How to promote social and emotional health in youth

Empathy, communication, routine and follow-through influence kids’ emotional development

How to promote social and emotional health in youth

Life is stressful, no matter your age, and children don’t have as much experience in dealing with unpleasant emotions as adults do. How do we help them?

We may not have the ability to eliminate these challenges, but we can teach kids how to understand and self-regulate the emotions they experience. We sat down with Dr. Emily Griese from Sanford Research in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to learn ways parents can encourage emotional development in their kids.

Consider others’ point of view

When you start promoting positive emotional health in youth, Dr. Griese says, “any activity that promotes perspective taking can be really important.” This can be embedded into many different games, such as Simon Says, Tag, or Follow the Leader.

Children often absorb this information earlier than we may expect. At age 6, kids have the ability to see that other people have different perspectives than they do. Around ages 10 and 11, they develop a sense of empathy.

Prompting perspective in children early on gives them the ability to take a step back. Rather than coping in inappropriate ways (such as eating unhealthy foods, acting out, etc.), it can help them understand their role in situations and how to better overcome challenges.

Communication is key

Misbehavior or temper tantrums can be difficult to navigate for parents. Use these challenges as a learning opportunity for both you and your child. After the incident, Dr. Griese recommends circling back to discuss with your child, in age-appropriate language:

  • How they reacted
  • What emotions they felt
  • If they could have changed their response

For instance, if your child is upset, say something like, “I understand why you are upset. That was hard. Maybe next time, instead of throwing things down, we spend some time by ourselves, talk to someone else, or count to 10.” By doing this you validate your child’s feelings and emotions, but also teach them the proper techniques to manage their mood and calm down.

“For some kids, it’s easier to give them time to themselves first,” Dr. Griese said. “After they are emotionally calmed down, some kids can overcome their emotions quicker.”

Be sure to tailor how and when you talk through the situation to your child depending on their temperament. There is no set time on when to do this, just as long as they have calmed down, can think clearly, and the incident is recent in their memory.

Find your family’s balance

Extracurricular activities provide countless benefits to children, including exposure to diversity, learning opportunities, and most importantly, fun!

However, it’s important to remember quality over quantity. As caregivers, you want to provide your child with every opportunity available. Yet when children are rushing from one thing to the other, they can become easily overwhelmed.

Even of her own kids, Dr. Griese says, “I can see when they come home from being in day care all day that they need time away from their peer group, a safe place to have me-time, family-time, or just a less busy environment. Shuttling kids from one chaotic environment to the next can lead to an emotional breakdown, especially when they are younger. We know the importance of these activities but it’s figuring out a balance, and it’s truly different for each kid.”

Trust your gut, and remember, you know your child best. If you’re seeing signs of fatigue, use it as a teachable moment to explain to your child that it’s OK to pause and take breaks when needed. This could mean skipping a practice, not meeting friends one night, or even cutting out an activity completely.

Dr. Griese suggests, especially for younger children, “Set aside time in the evenings and weekends as designated family time.” Remember, your family’s balance may be vastly different from others’, and that’s just fine. Discovering your unique balance is key in emotional health.

Make sure to follow through 

Every day, kids experience numerous feelings and emotions that influence their mood, and the result isn’t always a great one. As caregivers, it’s vital to set a precedent on how you handle fluctuating moods and behaviors.

There is no black and white answer, and it can look different for every family, but what is important is that you follow through. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Talk to your child about coping strategies they can use to help manage and motivate their mood. When tantrums happen, remind them of these strategies.

Also, remember to be a positive role model and practice these techniques yourself.

“It’s an emotional reaction. We all have that,” Dr. Griese said. “Even adults don’t have this mastered, but as adults, our job is to talk with kids about the process of managing moods.”

Discovering your family’s balance and following through with expectations is not always an easy task. Trust your instincts and know that today’s lessons are helping to mold and enhance social-emotional skills that last a lifetime.

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Posted In Children's, Family Medicine, Healthy Living, Parenting, Research