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By Dr. Lorea Martinez

My two daughters argue. A lot. They can play nicely together but, at some point, the game goes sideways and the emotions rise. “I told you not to do that. I don’t want you touching my toys.” says one of them, while the other one keeps doing it to push her sister’s buttons. I can hear them getting increasingly upset, but I am hoping they will be able to solve the issue on their own. Unfortunately, they end up screaming at each other and saying hurtful things, “I don’t EVER want to play with you anymore. You are a mean sister.” At that point, I intervene and ask them to take a break from each other.

If you have more than one child, you are probably familiar with this kind of situation—one child wants to control the game, the other one pushes against it; they argue about it, feelings are hurt and they end up blowing up. While these situations can be very stressful for parents, they present a great opportunity to teach our children an important social and emotional skill—the ability to manage emotions.

Managing emotions means being able to name, interpret and process our feelings. Think about emotions as a thermometer. If the temperature is too high, your kids will most likely feel “out of control” and their ability to think clearly and make decisions will be affected. When children are in this zone, they are more likely to explode and have negative behaviours, such as screaming or hitting. As parents, our goal is to teach them to recognise when their emotions are rising up, so they can process them and go back to the safe zone.

These are some strategies to help your children manage their emotions:

  • What are you feeling? Help your children notice where they feel emotions in their body. Is their stomach tight? Do they feel a burning sensation in their throats? Then, help them describe and express their feelings: “I am upset because my sister is touching my toys.” At first, they may need help coming up with words to describe what they feel; you can use this wheel of emotions to support your child.
  • How high is the temperature of your emotions? Print this thermometer and help your child identify the intensity of their emotions. Are they in the safe zone and they can think clearly about their behavior? Or are they in the danger zone and feeling out of control? If the children are very upset, you may need to wait until they have calmed down before you can use it. The goal is for children to notice when their emotions are rising, so they can cool down before their temperature continues to increase.
  • Teach calming strategies. If children are in the danger zone, they will need support in order to calm down. There are many things that children can do to decrease the intensity of their emotions: taking a break from the sibling and game, pausing and counting to ten, taking 3 deep breaths, playing with a cuddling item (a special blanket or stuffed animal), or maybe sitting with you for a few minutes. At the beginning, children will need your help in using these strategies; you will need to do it together. Over time, they will be able to do it independently with little or no support. The best way to introduce these calming strategies is when things are going well and everybody is calm and content.
  • Offer an alternative. When children show negative behaviors, they are communicating that something is not working for them. Providing children with alternative behaviors indicates that they have other options when they are in a conflict with a sibling. For example, you may suggest that they use their words to communicate the problem, play something else, or find an adult to help them solve the issue. The key is teaching children that hurtful behaviors are avoidable.
  • Make amends. When feelings are hurt, we can support our children in making amends. The idea is to help the sibling who was hurtful to take some responsibility and the one who was hurt to heal. Sometimes children will need to do both, because they were hurt and hurtful at the same time! Amends can take the form of an apology, replacing what was broken or doing an act of kindness. Help your children decide how they would like to repair their harm, but don’t force it. Amends should not be forced—children should do them because they realize their behavior was not appropriate and want to do something to make the sibling feel better.

While my girls still want to play together even after they fight, my goal is to help them recognise when they are about to explode, so they can choose to do something different instead of screaming, hitting or saying hurtful words. Teaching children to manage their emotions is a great way to reduce fighting among siblings and prepare them to make better choices. When conflicts do occur, we can support kids to solve them in positive ways and make amends when feelings are hurt.

Until next time, Happy Parenting!

Dr. Lorea Martinez
Dr. Lorea Martinez is a social-emotional learning (SEL) consultant and researcher, supporting schools, teachers and families as they embrace and adopt SEL practices. She is a faculty member of the Summer Principals Academy at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is working on her second book for teachers, Teaching with the HEART in Mind. She frequently blogs about how to incorporate SEL in teaching practices and parenting.
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