Young children may not have the words to tell us how they feel, but they don’t let that stop them. Screaming, whining, flailing, biting – you name it. They use whatever facility they have to communicate their discontent.
To us grown ups, the reasons behind these outbursts often seem trivial. Why is a banana inedible when it’s broken in half? Why is the blue cup so much better than the green on?
In cases like these, it’s easy to brush off a child’s emotions. We might say, “You’re OK,” or “It doesn’t matter.” Our kids need to learn not to sweat the small stuff, right?
The thing is, to young children, these things aren’t “small stuff.” If a child is clearly upset, they may “be OK” in the sense that they are safe from harm, but they sure don’t feel OK.
Young children (and grown ups for that matter) are often unable to control how they express their emotions. They don’t understand the powerful feelings that come over them, let alone what to do with them. The big feelings that come up, sometimes so suddenly, can be scary.
“Encouraging children to express their feelings is the key to fostering emotional health. No matter how unreasonable our child’s reaction seems, he or she needs it to be accepted.” ~Janet Lansbury
When we say, “You’re OK,” to a crying child, we are invalidating his feelings. When we say, “It’s alright.. it doesn’t matter,” we are telling him that we don’t understand or accept what he is going through. In neither case are we supporting his developing emotional intelligence.
So what’s a parent to do instead?
Acknowledge, Be Present and Wait
First, get down to your child’s level and acknowledge her feelings in a matter of fact way – no matter how trivial the problem seems to you. “It looks like you’re sad that we have a new brand of yogurt today.”
Resist the urge to fix the problem, negotiate or convince. Offer your support by saying, “I’m here with you,” or offering a hug. Now, be present and patient while she lets all of the sadness out.
I realize that this is easier said than done. Being present during strong, loud emotions is hard. I find it the most challenging with my own child. When I hear him cry I just want to make it all better! But I know that’s not what he needs.
My son doesn’t need me to rescue him from disappointment – or to convince him that he shouldn’t be upset in the first place. He needs me to hang in there and be with him while he learns about these wild things we have called emotions.
Need a Break?
There are times when, for our own well being, we need a break from our child’s big feelings. Or, perhaps we need to help another family member, or care for ourselves. If, for whatever reason, you must leave your child temporarily while she is having big feelings, let her know what to expect.
You might say, “I need to change your brother’s diaper. I’ll be right back to check on you,” or “It looks like you’re still sad. I’m going to give my ears a little break while I brush my teeth and then I’ll be back.”
Stick to your word, and try not to leave for too long. Keep checking in, let her know you’re there if she wants you. Be sure to make yourself available when she’s finally ready for some snuggles.
What about Distraction?
Distracting a child from her feelings may work in the moment, but it wont help her build emotional intelligence in the long run. Children learn to regulate their emotions when they feel heard. When a child is crying and screaming, she is communicating in the best way she knows how to at that given moment. We can support her in learning how to better control her emotions by listening to, and acknowledging what she has to say.
In the future, our kids will all face fates much worse than broken bananas and green cups. By accepting their feelings now, we can help them develop the skills they will need when life’s bigger challenges come their way.
When we acknowledge and accept their emotions, we show children that we will always be there to listen and support them. We show them that, whether it’s a little thing or a big one, they can count on us.