assignments during this time of remote learning.

Create coronavirus conversations

Turn the news off so your child is not bombarded by Covid-19 updates, but don’t shy away from those conversations. Be open to speaking with your kids about what’s going on – respond to their questions and fears. Don’t feel it is best to shelter them completely but do be wise about what and how you share with them. Take their lead and speak about it when they raise the conversation. Talk to them when you’re feeling calm. If your emotional kaleidoscope is shaken up in the moment they initiate the conversations, reassure them: “I think it’s a good idea for us to talk, I have to do something first but let’s sit down together and talk in 10 minutes.”

Balance your conversation between “facts and feelings” – talk about the facts of what you know and ask them about their feelings. Finish the conversation by reminding them about the things they have control over – washing their hands, social-distancing, trying their best during home-learning – as this will reduce their feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Reassure them all emotions are normal and they can always talk to you about their feelings.

For home-learning, you can set a language assignment that involves your kids creating an “Emotions Dictionary”. Have them look up the full range of different emotions, define each emotion, put it into a sentence and write about how that emotion might show itself during family lockdown. You can add an art lesson to this by having your child draw or paint each emotion.

Feel the feels

Here’s the thing about emotions: they are fleeting. Biologically speaking, emotions are actually a little burst of brain chemistry that alter our mood. The healthy brain has evolved so that it does not get stuck in one chemical state for a long period of time and this is what makes us human. The emotional tapestry we experience allows us to experience highs and lows – to be angry one minute and in awe the next. When our kids know that “emotions have motion” and fear moves on, it is easier for them to experience the fear, sit with it and then watch it give way to laughter as their dog comes up to lick their face.

As parents, we can also take comfort in knowing that “this too shall pass”. The anxiety or frustration you had this morning during family lockdown will give way to a sense of relief that your family is safe, gratitude for the kindness of a friend, pride that your family is adapting and having little wins along the way during this time of crisis. So, feel the feels and allow emotions to rise knowing that they won’t stay.

For home learning, set a science assignment and ask your child to research the neurochemistry of emotions. Ask them to prepare a presentation on the three neuropeptides that boost positive emotions: serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. These might sound like big words, but your kids might surprise you with the learning on this topic.

Make emotions concrete

There’s a truism in psychology, “you’ve got to name it to tame it”. A key part of building emotional intelligence is being able to name one’s emotions. You can encourage your child to explore their emotions using the metaphors of weather. Have them name if they are cloudy, stormy, rainy, clear or sunny. Let them know that it is OK to have many seasons in the one day. They won’t get stuck in a storm forever, the sun will shine again.

A creative art learning activity to do during lockdown would be to create an art project of the family’s emotional weather. If you want your child to do some maths at home, ask them to track the weather they observe in themselves and family members during the day, chart the moods of each family member, add up the percentage of time each family member experiences certain emotions and track how emotions change over the course of the day.


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Use the power of music

Music is a great way to help connect children with their emotions. Music taps into our emotions in a way that words alone cannot. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s research shows that when we listen to music almost every region and neural subsystem in our brain is activated. Music helps with emotion and with brain development too which is a bonus while we are all home-schooling.

A fun music lesson to have your kids do during family lockdown is create a positive playlist of songs that boost your mood. Include songs about resilience, triumph and overcoming negative events. Build on this assignment by having your children write an essay about singers who have shown resilience and grit in their career.

You can then use the playlist to create a new positive family ritual by pumping the music and dancing like crazy each night after dinner. This can be turned into a physical education lesson that will release the pent-up energy of your kids and boost their endorphins and dopamine – all while you are showing them a technique they can use for the rest of their lives to manage their emotions.

The added bonus is you are creating a positive memory for the kids and when they look back on this challenging time, they’ll remember the “family dance-off’s” that occurred each night.

There’s a lot we can’t control right now but one thing we can turn our attention to is the emotions of our family and how to help our kids cope and grow stronger through this experience. Helping your kids express, understand and grow from their emotions during Covid-19 is a skill that will last into their adult lives.

  • Lea Waters AM, PhD, is a psychology professor at the University of Melbourne and executive board member of the International Positive Psychology Association

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