Most parents think about caring for their kids’ physical bodies. But few of us know about how to teach our kids emotional hygiene and emotional first aid.
We all know to teach our kids to brush their teeth twice per day. But most of us don’t know to teach our kids to feel their feelings when they arise (rather than repress them).
Emotional first aid
We all know to give our child a band aid when they are bleeding. But most of us don’t know how to give emotional first aid when they’re crying, angry, or upset.
If you have a child who is struggling with body hate, disordered eating, or eating disorders (or any mental health condition), they need help with emotional hygiene and emotional first aid. Parents are in an excellent position to provide this support.
Here are some key points to consider as you teach your child emotional hygiene and emotional first aid:
How to practice emotional hygiene
These are the regular practices you should do to help your child learn emotional hygiene.
1. Feel feelings
Take time every day to tune into your child’s feelings. Ask them how they are feeling, especially when they appear agitated and upset.
It’s important to learn to feel feelings without resistance or repression. Most of us were raised in families that encouraged emotional repression, but repression causes chronic stress, which has serious health consequences.
Instead, parents should learn to help their kids feel feelings naturally and without resistance. This includes the difficult feelings like anger, shame, sadness, and envy.
The most important thing parents can do is recognize that there is nothing wrong with having these feelings. They are perfectly normal and adaptive. The problems come when we repress them, which can create a cascading effect of mental health and physical health consequences.
2. Build connections
Build an emotional connection with your child every day. Make sure that you connect with them in a meaningful, loving way at least once.
Feeling as if we belong is a fundamental element of emotional and physical health. Chronic loneliness is as dangerous for your child’s health as cigarettes.
Help your child feel connected to you, your family, and his or her friends. Be intentional about building a sense of individual connection and community connection. Take this quiz: is my child lonely?
3. Ask for feedback
Ask your child for feedback every once in a while. Encourage them to talk to you about how you make them feel. Ask them to let you know what they need from you.
A lot of parents feel trapped by parenthood. Most of us feel as if everyone else knows what to do, but we don’t. The isolation that parents feel is real, and it’s also toxic. We just can’t be great parents when we feel as if we’re doing everything wrong. Luckily, there is an authority on parenting that we may not have thought about: our kids.
Part of being mentally healthy is knowing you have the power to change things that aren’t working for you. When we allow our kids to give us feedback, we empower them to pursue mental health.
It can be hard to hear feedback from our kids. All of us want desperately to be good parents. Remind yourself that you and your child need to practice the feedback loop. So far, it’s probably been mostly one-way. You tell your child what to do, they say they don’t want to, and you tell them to do it anyway.
When you open things up and start to listen to them, it may be overly-harsh. Help them understand that you’re trying your best. Try to listen to feedback without interrupting or correcting. Then try to act on some of their feedback.
How to give emotional first aid
Parents can help their kids by practicing emotional first aid. This means responding to a child’s emotional emergencies in a loving, compassionate manner. Some symptoms of an emotional emergency include:
- Throwing a tantrum
- Stonewalling (ignoring you)
- Being mean to a sibling, parent, or friend
- Eating disorder behaviors
- Substance use/abuse
- Self-harm behaviors
When your child “acts up” or is upset, pull out your emotional first aid kid and get to work!
1. Accept the feelings
Unfortunately, when a child need emotional first aid, it’s often very uncomfortable for us. When they have an emotional emergency, our instinct is to shut them down, tell them to quiet down, or ignore them.
But these actions tell our child that we don’t accept their feelings. And when parents don’t accept kids’ feelings, the child interprets that to mean that we don’t accept them as people. You might not like this idea, but it’s true.
When your child has an emotional emergency, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that their behavior is a signal that they need first aid. Try to open your heart and respond calmly and confidently.
Let the feelings happen without impediments. Tell your child that you accept their feelings and are here to listen to them. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the faster you can fully accept your child when they are throwing a tantrum, the faster the tantrum will recede.
2. Validate the feelings
Your child needs to know that you accept the feelings no matter what they are. So make sure you have covered the first step in this process, first.
Next, you can help your child define their feelings. This means helping them describe how they feel and validating their feelings to help them process how they are feeling.
Here’s an example of the process:
Parent: Can you tell me how you’re feeling right now?
Parent: OK. I hear you. You feel angry. Do you want to tell me more?
Child: I hate that Mary ignored me today!
Parent: I know it’s so hard to feel ignored.
Child: Yes, and she’s stupid!
Parent: When people reject us, it’s normal to feel angry and ignored. I understand.
Keep talking with your child, and validate each of their feeling statements with a comment that lets them know you heard what they said. Don’t try to edit them or change their mind. Just give them validation for their feelings.
3. Help them move on
If you have followed the process above, then your child is probably calming down a little bit. Don’t be alarmed if this comes in waves. They may go from yelling to crying to nodding in agreement with you. It’s all part of emotional first aid.
Once your child seems calmer, you can add some ideas for moving on. For example, you might say: is there anything I can do to help you right now? Or: Is there anything you want to do about this?
Neither of these questions tells your child what to do or how to feel, but it helps signal that once the feelings are felt, we can consider whether we want to take any further action.
Help your child brainstorm what might make them feel better after an emotional emergency. Some ideas include:
- Take a nap
- Take a walk
- Zone out watching TV
- Take a shower or bath
- Call a friend
- Have some tea
All of these are acceptable responses to an emotional emergency. They are adaptive methods of moving on from having feelings.
Dr. Guy Winch TED Talk
Dr. Guy Winch presented an excellent TED Talk based on the idea that if we learn, and if we teach our children emotional hygiene and emotional first aid, we will be more successful, happier, live with fewer illnesses and enjoy a longer life expectancy.
In his TED Talk he said:
“We all know how to practice physical health … but what do we know about how to maintain our psychological health? Nothing. What do we do to teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing.”
“How is it we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds?”
“Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health?”
“It is time we close the gap between our physical and our psychological health.”
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.