Dealing with Children’s Feelings

by Charise Rohm Nulsen

This is a guest post by Dionna of Code Name: Mama. Dionna is co-founder of Natural Parents Network and someone who regularly inspires me with her wisdom and gentle parenting.

I have been reading “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk.” The very first chapter gave me a lot of “aha” moments, and I wanted to share one today.

Denial: A Common Response

The book begins with the following very simple premise:

There is a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.

Logical, yes? I thought so. The first chapter asks parents to examine how they help children deal with their feelings. Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?

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child in snowy hat screamingParent: (As your 6 year old heads back out the door to play again) “It’s cold outside, put your coat on please.”
Child: “I am hot from playing chase.”
Parent: “You can’t be hot, it’s 40 degrees. Wear a coat.”

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Child: “Mom, I’m hungry.”
Parent: “We just ate 30 minutes ago, you can’t be hungry!”

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Parent: “What are you doing lying down?”
Child: “I’m sleepy!”
Parent: “You can’t be sleepy, you took a nap today.”

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Child: “I don’t want to play at Peter’s house.”
Parent: “Don’t be silly, Peter is your friend. Of course you want to play with him!”

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Child: “I’m so mad, I was two minutes late for class and the teacher made me sit in the hall.”
Parent: “You have no right to be mad, it wasn’t your teacher’s fault you were late.”

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In every one of these instances, the parent denied the child’s feelings. The signal that sends to kids is that they should not trust their own feelings or perceptions. The consequence? Arguments, in the short term. Children who are unsure of themselves in the long term. Children who rely on others to tell them how to think, how to act, how to live.

It may seem like we know best, or at least know more, than our children. But what good does it do us to deny our children’s experiences? And does denying a child’s feelings tell them that we love and respect him as a person? Probably not.

Think of it in another way: You and your husband get in a terrible argument. Harsh words are spoken, tears are shed, pictures are thrown, the word “divorce” is uttered more than once. You escape and call your best friend. She invites you over, and you arrive expecting to be able to unload on a sympathetic ear. But instead of listening and empathizing, your best friend says, “you really aren’t that mad at him, are you? You guys have been together forever. Maybe you shouldn’t have yelled at him for coming home late. Does it really matter that he stays out late so often?”

Denial undermines our feelings and experiences. It tells us “whatever you are feeling is wrong. You should not feel that way. There is something wrong with you.”

Other Unhelpful Responses

The authors give another scenario to help us understand how some of our go-to responses may undermine our children’s feelings.

Imagine: Your boss asked you to complete a project by the end of the work day. An hour later, a coworker came to you with a crisis that concerned your biggest account. Frantic, you and your coworker spent hours trying to smooth out the problems. At 5:00 your boss approached you (in front of your coworkers) and asked for the completed project. You tried to explain the crisis, but your boss interrupted angrily. “What the hell am I paying you for? Save your excuses. Don’t leave until the work is done.” Hours later, you are exhausted, humiliated, and still seething from the lashing you got in front of your coworkers. You tell your spouse the story.

How would each of the following responses make you feel? Think about your reactions to each of them.

Denial of Feelings: “There’s no need to be that upset, you’re probably blowing what happened way out of proportion.”

The Philosophical Response: “Well, life is like that sometimes. You just need to take it in stride and do better next time.”

Advice: “You should probably go to your boss and apologize tomorrow morning, but be sure he understands what happened.”

Questions: “What emergency was so important that made you forget your other project? Why didn’t you follow your boss and try to explain?”

Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand your boss’s perspective. He’s probably under a lot of pressure from his superiors.”

Pity: “Oh you poor thing! I feel horrible for you!”

Amateur Psychoanalysis: “Maybe the real reason you are upset is because your boss represents your father figure, and you are reliving clashes with your dad from your teenage years.”

An Empathic Response: “That sounds rough! It would have been hard to take an attack like that in front of other people.”

So how would you have reacted to some of these responses? Personally, the response that would have made me feel the best is the last one. It tells me that my feelings were valid, and that my spouse understands what I am going through.

The same is true of our children. Too often, adults feel the need to advise, problem solve, let kids know that “life is tough,” fire questions at the child, or help the child see the situation from the other person’s viewpoint. But is that always necessary?

