How to Help Kids Take Responsibility for Their Emotions

Teaching our kids to be emotionally intelligent can be a long and arduous journey. Some children may naturally be more empathetic, calm, and thoughtful, while others can be intense, excited, and even a little volatile.

But no matter their natural disposition, kids can learn to take responsibility for their emotions.

This is the first step in managing big feelings and is foundational to developing emotional intelligence. Do your kids know how to take responsibility for their feelings? Do you? Here are tips to help you and your children with this critical skill.

Teach This: You Choose Your Emotions, Your Emotions Don’t Choose You

It’s the first day of school. You wake up your two boys early in hopes that they will be ready on time. One of them jumps out of bed, excited to meet his new teacher, see his classmates, and dive into 2nd grade math. The other pulls the covers over his head and begs you not to make him go. A chaotic struggle ensues, but finally both boys are ready and posed by the front door for a first-day-of-school photo. They wear their emotions clearly: one is beaming with excitement, the other is slouched in nervousness.

How could they be so different?

Although they are experiencing the same situation—the first day of school—they are feeling completely different emotions.

The reason is that we choose our emotions—they don’t choose us.

We choose our emotions by the way we choose to think about things. Why is one son excited for school? Because he views the first day of school as a positive thing—an opportunity to learn and experience something new. He probably also views himself as capable of meeting the challenge. But what about your son who is burdened with worry and nerves? He likely sees that first day as a scary, overwhelming obstacle filled with too many new things. He might view himself as incapable of meeting the challenge.

So how can you help your child who feels nervous overcome his fears?

Rather than cave in and let him skip school, try helping him shift his perspective. How can he change the way he views the first day of school? How can he change his self-perception and confidence? Remember, his emotions come from how he thinks about things.

In Wally Whale’s Mighty Tail, Wally teaches Koa this important truth. He says, “Many people chase what they think will MAKE them happy. But it’s not what you have or what happens in your life that makes you happy or unhappy. It’s how you choose to think about those things. And, it’s how you choose to think about life that makes you weak or mighty.”

Stop Blaming – Change the Way You Say Things

How many times have you heard the phrase, “You made me feel…”? We tend to say this a lot. But have you ever paused to think about what those words really mean?

It’s nuanced, but nonetheless true: the phrases “he made me sad” or “she made me so angry today” imply that your emotions were determined by someone or something else.

But is that the truth? Nope!

The reality is that you create your emotions by the way you think about things. Just as Lulu Llama teaches Andi in Lulu Llama’s Triangle of Drama, “You are responsible for your own happiness!” No one and no thing can make you sad, angry, or even happy.

Instead, you are the one that chooses your emotions.

The next time you’re tempted, refrain from saying, “So-and-so made me feel such-and-such.” Take responsibility by claiming your emotion. Drop the blaming phrase and instead say, “I feel such-and-such.” Encourage your children to make this change too. When they start to say, “He made me feel…,” invite them to say it differently and remind them that no one or no thing can make them feel a certain way.

You are the boss of your emotions.

What an empowering truth!

Respect Their Feelings

We are all much more likely to take responsibility for our emotions if we can first accept and validate them. Oftentimes, we turn to others to do that for us. Think of an experience you had as a child when your feelings were not validated. Maybe you felt nervous before a performance or sad when you weren’t invited to a party. An adult may have said, “Why are you nervous? It’s not a big deal anyway,” or, “Who cares? You can find other friends.”

Whether directly or indirectly, you were told that your emotion was apparently illegitimate and unwarranted.

You probably felt rejected and confused. Yet while children may struggle to process and understand their emotions, their feelings are still valid. To children, things oftentimes seem bigger and scarier than they actually are, causing stronger and deeper emotions.

Be careful not to downplay or disregard your child’s feelings. Instead, teach yourself to truly care about what they are feeling.

When you tell your child to take a coat on a colder day, they may respond by saying, “But I’m not cold.” Instead of rebutting with, “You will be! Take your coat,” try a different approach. “I understand that you’re not cold now, but you might feel cold when you go out for recess. What do you think?”

Take the time to listen, validate, and respect those big feelings. Someone who feels ashamed of their emotions is a lot less likely to take responsibility for them.

Don’t Engage in the Drama

If you haven’t read our book Lulu Llama’s Triangle of Drama, now’s a great time to pick it up. In the story, Lulu Llama tells main character Andi the secret to exiting the drama triangle:

“Many people CHOOSE to enter the drama and get stuck for days, and even years, in their own Drama Triangles. The best way to walk away from the drama is to remember: EVERYONE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR OWN HAPPINESS.”

Your kids will probably invite you to enter the drama triangle frequently.

When they don’t take responsibility for their own emotions and show up like a bully, try to rescue others from their own consequences, or play the blame-game, they are entering the drama triangle—and probably inviting you to come along.

Be careful not to get caught up in the chaos of unmanaged emotions. Instead, take responsibility for what you’re feeling and invite your kids to do the same.

Taking responsibility for our emotions is a mature skill that takes practice and persistence. By teaching your kids that they choose their emotions, changing the way you express your own feelings, respecting your children’s emotions, and avoiding the drama, you can give your kids the necessary tools to become emotionally intelligent individuals.

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