Parenting
A Five-Step Guide to Emotional Agility for Kids
A Five-Step Guide to Emotional Agility for Kids
9 min read
By Kathryn Rawson
A Five-Step Guide to Emotional Agility for Kids

In 2015 Pixar released the innovative and endearing film_ Inside Out_ which, through quirky animation and a relatable script, brought to life five emotions living inside the head of an 11-year-old girl called Riley. The five characters -- Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust -- interact with one another as they man the control panel of Riley's brain. What makes the movie that much more special is that it was made in collaboration with Dacher Keltner, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California and founder of the Greater Good Science Center. In doing so, the filmmakers sought to create a film about emotion that is consistent with the latest scientific research.

Most poignantly - Spoiler Alert! - Inside Out teaches that difficult emotions are to be mindfully embraced rather than suppressed. We see this at the end of the film when Joy, a blue-haired hyperactive fairy-like character, finally accepts Sadness, a somber polar-neck-wearing character, as an important part of Riley's life and emotional journey. This idea has since been called 'Emotional Agility'.

What is Emotional Agility?

Susan David, Harvard Medical School Psychologist and bestselling author of Emotional Agility, describes the concept as the ability to mindfully navigate positive and negative emotions.

When we are emotionally agile we treat our emotions as data and not as directives. There is a space between feeling an emotion and acting on it. Just because we feel angry at our partner, does not mean we should storm out of the room and slam the door. The emotionally agile are able to hold space for their emotions and ensure that their actions are in alignment with their values.

What the world often perceives as 'negative' emotions (anger, sadness, fear...), the emotionally agile see as guideposts - "They are teachers, friends to be listened to, taken at face value, and discarded in good time."

In order to better understand emotional agility, it is helpful to understand its opposite -- 'emotional rigidity'. Emotional rigidity is the habitual attachment to thoughts and feelings without the ability to adapt to change. David refers to this process as becoming 'hooked'. When we get hooked by our emotions we engage in dysfunctional thought patterns and allow them to drive our behaviors. This is ultimately an act of self-sabotage. An example of this would be 'I'd love to try out for the track team but I'm not good enough' or 'I won't settle a disagreement with my friend because I am right and she is wrong.' This response is rigid because it most likely does not align with our intentions and values. You may be right, but does your response serve the type of friend you want to be?

Teenagers and their Emotions

Teenagers certainly do not have a good reputation for handling their emotions well. The passive-aggressive slamming of a door, sarcastic eye-roll, or the age-old silent treatment are common responses to negative or overwhelming emotions.

During adolescence, different areas of the brain mature at different times. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for planning and decision-making, matures far more slowly than the limbic region of the brain, where emotions are centered. Similarly, the connections between the emotional and rational parts of the brain are still developing, and because of this, teenagers have all of the emotions and none of the skills to regulate them.

Bettina Hohnen, a Clinical Psychologist at University College London and co-author of The Incredible Teenage Brain, explains that "When a teen is highly emotional and highly motivated, the prefrontal cortex can't override that, so they make decisions that are more emotionally driven." This is not to say that teens are unable to reason or lack the ability to analyze, but during the heat of the moment, they have far less ability to regulate their emotions and responses than adults do.

Teenage brains are, however, in a constant state of change. Through neuroplasticity, new pathways are regularly forged in response to learning and experiences. Recent research suggests that adolescents raised in a safe and loving environment exhibit stronger neural pathways between subsections of the brain resulting in emotional regulation and intelligence.

This research suggests that parents, teachers, and coaches are able to play an important role in assisting teenagers to become emotionally intelligent and agile.

Five Steps to Emotional Agility

Many parents or caretakers make the mistake of 'emotional helicoptering'. That is, minimizing a child's emotions or problems by either ignoring them or rushing to make things better.

If this doesn't sound familiar, some of these lines probably do -- "Don't be sad", "Calm down," "Stop Crying" or "Let me fix it." While these strategies often make us as parents feel better in the moment, they deny children the opportunity to learn to navigate their way through their emotions, especially those difficult and uncomfortable ones.

Hohnen suggests that it would be more beneficial for parents to consider themselves as 'co-pilots' to their teens while they navigate their emotions.

