You’ve probably seen “emotional support” dogs or other pets. They can provide valuable companionship, but the primary role for providing emotional support shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of a well-trained canine. It really rests on the shoulders of a parent. We are the ones, the first responders, who provide emotional support and guidance for our kids.
Emotional growth is progressive, just like physical growth.
Kids have emotions very early in life, but they don’t have names for those feelings. When they cry because you leave the room, they don’t know what to call that emotion, but they know how to express it! We are designed to be emotional creatures. As our children grow, we want to help them name those feelings. Let’s say your child starts crying because he wants Daddy, but Daddy is on a business trip. You can say, “You are feeling lonely because the person you want to be with is not here.” Coach your child to say something like “I feel lonely tonight without my dad,” and then you can pray together or call Daddy on the phone later on. When you give names to emotions and identify them, it helps kids to understand what they are feeling . . . and what others are feeling.
When you watch a movie together, have a conversation afterward that goes something like this: “What do you think the main character was feeling? Why did he get so angry? Why was the little girl crying? Who responded well and who didn’t?” You can make watching a movie a learning experience by focusing on what people were feeling and doing in various parts of the film. You want to choose movies that portray positive emotions or negative consequences when people lash out in anger or act in cruel ways.
Emotionally healthy people acknowledge they have feelings, both negative and positive.
The key is they learn how to respond to those emotions, and how to handle them. They don’t let their emotions control their behavior. This maturity is a lifelong process. The more we can talk about this with our children in the earlier years, the better.
There’s a built-in time every day to connect to your child’s heart and emotions, and it’s triggered by the stomach. Research shows that eating meals as a family benefits children greatly. Young people whose families routinely eat meals together spend more time on homework and reading for pleasure. They are more likely to eat nutritious food and less likely to engage in future substance use, sexual intercourse, or suicidal tendencies.14
What you do during the meal is hugely important.
Is the television on? Are you quickly gobbling up your food to get out the door? If so, you are missing out on the value of family mealtime. Having a meal together is a time for conversation. These sacred moments around the table can draw your quiet child out. If it’s dinnertime, you can ask your child questions like “What did you enjoy most today?” or “If you could snap your fingers and change something at school, what would it be?” It’s amazing what you can learn sitting around the table, if you will listen.
A Wall Street Journal article titled “The Benefits of Retelling Family Stories” emboldens us parents to share our wild or inspiring family tales. Stories provide context and invite children to belong. Even if your kids look uninterested, they absorb more than most adults think. In a study by researchers at Emory, they quizzed children ages ten to fourteen on twenty family history questions, such as: How did your parents meet? Where did your grandparents grow up? Those who answered more questions correctly showed, on separate assessments, less anxiety and fewer behavior problems.15
Remember to put your phones on vibrate and don’t pick up during mealtime.
Turn the television and radio off unless it’s just soft music in the background. Don’t allow the interruptions of screens to compromise your quality time together. Show your children that dinner is not only a time to eat—it’s a time to talk.
With competing schedules, it can be challenging to find a common time when every member of the family can sit down for a meal. One son might have football practice, while another is taking piano lessons, and you are running around town like a professional shuttle service. I (Gary) remember when we had to bounce back and forth from eating early to eating late because of the kids’ schedule or my schedule. But we all knew that family dinner was important, and we strove to make it work.
We suggest making it a family goal to eat seven or more meals together a week. Depending on what works with your family’s schedule, that might be dinner every night, or most meals on the weekend with a few meals during the week. There might be a night where you have to eat fast food in the car on the way to the game, but make that the exception, not the rule.
Social contact is a core human need for all us, regardless of age.
You can fight against loneliness and anxiety one meal at a time, one conversation at a time, so your child will find comfort daily in the presence of family.
We, the grown-ups, need that comfort too, whether we admit it or not. And basically, we all, adults and kids, need places we can just . . . be ourselves. And be accepted. Starting around our tables. If all our kids are doing is scrolling through social media, they aren’t getting the interpersonal connection they need. They want to be hugged and spoken to, not texted. They want to laugh at a funny story, not be all anxious about “building their brand.” As we meet their emotional needs at home, they’ll go into a broken world better prepared to mend it.
Excerpted from Screen Kids: 5 Skills Every Child Needs in a Tech-Driven World by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane (©2020). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used by permission.