To Help with Feelings

The authors of the book go on to talk about the fact that our children can often work things out on their own if parents would only provide a listening, empathetic ear. Here are steps parents can take instead of automatically denying a child’s feelings or giving another unhelpful response to a situation or problem.

1. Listen with full attention.

Put down the newspaper (or close the laptop). Turn off the TV. Look at your child. You can do it!

2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word: “Oh”; “Hmm…”; “I see.”

Restrain yourself from launching into a long response. Just let your child talk it out.

3. Give their feelings a name.

Child: “I wanted to punch Beth when she took my doll.”
Parent: “You were angry that Beth took your doll without asking.”
Child: “Yeah, that really made me mad!”

4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.

Child: “I’m hungry, I want cookies.”
Parent: “You wish you could have a cookie right now.”
Child: “Yes. A chocolate chip cookie!”
Parent: “I wish I could give you a whole package of chocolate chip cookies!”
Child: “Ten packages!”
Parent: “A whole mountain of cookies!”

The book gives numerous examples and suggestions for allowing – and supporting – our children’s feelings and experiences.

Take some time this week to notice how you respond to your children. Write some of those responses down. Do you find yourself denying their feelings? Giving unsolicited advice? Asking lots of questions?

And could a different response have a better result?

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This post has been edited from a previous version originally published at Code Name: Mama.

Dionna is a lawyer turned work at home mama of her amazing son, Kieran. You can normally find Dionna over at Code Name: Mama where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler. She is also the cofounder of Natural Parents Network – a site where parents come to be informed, empowered, and inspired.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gaby @ Tmuffin August 1, 2011 at 7:14 am

This is great! I have been meaning to pick up and read this book. I have been doing this with Baby T a lot. If he says–like last night after leaving his Mom-Mom’s house–”I want to go back to Mom-Mom’s!” Instead of saying, “Well, we have to go home,” I say, “I know. You had so much fun at Mom-Mom’s!” It seems to help calm potential tantrums for some reason (as opposed to telling him only what he can’t do). Also, Baby T told me he was “frustrated” at maybe 20 months old. I try to use words for emotions, so he can tell me exactly how he’s feeling without throwing a tantrum or whining.
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2 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama August 9, 2011 at 10:09 am

It does help to calm toddlers (well, anyone!) if you start by connecting – “you did have fun, it would be so nice to stay there!” instead of correcting – “well, we can’t do that now, sorry!” It’s nice to know we’re being heard :)

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3 Tara @ Testosterone Treatment August 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm

This is great advice – I know it’s tempting to go the route of denial, but you’re right that we wouldn’t want people to say these things to us as adults so why say them to children who are even more sensitive and still developing their emotions? Thanks for the guest post, Dionna! :)

Tara

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4 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama August 9, 2011 at 10:12 am

This book is definitely applicable to both kids and adults – and it’s a great reminder that we need to treat kids like people, not something less :)

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5 Momma Jorje August 1, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Oh man, I vividly recall coming home to my ex and venting something about work and getting NO empathy! I was SOO angry!

It can be all too easy to dismiss our children’s feelings when they don’t seem to make sense to us.
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6 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama August 9, 2011 at 10:13 am

So true Jorje. I think that’s when it’s helpful to try to step outside of our own experiences and imagine what it must be like to be living in their shoes. Things that are no big deal to us might be to them!

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7 Melissa August 2, 2011 at 8:35 am

I’m reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, etc. right now! Ha. This is such good stuff, and so hard to keep in mind all of the time, but worth it. I really appreciate Dionna’s perspective.
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8 Dionna @ Code Name: Mama August 9, 2011 at 10:13 am

Thanks Melissa!

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9 Donna@childrens author September 8, 2011 at 11:38 am

Reflective listening and acknowledging feelings and emotions is a wonderful first step in helping children to solve their problems and deal with the emotions that they are feeling. Adults need to take the time to listen without interruption, paraphrase what their child is saying, and then and only then, ask the child what he/she thinks should be done. Adults should be resources for the kids, not the actual problem solvers.
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10 Charise @ I Thought I Knew Mama September 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I agree. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

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11 Bob Lipply@clearwater homes September 24, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Its really so true that when children talk to us we hardly think deeply. Children approach differently to things and situations and there is a big difference between us and the kids which is why we call them kids. We really have to teach and talk to them in such a way that they do not feel hurt.

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