Kids in the Digital Age: The Challenge of Expressing Emotions Healthily

Kids in the Digital Age: The Challenge of Expressing Emotions Healthily

By Hannah Herring

I grew up in one of those families that always has some sort of debate going on when extended family get together. It’s usually about politics or something of the sort. As a result, I spent hours listening to articulate, opinionated people share what is important to them and talk about their emotions, their fears, their feelings, going back and forth on topics that are important to them. This taught me to love speech and debate, to treasure a good, deep conversation, and to be bold in standing up for what I believe to be true and correct. What these experiences did not prepare me for, however, was the digital age. With the opportunity to communicate from behind a screen, feelings are rarely spoken of in person anymore, conversations take place via colored bubbles, and face-to-face discussions are increasingly uncomfortable.

This new age of digital communication poses new problems that we as parents, leaders, and adults face every day– problems that we have to teach our children how to overcome. We cannot raise a stronger, more capable generation if we allow them to hide behind their devices rather than educating them in how to properly communicate with one another. Strength in social media use comes from deliberate, authentic practice just as strength in human interaction comes from deliberate, authentic practice.

One of the biggest concerns that we face is regarding the healthy expression of emotions. Emojis make it easy to give a blanket statement about our emotions or to lie about them altogether. In our technology-filled lives, it’s not necessarily going to be easy, but it will be worth it.

Help your child to recognize and understand their emotions

Emotions are good! Happy or sad, angry or excited, emotions guide our interactions with everyone and everything around us. Recognizing our emotions is the first step to learning to express them well.

Help your child become comfortable saying, “I’m (fill in the emotion here) because (fill in the reason here).” This provides clarity for the people you are interacting with..Once you have recognized and acknowledged what emotion you are feeling, it’s important to know why you’re feeling that way. Ask your child questions to help them begin to recognize their emotions, express them, and connect the emotion with the reason they are feeling that way.

  • Are you upset because someone made fun of you? 
  • Are you stressed because you have a test coming up?

Role-play situations where it would be appropriate for your child to express their emotions 

Practice! Friendships, sibling relationships, and parent-child relationships are important relationships to know how to communicate within; however, it is also important to learn how to communicate with others outside of the family unit. There may be other situations) where a full expression of emotion may not be appropriate. Such situations include communicating with teachers, public authorities, and the professional work environment. Practice and role-play these situations as well. 

Intense, emotion-filled situations at home, stop and help your child take inventory

Ask your child what they are feeling. What made them feel that way? Even if it sounds irrational to you, validate the fact that they are recognizing their feelings, and verbalizing them appropriately. You might begin the conversation by asking: 

  • “You look like you’re about to cry. Which part of our conversation upset you the most? Why do you think it did?” 
  • [More examples here]

Give them time to think about it and allow them to talk through some of their thoughts and emotions. You can ask things that help them focus on the physical symptoms of their emotions as well.

  • “Did you feel tightness in your chest or shoulders or anywhere else?” 
  • “As we have been talking I’ve noticed that your face is becoming a little less red. Are you feeling better than you did a few minutes ago? Why? Was there anything specifically that helped you to start feeling better?” 

Celebrate the little victories as well as the large ones!

Help kids feel validated, accepted, and understood by practicing communicating emotions and then praise their successes. As they begin to talk about their feelings, be sure to encourage them and note how well they are doing.

  • “You are doing a great job at telling me how you’re feeling. I really appreciate that. Thank you for talking with me about it.” 
  • “Honey, you did a great job at telling me when you were getting angrier. Thank you for stopping me so that we could talk about it.”
  • “I know that you were becoming frustrated because you didn’t feel like I was listening to you. Thank you for kindly reminding me that I need to put away my phone when you are talking to me. I love you very much.”
  • “Your teacher said that there was a pretty big argument at school today but that you handled it really well. I’m proud of you. What happened? Did you use some of the communication tactics we’ve been talking about?” 

You may have to ask more questions in order to help your children more fully understand and be able to talk to you about their feelings. Take what time they need. Don’t put a time limit on them. If they are not used to talking or even thinking about their emotions, it will take more time to start these conversations.

For more ideas on how to teach appropriate emotional expression and to build healthy relationships, try our lesson How to Create Healthy Relationships.

30 Days to a Stronger Child is also a huge help to parents! Check out the section with great lessons that help kids fill their Emotional Account.

Or Check out Conversations with My Kids: 30 Essential Family Discussions for the Digital Age–A simple, super-helpful guide that gives YOU the words to talk about tough, timely topics of today (like racism, integrity, agency, healthy sexuality, LGBTQI issues, social media, and more).

Hannah is from Utah and is a graduate student at Friends University studying Family Therapy. She plans to go into counseling with an emphasis in addiction recovery and trauma. From a large family, she loves children and their protection and education is top priority.