Children of all ages experience strong emotions. As loving parents it can be uncomfortable to watch them struggle. You want to help them, you want them to be OK.
But sometimes as a result of our own discomfort, we try to stop these emotions in their tracks. In turn we don’t allow our children to process the emotions and consequently kids can feel as though these feelings are not appropriate (when they so very much are!)
I have spoken previously about how the little things matter to children and how I parent my sensitive son and my headstrong daughter, respectfully. You may find those posts helpful as background information.
Children get overwhelmed and sometimes this results in tears or anger. Instinctively, we want to tell them “it’s OK” and we want them to stop. That’s natural – we don’t want them to be upset!
But I have seen how that affects them. I’ve made that mistake before and watched as the cries got harder or the anger got louder. To them, it’s not OK in that moment and hearing that is not what they need.
What to do instead of saying “It’s OK”
When we say “it’s okay” it can feel so dismissive to the child’s experience. To them, in that moment, things feel very not okay. Them protesting louder with upset/sadness/anger/etc is a pretty valid response to their emotions being belittled!
So instead, I am there, I get on his level and if I find myself saying “it’s OK”, I tag a “to cry/feel scared/feel sad/feel angry” on the end.
It’s that simple. Children need to know that you hear them. They need those strong feelings validated to help process the strong emotions.
So we validate their emotions, “are you worried/scared/angry/hurt because ____?” & we begin to problem solve together.
As a result, Cam has told me with tear-filled eyes “it’s OK to cry. I’m sad” in such a love-filled way (with eyes that said ‘you taught me that‘). I’m thankful he knows that.
Similarly, my daughter (2.5 years old) is not overly verbal and she gets angry fast when she feels like she’s not being heard. Just last week after a big play at the park we gave warning that we were going to leave but she was not having it once we said we were going. She felt so upset and broke into heart-breaking sobs alongside rolling around in the dirt.
My husband was embarrassed and went straight into damage control mode with “we have to go, that’s enough” and “stop that, you had a great fun play!” This resulted in more temper and more uncomfortable emotions.
I got on her level and said “I’m here if you need a cuddle” and repeated variations of “you really didn’t want to leave” and “you had lots of fun, you didn’t want to go”. The sobs quickly got quieter until I heard a little “yeah” and she reached for me for a hug.
It’s OK to be angry.
It’s OK to be sad.
It’s OK to cry.
It’s OK to feel hurt.
But they don’t want to hear “it’s OK”.
Just like adults, kids want to be heard. Sometimes what they are worried or hurt about doesn’t seem like a big deal to adults. Sometimes it is embarrassing. Sometimes you have been through this so many times that you’re at your wits end. But remember, all they want is to feel like they are valued. Remember that sometimes simply the way you word things and react can make the world of difference both in the moment and for long after.
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Joseph Coon says
Emotions DO serve a purpose, but ill-defined purposes lead to major dysfunction. Allowing, or even teaching, children to express EVERY emotion despite the triggering circumstance gives those children an healthy worldview and leads to easy victimization as an adult.
The amygdala did evolve for a reason, but it was NOT to create an emotional response to EVERY social construct. In conjunction with critical thinking, a child should understand when being ostracized actually matters.
Ancient humans also evolved aversion to being ostracized because a community was mortally essential to survival. The amygdala saved us from lions, tigers, and bears, but it also prompted us to live as a village.
Modern day human do NOT have the requirements for living as a village member. We no longer need that intimate reliance on the person that you see before you. So, we started evolving those traits that used to get us killed, and, since those traits no longer result in inexorable death, those traits began to flourish. Individualism was born.
Today, our arguably largest societal disagreement is between individuality versus collectivism. One side feels our differences makes us strong, while the other side feels that our individualism spurs is toward progress. It is unfortunate that this argument has obscured the fact that both are true; we are a COMMUNITY of INDIVIDUALS; we are stronger TOGETHER and we advance faster APART.
Words only have emotional weight if we choose to give them that weight. Words have power only if we choose to give them that power. Validating emotions associated to ideas only allows those associations to grow stronger over time. Not EVERY idea needs to be expressed as soon as it is had. People are losing to ability to think critically and reflect intently on ideas BEFORE presenting them, and that is dangerous. Emotional reactions, whether they be words or actions, have a high probability of being irrational reactions.
