Children are constantly making choices — from what socks to put on to what friend to invite over for a playdate — but the choices I’m referring to are the emotional ones. What does your son do when he’s overwhelmed? Does he scream or cry? Or does he go into his bedroom and write in his journal? Those are very different choices. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with boys or girls crying, but the idea is for children to make conscious choices that honor their momentary experience and serve them in the long term.

The emotionally healthy child is learning how to make choices that are good for him or her and good for others, which I call smart choices. Since life is simply a sum of our choices, the earlier we teach our children how to make smart choices, which integrate the whole brain (right and left hemispheres), the more positive their life trajectory becomes.

So what does that really mean? It means that as a parent you are responsible not only for making sure your child changes her clothes but also for her learning how to change her mind, see the positive, slow down, and express her emotions constructively. It’s really an enormous task, which is why I’m a huge proponent of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom; research shows that it is children’s emotional intelligence that helps them succeed in life.

Kate, a mother of two girls, contacted me about her eight-year-old daughter’s choices. Marisa knows the family rule that at 7:00 am the TV in her room must go off, which leaves her thirty minutes before they need to leave for school. Yesterday Marisa’s dad, Mike, turned off the TV at 7:05 am, and Marisa turned it back on again. Mike wasn’t having this, and said, “This is not happening. You must turn the TV off and get ready for school. I’m not going to be late today.”

Marisa instantly went into tears and screaming. She yelled at her dad, “You hate me” and “I hate you.” The tears and screaming persisted for fifteen minutes. Kate tried to help her calm down, but Marisa was already emotionally hijacked and hadn’t yet learned to create enough space between stimulus (anger) and response (tears, screaming, mean words) to make a different choice.

At this point we couldn’t change how Marisa had already responded, but she can learn how to make smarter choices with her big feelings in the future, which includes:

  • paying attention (catching the feeling when it’s small)
  • pressing pause
  • responding versus reacting

Children like Marisa can learn how to pay attention to their feelings and stop before they release them in destructive ways. Of course, many children, like Marisa, have challenges disconnecting from screens, which we will discuss shortly.

As adults we also need to take responsibility for our choices and for how we connect with or disconnect from our children. Mike, Marisa’s dad, took an authoritarian approach with his daughter (think: My way or the highway), and it backfired on him in the form of a tantrum. I suspect if he had emotionally attuned and connected to Marisa and helped her feel seen, she may have moved through her emotions easier. But maybe not — sometimes things just go off the rails, and we need to begin again. Eventually there’s a day when instead of a breakdown, your child has a breakthrough, and this is what we’re aiming for.

Avoid this: Marisa’s dad lost his cool and became very angry. When we lose it and raise our voices, we give our children permission to do the same. So the more we learn how to stay sane, even in the stressful moments of getting the children out the door in the morning, the better we model positive emotional health. Of course, this doesn’t mean we need to be perfect but simply honest, respectful, and authentic. And if we mess up (as we’re bound to do), a sincere apology helps repair the parent-child relationship.

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Excerpted from the book The Emotionally Healthy Child. Copyright ©2018 by Maureen Healy. Printed with permission from New World Library —