She explains, "You need to give them a little more control while staying beside them. You might need to take the controls in an emergency, but only in an emergency. Otherwise, pointing out potential hazards while allowing them to direct their lives a bit more is the best thing you can do."

David offers four practical and helpful steps to co-pilot with your child, through, rather than around, their emotions. We've added a fifth step, based on David's research, which is central to our curriculum at Coachbit. These steps are -- feel it, show it, label it, watch it go, and walk your why.

1. Feel It

When faced with a crying child or an angry teenager it is tempting to tell them to 'calm down' or offer them a tasty treat or an hour of screen time to distract them from their woes. It is even more tempting to downplay their issues which, compared to the bills that need to be paid and the deadlines at work, may seem trivial.

Children can only learn and recognize that negative emotions do eventually pass if they are allowed to feel them. 'Fixing' their upset emotions with a sugary snack only teaches them to bottle their emotions.

The best way you can help your child show up to their emotions is to show up with them. Create a space where they are allowed to show sadness, anger, or frustration.

2. Show It

Showing up to emotions means embracing their outward expressions. Many families have unspoken rules about how emotions are to be displayed in the home. 'Boys don't cry' or 'we don't do anger here' or 'brush it off' are but a few examples of these. Though we may do it with good intentions, we are unintentionally sending a message that emotions are to be feared.

A great way to co-pilot with your child through this difficult stage is to ask questions -- if they let you. Talk to them and ask what their emotions feel like in their body, where they feel them, and what they feel like. Allow them the space to feel and show their emotions without judgment or fear.

3. Label It

Emotions are less scary when they can be named. This is true for adults and children alike. Many of us are quick to generalize our emotions as 'sad' or 'happy' or 'stressed' when they can actually be broken down and further defined. Disappointed, betrayed, and unmotivated can all feel like sadness. The ability to break our feelings down into more specific feelings helps us to take appropriate action and figure out the best way forward.

Throughout every step of the process, it is very helpful to remind your children that you experience these feelings too. By doing so, they will feel less alone and more normal.

4. Watch It Go

By learning to embrace and walk through their emotions children will learn that while emotions and feelings are valid and we can learn from them, they are temporary. They will pass.

Emotions have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout: Solve your Stress Cycle, compare emotions to tunnels -- 'If you go all the way through them you get to the light at the end. Exhaustion happens when we get stuck in an emotion.'

Just as identifying and embracing an emotion was important before, releasing the emotion and distancing yourself from it is now critical. Without doing this we are prone to brooding and over-identifying with an emotion which is just as detrimental as bottling an emotion.

5. Walk Your Why

According to David, 'The way we engage with our emotions shapes our actions.' That is not to say that all emotions are to be acted upon or can be resolved by any given behavior. When action is required, Dr. David offers a powerful guideline which she calls 'walking your why'.

Once distance has been created between ourselves and the emotion, action should be taken in alignment with our values or goals -- our why. This is, what David calls, our 'choice point'.

A great example is that of a scared child standing on the edge of a high diving board. As a parent or coach, do you tell them 'it's not that high, just jump!' or do you tell them 'it's too high, don't jump!'

David would say neither. She'd suggest a conversation around the 'why'. Why is jumping off the high diving board important and how does it align with their goals or values?

Should they want to jump to impress their friends, perhaps it would be better if they step down. Should they have a goal of making it onto the diving team then perhaps jumping in spite of their fear would be better. A better response would probably be -- 'That looks scary, but you've got this!' As David famously says, 'Courage is fear walking.' It's not about waiting for the fear to subside, it's about holding fear and walking toward what is important to you. You can be scared and still jump.

Final Thoughts

Emotions are not to be feared, nor do they make us weak. They are data points that play an essential role in helping us identify the appropriate course of action and live in accordance with our values. So let's take some advice from Inside Out and and give all of our emotions a seat at the table. If you haven't watched it yet -- we highly recommend you do!

Recommended Resources

Susan David, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life

Allison Edwards,_ Flooded: A Brain-Based Guide to Help Children Regulate Emotions_

Bettina Hohnen, Jane Gilmour and Tara Murphy, The Incredible Teenage Brain.

Article: 4 Lessons from Inside Out to Discuss with Kids

mental healthbehavioremotionsparentingteenagerstantrumsemotional intelligence

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