Making Friends: Managing Difficult Emotions
Here are a few tough questions:
• Has anyone ever accused your child of bullying or being mean to another child?
• Have you ever seen your child lash out (physically or verbally) at another child?
• Does your child react aggressively when upset by a sibling?
• Have you noticed that other kids don’t seem to like your child or want to be around him/her?
If you answered yes to any of the questions, don’t despair! Most children (and adults) sometimes use non-constructive ways, including physical, verbal, and relational aggression, to manage anger and other difficult emotions. In Making Friends: Part One, I discussed some basic communication skills that are helpful for kids in establishing rapport and friendships with peers. In this post, I address ways to coach kids to effectively managing their emotions, which is another important social skill, because kids who manage their emotions well leave a more positive impression on others.
With time and effort, even the most hot-tempered, impulsive kid can be coached to better manage their most difficult emotions. I suggest having a conversation, during a time when your child is not upset, about each of these ways to respond when they are feeling difficult emotions. Don’t discuss them all at once, as that will be too much information for your child to take in. Just pick one constructive, emotion-regulation strategy, discuss and practice it with your child, and then work with him/her to figure out which strategy works best.
Rather than lashing out at peers when upset, encourage your child to seek the support of a trusted adult (teacher, counselor, parent). Brainstorm ways to pause before reacting. Learning to take a deep breath or count to five before reacting could be the simple skill your child needs to stop reacting in non-constructive, aggressive ways.
Often one child or group of children is the source of a child’s anger or resentment. Perhaps your child wants to be included with a group that is not being receptive. Or maybe your child keeps seeking out an old friend who no longer is as interested in the relationship. In these cases, rather than encouraging your child to continue pursuing those relationships (and therefore continuing to be upset by them), I think it’s best to counsel them to look other places for friendship. By redirecting their attention to other kids who don’t cause the same negative emotional response, perhaps your child will learn both how to better manage emotions and how to select appropriate potential friends. Redirecting attention can also be as simple as choosing a relaxing, solitary activity for a few minutes to regroup when feeling upset. Brainstorm with your child things that help him/her relax, and write a list of what to think about and do when bad feelings towards others arise.
Explanation and reconciliation
This one takes some skill and practice, so I recommend using the coaching techniques outlined in Making Friends: Part 1 to role-play conversations when an apology, explanation, or reconciliation is required. Talk about and role play how to make an appropriate apology, how to explain using “I” language why their feelings have been hurt, and how to seek reconciliation when there’s been a fight with a friend.
Learning to laugh at oneself is a great social skill that leads to more and better friendships. Sometimes children with poor skills at managing their emotions get very upset and defensive in situations that can be diffused with a bit of humor. Brainstorm comments from other kids that have upset your child in the past, and think up fun comebacks that will both stop the comments and not lead your child to behave in an inappropriate, overly aggressive way. Unfortunately, all the bullying education in the world will not stop kids from saying mean comments occasionally. Overreacting elicits even more negative comments. So, learning to use a little humor and learning to take negative comments less seriously are good skills to have and will provide your child with a shield against the bullies of the world
I hope you and your child find one or more of these strategies effective for managing difficult emotions in a more constructive way! Let me know if you have other ideas that have worked for you or your child.
In Making Friends: Part Three, I’ll discuss other important social skills that help children make and keep friends: emotional awareness, empathy, and good expression-disclosure skills.