Yes, emotions are there as an abstract warning signal, but our critical thinking is supposed to act as a check and balance to that hard-wired knee-jerk reaction. Words should not be triggers for reflex responses.
Emotion provides motivation, just like a gas pedal provides motion and controls how quickly you get to a destination. Reason provides direction, just like the steering wheel provides collision avoidance and maneuverability. Too much emotion, and you will continually wreck into obstaces or drive off the road. Too much reason, and you will spend all your time deciding where to go and how to get there but barely move along your path. Just as our collectivism and our individualism are both important, our emotion and reason are also important.
The importance of all these concepts are best learned through experience rather than being taught. It is how the brain neurobiologically works. The more neuronal circuits associated with an idea, the more likely that idea will activate through repeated activations of that whole network. This is why hearing impaired people have a tough time with speech; they have one less neuronal circuit cluster to associate to the idea of speaking.
I went to seven different elementary schools. Through a self-taught self-defense mechanism of self-deprecating humor I learned MANY important life lessons in individuality AND collectivism; in thinking before AND after speaking/acting.
While the self-deprecation taught me how to disarm bullies and how to put regular classmates at ease (it isn’t a far jump between laughing AT a person to laughing WITH that person), I learned self-reliance as well. Disrupting the class to deal with my abnormal societal problems of repeatedly conquering new bullies and repeatedly making new alliances provided me with sentences to write during recess (original Bart Simpson) and various disciplinary regimens at home. Not a single adult thought to address the possibility that constantly relocating created a different environment of learning for me. I was just an undisciplined child that needed correcting. They were right and wrong.
While I was undisciplined by adult societal standards, I was disciplined in school kid societal standards. While the intent of the adults in my childhood weren’t correct as I see them today, their purpose was still important. I quickly learned how to break problems down into their underlying fundamental components and to rationally address each one to develop tactics and strategies. I learned that emotions help drive me to solve problems, but that motivation merely hindered my ability to critically develop solutions.
So, here I am today. Still known as the clown, and barely anybody fathoms the depths of my intelligence. I have a psychotic hangup for solving everyday inconsequential problems to world-wide problems, but all people see is a blue-collar worker that has no reservations for prostrating myself before my friends as a clown to laugh at. My self-esteem has grown strong enough to be laughed at and those around me benefit by having an non-intimidating clown to laugh at.
Despite the inability of the adults, in my childhood life, to critically assess my situation, I learned about being ostracized, humility, modesty, self-reliance, self-regulation of emotions, critical thinking, and many others that I was blessed with learning during the years I could learn the fastest. I sipped feeling resentful and angry about my elementary school circumstances decades ago when I accepted the fact that EVER experience has shaped who I am today: that, despite every life lesson that ainhave learned, I am ultimately a flawed person, but flaws are just another problem for me to solve.
Words, opinions, and laughter do not define me.
I know who am.
I define who I am.
Rita Vandergriff says
Caring for 3 girls ages 10, 8 and 4. Each have their own way of expressing their emotions. The oldest holds everything inside until she bursts wide open. The middle child expresses frequent sarcastic comments when she is angry or frustrated climaxing to wailing and hiding in the closet until she feels better or I go talk to her.. The baby sister age 4 models all the behaviour she has observed and experienced through her older sisters. Any advice on how to guide them appropriately for their respective ages?
I have been doing this for over 28 years in the field using Faber and Mazlish premise that “all feelings can be accepted but not all behaviors”. I love this article. Its given me both validation and affirmation!
My 9 year old is a fabulously opinionated feisty Piscean, not unlike his Mother (throw in red hair and a Scottish background). So the glaringly obvious IS going to happen…..we often chase each other’s tails snapping like piranhas, as opposed to the graceful koi of our star sign….never-the-less it has given us fantastic opportunities to explore a myriad of emotions and skills in the guises of negotiation techniques, tolerance, patience and forgiveness. It’s refreshing to know I’m not alone in my ‘bad parenting choice’ moments.
I adore the story we are creating and the people we are becoming. Live Love and Learn, Always.