Five Tips to Emotion-Potty-Train Your Kids

Five tips to emotion potty train your kids


Children are full of emotions all the time. Actually we all are. But the younger we are, the less of a filter we have. When kids feel something, it just comes out. That’s partly because they just follow their instincts and let out whatever comes. And it’s partly because they don’t get what is going on inside them. They don’t know what they can control and what not.

It’s like our urge to pee… we aren’t born knowing that we can hold it in. We have to learn that we can decide when to let the bladder lose. So yes, kids still have lots to learn about their emotions and they need us to help them. In the meantime, just think of them as un-potty trained when it comes to their emotions. It just all comes out because they don’t know any better.

Yup, it’s no fun to guess when they need to go to the potty, to clean up after them and to repeat the same thing over and over again. But you know what? It pays off. Eventually, thanks to your help, love and patience, they do learn to go to a toilet. And the same is true with emotions. You are key to helping your kids get emotion-potty-trained.

Sometimes kids have outbursts at very inconvenient times. You might be at a wedding and the bride is walking down the isle or sitting in the waiting room of the hospital. Oh and sometimes the feelings (and behaviours - since the kids can’t make the difference yet) just don’t fit with how we want things to be. You just want some calm. You just sat down with a cup of tea (or a glass of wine). Or you are meeting a friend you haven’t seen in ages and just really want to catch up with her.

There are days where you are well rested and patient with all of this. You can take it all with a stride and it’s no big deal. You stay calm, you are understanding of what is going on for them and patiently comfort them - sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But then there are days where it’s all just too much and you are pushed to your limits. You explode and it’s like adding fuel on the fire. And sometimes you just feel helpless, because no matter what you try, it doesn’t seem to work.

I often get asked by parents how they can best support their children with their emotions. Here are my top five tips (to emotion-potty-train your kids):

1. Be fully present. When there is an emotional outburst of any kind, your child has a need that isn’t being met. Get curious. What need could they have that isn’t being met? Do they need a few minutes of your attention? Some recognition? A hug? There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this, so you have to get curious and really be present with them. Then help them address their need. Sometimes it’s as simple as two minutes of your attention or a 30 second hug. You do this to address what’s going on for them. You teach them to recognize their needs and emotions. And you also address the outburst so it’s over quicker and it’s also more painless.

2. Make it normal to talk about emotions. Many people feel uncomfortable when it comes to emotions. You might judge your feelings as “not appropriate”. You might see other peoples emotions as over-the-top”. Or you might see them as a nuisance that should just be gotten rid of. Mostly, this is because feelings are left unaddressed until they build up… and build up. So what if you don’t let them build up? What if you just observe emotions and talk about them from time to time (before they build up)? You might just ask your child how they are feeling. Or you might observe and taking a guess as to how you think they are feeling and then ask them. You can get creative with how you do this and also use tools like Feeling Bodies and the My Feelings Box.

3. Share your feelings and beware of how you react. Nothing beats learning by example. If you see someone you admire doing something, you are likely to want to do the same. So yes, you sharing your feelings with your kids (honestly and authentically) will inspire them to think about how they are feeling and share their feelings. Then of course, how you respond to your feelings will also teach them about how they should respond to their feelings. What you do, gives your kids permission to do the same. 

4. Help your kids see how they can best express their emotions. Kids don’t know yet that they have a choice as to how to react to their feelings. They just follow their urges. Anger = hit and scream. Fear = fight, flight, freeze. Sadness = cry. So really, getting angry at them for letting these feelings out and following their urges (like the urge to pee), isn’t helpful. They don’t know any better (yet). So here’s your chance to help them learn. Help them recognise the feeling and explore different ways that they can respond. Show them what options they have. Anger = ask for what you want nicely, firmly and politely say “no” and set a boundary, get help from you, etc. The moment might have passed, but brainstorming with them what other ways they could have responded, will teach them for next time. Actually, you can also ask them how else you could have responded when your responses are not ideal. With time they will know that they can hold in the urge and find the right time, place and way of letting the feeling out. Remember, it’s not about holding in the urge forever (that would cause bladder problems and eventually lead to explosions - or when it comes to emotions, that would lead to random outbursts for little things).

5. Stay patient. The kids don’t have an evil plan to make your life difficult. They don’t plot and scheme at night to think about where they might be able to let their emotions lose to drive you mad. These feelings come up randomly (or that’s what it seems like to them) and then they just come out. They are learning or let’s say, they are willing to learn. As long as we are patient enough, loving enough to teach them along the way. I love this quote by Janet Lansbury: “In my world there are no bad kids, just impressionable, conflicted young people wrestling with emotions and impulses, trying to communicate their feelings and needs the only way they know how.” They need you. They need the patient and loving you.

There will be accidents along the way. There will be outburst along the way no matter what you do. That doesn’t make you a bad parent. That means your kids are human and they are still learning. But I guarantee you, if you stick with these five tips along the way, your kids will get emotion-potty-trained. Wow, what a gift that will be for their lives.


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