As parents, one of our greatest motivations is to protect our children from pain and suffering—in essence, from negative emotions. Nonetheless, despite our best efforts, our children will be disappointed, feel fear and pain, and have tremendous loss and grief. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Experiencing emotions is at the heart of what it means to be alive, and emotions can provide us with information about ourselves and our environment. While we cannot strive to protect our children from difficult emotions, there are strategies we can use so that these emotions provide opportunities to learn and to feel connected to others.
The extent to which our children’s experiences of negative emotions could be potentially beneficial depends on their ability to self-regulate. In young children, parents play a vital role in this equation. Children’s prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that controls emotions and functions like the CEO, is highly immature. Imagine what would happen if a child were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company (think Richie Rich). Disaster! As the parent, you have the privilege of getting to be that CEO until your child is ready to take over the charge (which happens gradually over time, with the transition often not completing until late adolescence or early adulthood). Psychologists call this phenomenon coregulation, which is when parents step into the role of helping to regulate children’s emotional experiences.
While this may all sound daunting, understanding the way emotions work is like knowing the tune to a song. You may not know you know it until you hear the song start to play, and then all of a sudden, it comes rushing back to you and you’re humming along. In this article, we aim to make the notes of the song clear, demystifying the way we can respond to children’s feelings to help them thrive.
The nature of children’s distress
Kids’ feelings are real to them and exist for a reason. But often their emotions are big, loud, and unlikely to make intuitive sense to adults. If you’re in the parenting trenches, these scenarios may seem familiar:
My kid gets upset about the silliest things. Children have a completely different frame of reference than do adults. They are perceptually more sensitive than adults. Children can hear different sounds and see different things than adults both because their vision is better and also because their eyes are typically two to three feet lower than adults’ eyes. Their sense of time is different from that of adults—it’s much slower, typically. So it’s no surprise that they get quite upset about things that would not be a blip on an adult’s radar, like the feeling of their t-shirts or having crust on their sandwiches.
My kid’s distress spills into everything. When children get upset, it’s difficult for them to recover. Their tools for coping with distress are underdeveloped compared to adults’. They often can collapse when stressed and may not function well unless everything goes just so. At the same time, children’s insight into how they are feeling is underdeveloped.
My kid gets upset at the worst times. On the way out the door. Right before bed. When the bride walks down the aisle. Basically, the most inconvenient or imprudent occasion is the exact time they will get upset. It’s puzzling and it’s infuriating, and it actually makes so much sense.
Children’s main source of security—of emotional anchoring—are the people who care for them. When their parents are with them and are calm, all is right in the world. When caregivers are stressed, this sends a cue to children that something is awry. When parents are tired, distracted, stressed, or rushed, this sets children up for system meltdown, for the worst temper tantrums and the most unreasonable demands. So when you most need your child’s cooperation is when you’re least likely to get it.
Reasonable responses for reasonable parents
How are we as parents to respond to children’s distress when it follows different rules than our distress? How are we to coach children to regulate their emotions when we have our own emotions to manage, as well? Here are some simple tips for helping children feel heard, which will also help to resolve their distress and keep your home calmer.
Acknowledge and validate children’s emotions. For children of all ages, the first step to acting as an emotion coach is to acknowledge their emotions, even when they aren’t aware of what exactly they are feeling. Start by acknowledging they are experiencing an emotion. This simple act of acknowledgment, which may be as effortless as saying, “I can see that this upset you” or “it seems like you’re worried about something,” can go a long way. If you don’t actually know what your child is feeling, but you can tell that they are feeling some kind of negative emotion, you can ask them: “Are you worried about something?” or “Are you feeling sad?” This act alone can diminish the negative emotion.
Next, validate why they feel the way they do. When you validate children’s emotions, you are not asking them to explain, but instead are affirming and responding to their needs (e.g., “It makes complete sense that you are feeling sad that she said that to you”). As emotion coaches, parents should be responsive to children’s experiences, rather than having the child justify their experience.
Emanate empathy. Empathy is vital for being able to respond sensitively to our children’s distress. In a nutshell, empathy is being able to communicate this sentiment to your child: “I understand your feelings and I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
Parents sometimes struggle to express empathy when they do not like the way the child is expressing their feelings, like when children behave aggressively when they are angry. In these cases, it can be helpful to separate your child’s emotion from their reaction to it. Emotions always deserve understanding and empathy. Emotions are valid as they are; they reflect your child’s perception of a situation, and whether the perception itself is accurate or not, the feelings are always real.
