Using Fights to Teach Children about Emotions

kid shouting and crying during a temper tantrum

Fights may undermine the harmony in our homes, but they also provide invaluable opportunities to teach our children about their own and others’ emotions.

It’s nearly bedtime and I suppose we are all a bit tired. I’m distracted with post-dinner clean-up. B2 is wearing a crown that belongs to B3. B3 wants it back NOW. He grabs at it. B2 runs. He’s quicker than B3 and manages to make it to the bedroom and slam the door behind him. B3 and B2 are pushing on opposite sides of the door, screaming. Before anyone can lose a finger, I intervene, separate them and remove the crown from the situation. But before I know it, B3 is seeking his revenge. He pinches B2 and an earsplitting squeal reverberates through the house.

This was, quite literally, the scene in our house last night.

Since it was time for books (before bedtime), I sat down with a book called “Fighting”. We read through it and discussed how the tips in the book relate to the fight they just had.

Why is it important to teach children about emotions?

Have you heard of emotional intelligence? Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to identify his and others’ emotions, and it has been linked to better job performance, leadership skills and mental health.

On the other hand, people with Theory of Mind problems, especially within the Autism population, have difficulty understanding that other people have their own ideas, experiences and feelings. And, while not regarded as a mental disorder, alexythmia is characterised by difficulties with identifying and describing emotions, social attachment and showing empathy towards others.

Teach Tips

1: Name emotions

Give your child the names for the motions they’re feeling. They may be: annoyed, worried, sad, frustrated, angry….

Older children can learn a greater variety of words: eg. nervous, dissatisfied, furious and irritated. Here’s a very comprehensive list of emotions:

Define the emotion. You may say something like “You’re feeling irritated by your sister right now. Irritated means annoyed. You feel irritated because she keeps following you around and you want to have your own space.”

Naming your child’s emotions also allows you to acknowledge their feelings. You don’t need to agree with what they’re feeling (or with the resulting behaviour), but it’s important for children to know that they are understood.

2: Teach your child to “read” others’ emotions

Most kids learn at a young age what is an angry face or tone of voice. But not all kids do. Some kids need to be explicitly taught how to read:

  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Tone of voice
  • Choice of words

This will help a child to respond appropriately to others. Sometimes they’ll know to back away if they “read” that a sibling is furious. (And in other circumstances, to comfort a sad sister, or help a frustrated brother, etc, etc.)

3: Model self-control

Self-control is the key to dealing with conflict in a healthy way. And it takes years to develop! Hopefully our self-control is a little better developed than our child’s. A parent’s own behaviour has a profound influence on their child’s behaviour. So, model self-control yourself.

4: Problem-solve

Talk to your kids about different ways to respond to emotions. Talk about both unhealthy and healthy responses, and what will be the likely consequences. For example, a debrief discussion may sound a little like this:

“You felt irritated with Becky because she kept following you and you wanted more space. You felt SO irritated that you hit her. But you didn’t HAVE to hit her. Hitting is never a right choice. What would have been a better thing to do?”

Ask lots of questions (depending on their age and language ability) and try to get them to come up with a solution.

When can you teach your child?

Fights provide good opportunities to discuss emotions. However, sometimes it’s hard for kids to talk about their emotions in the heat of the moment. You may only get a chance to label it, when they’re really upset (eg. mid-meltdown). Read their signs and know when is a good time to discuss the problem and when to leave it till later.

Share your own experiences

Give your kids the opportunity to understand YOUR emotions and experiences. Talk to them about your day. This can give them opportunities to:

  • Learn that others have different feelings and experiences compared to them
  • Learn about emotions at a distance – it may be easier for them to learn when it’s about you, not them, because they’re likely to be less involved emotionally, compared to when you talk about a fight they’ve had.

Make sure you talk to them about your feelings in a healthy way. Venting your anger or b-#$&ing about someone may not be a helpful thing for your child. (See point 3 above, regarding modelling self-control.)

Learn from book and movie characters

Children can learn from characters in books and movies, if only we take the opportunity to discuss them. Ask questions like:

  • “How do you think Sandy is feeling?”
  • “Why do you think Max said that?”
  • “What do you think Peter is thinking right now?”
  • “How do you know Wendy is angry?”
  • “What would be a better way for Lachlan to express his anger?”
  • “What would you do if you were Mandy?”

The take-home message?

Conflict is a natural part of life. When our children fight, we can teach them about emotions and appropriate ways to respond to their emotions.