As adults, we are used to feeling a multitude of emotions. Dread and happiness for the school holidays, happy and sad for milestone (or any) birthdays, excited and hysterical for the first day of school and emotional upheavals dealing with day-to-day things. We know how to label and deal with them. Our kids? Not so much.
These warring emotions are called “Ambivalent feelings”. It means having mixed emotions or contradictory ideas about something or someone. Mixed feelings are all a part of adulthood – I don’t know about you, but I go through at least six different emotions before my first cup of coffee – but younger kids have a hard time understanding one emotion at a time, let alone multiple.
They don’t really pick up on it until they go to school/hit school age. That is when their brains grow a little to allow the cognitive process that allows them to hold conflicting views. And we wonder why they suddenly become a lot more intense with their emotions once they reach 7 or 8.
I know when my daughter hit 8, she suddenly acted like a totally different person. Sure, there was the standard anger and frustrations and of course, her sweet side. But there were also a lot more outbursts and moments where she even admitted that she didn’t know what was going on.
In all honesty, I wasn’t aware that children don’t understand ambivalent feelings until that age. Obviously, I knew that we had to help our children understand emotions, but I just thought this new emotional attitude was a natural part of having a pre-pubescent pain in the bum. Turns out, it was hard for her to tell us especially since she didn’t understand she could feel more than one emotion at a time. My lack of understanding meant a few exceptionally long months of intense emotional reactions – and not just from her.
Putting it into words can be really hard. As an adult I find it hard to verbalise my emotions. The difference is we know what emotion we are feeling, they have no clue and a lot of the time, it can end up coming out in nonverbal ways.
Anxiety, stress, and strong sadness can all have physical reactions – as a lot of us know. I chew my nails like they are candy bars when I am stressed. I actually have a stress nail that hasn’t been the same since I became an adult. My daughter picks the skin of her fingers (insert dry retch here) and my son gets really bad tummy aches or shuts down completely. Sometimes, adults look at this as a child acting out or having a bad day.
The good news is that there are plenty of ways to help and encourage this new (and sometimes scary) development.
Colouring: Who doesn’t love a good colour? Have you tried those adult colouring books – pure stress release! Colouring can help them release the tensions as well as identify what emotion looks like. You can go with the standard colours (red-anger/love, blue – sadness etc) or you can let your child associate which colour reflects their emotions.
Pie Chart: I can see the looks of confusion from here. Stay with me though. This is more aimed at the older kids (over 8) and ties in with the colouring. Have them write a few emotions down (the ones they feel the most) then assign a colour to it. From there, get them to colour the circle with how they feel at that moment. If they feel a lot of one emotion, then they can colour a big chunk of the circle, if they feel a little of an emotion, then colour a little of the circle. Once it is done, you can dive right in and talk about the how and the why.
Wheel of Emotions: We all know how much I love my wheel of emotions. It is such an easy little helpful tool to help kids visual and name what they are feeling. You can find one on the ParentalEQ BackPack App under the “Identifying Emotions” activity.
Movies/Books: Movies like “Inside Out” can really help start the conversation about emotions. It is really beneficial as it has visualisations of the four major emotions that kids already (somewhat) understand. Books like “What Am I Feeling?” by Josh and Christie Straub also give a visual cue of emotions they may be struggling with.
Talk about your own emotions: The best (and sometimes the hardest) way to help your children is to talk about your own emotions. You can explain that you feel happy they play but sad that they are yelling or excited for them to go on camp but also worried because they are away from home.
ParentalEQ BackPack App’s new module “Mixed Feelings” breaks down the how, what, and why of mixed feelings and how we can help our children to understand them better.
Complex emotions, despite being annoying and confusing, are all part of being human. It’s up to us to help our children understand, accept, and survive their ambivalent feelings.
Written with mixed feelings by Casey Luxford