One strategy for dealing with this situation is to express empathy for the emotion itself and then speak separately to your child’s reaction to the emotion. For instance, you can say something like “I see that you are feeling scared; I’m so sorry. It’s horrible to be afraid [pause 10 seconds to allow this message to sink in]. When you’re scared, it makes sense to want to do something about it [empathizing with the desire to take an action of some kind], but next time, instead of running out of school, I want you to tell the teacher how you are feeling so they can help you [suggesting a different kind of action].”
Encourage children to express their emotions. Next, you can help your child elaborate upon the expression of their emotions. Typically, when we have emotions, simply saying the name of the emotion isn’t enough for children to feel like they have fully expressed the emotion. Adults often use many different words to give a full flavor to their emotional experience, invoking metaphors and sensory descriptors that tell the story of an experience that lives in the senses. Children are less likely to use lengthy narrative and metaphors to express their feelings, but they may be able to elaborate some on their feelings when you ask questions to prompt them.
For instance, if your child says that she was upset because of something that happened at school, you could respond by saying, “What kind of upset was it? Was it the kind where you get mad and yell, or was it the kind where you want to crawl into a hole and cry?” Or they may be able to draw comparisons between different situations that have created this kind of feeling in them. This type of initial follow-up helps your child become more specific about the nature of the feeling.
Have a deeper conversation about the emotions later. Later follow-ups can focus on helping your child get deeper into the feeling—for instance, by asking your child what about the incident bothered them the most or which part of it was the most painful. Asking about what the emotion makes your child want to do can heighten their understanding of the emotional experience (“Did the feeling make you want to go out there and scream at him? I bet it did”). Importantly, wanting to do something like hit or scream at someone is different than actually doing something, a distinction that parents can make clear to their children.
For some children, words are not the most accessible form of expression. This is often true in younger children because their verbal skills are less developed, or in children who are less oriented toward language as their main mode of expression. If this is the case for your child, it can help to ask them to draw how they are feeling or to draw the situation that caused the feeling. Children could pick out a color, shape, or animal that shows or best expresses the feeling. Some children like to act out the feeling, for example, by cowering in the corner, running away, or pretending to be an animal that best represents the feeling (e.g., a trembling mouse).
After children have had the benefits of expressing their emotions, you may even be able to help them alter their interpretation of a situation, impacting how they feel. After a discouraging experience, you can ask your child whether, despite the difficulties, there was anything positive that came out of the experience or anything they learned about themselves through the experience. Asking these questions can help your child view the situation more positively and also teaches your child an important coping strategy.
Practice self-forgiveness. Despite all of our best efforts, we will, at some point, make mistakes. Welcome to the club—all parents make mistakes with their kids. Don’t worry if you try the wrong tactic with your child, because your child will inform you if you do! The good news is that it’s never too late to try a new approach!
If this happens, thank your child for being so clear in their feedback to you and apologize for misunderstanding what they needed. The mistakes we make in relationships offer us opportunities to make up. The degree to which we repair these stumbles with our children matters for strengthening our relationships with them. Telling your child that you value their negative feedback as much as their positive feedback (“Thank you for telling me so clearly what you need. That really helps me know best how to help you”) is important, gives them voice, and empowers them for future interactions where they may need to set boundaries.
Don’t take it personally! It is so easy to take children’s feelings personally—to feel like they would feel better or be less upset if we had done something differently—but this may not be true. Childhood is a messy mix of highly charged emotions, most of which are unrelated to the way you have acted. What’s more, every child is different, making it impossible to get it right all of the time.
It’s easy for parents to get caught up in the guilt-worry spin cycle of parenting. But this level of responsibility is not deserved. Let’s think about the types of things that upset children, like the color of the milk bottle. Taking this on is only going to hurt you. And you don’t deserve that kind of treatment from anyone, especially not yourself.
By accepting our children’s emotions, encouraging children to be aware of them, and coaching them through the process of understanding, expressing, and regulating these feelings, we are creating an opportunity for them to live richer, more meaningful lives. And for ourselves to stay healthy and whole.