When I talk with children about their emotions, it is unanimous that children’s emotions are very similar to adults. They feel their emotions. They’re uncomfortable with sadness, anger, and fear – just like adults. But when they are given permission to move through emotions uniquely, and on their own time, they manage difficult things better.
Parents tend to want to make all bad things go away for their children. I often hear my clients say things like, “If my child just doesn’t talk about it, then they won’t think about it.” There’s a fear that if you acknowledge what the child’s feeling, it’ll turn into a meltdown. Usually the opposite is true: when a parent denies a child’s feelings, they push harder to be heard.
I love this quote by Stacia Tauscher: “We worry so much about what our kids will become tomorrow, but we forget that he is someone today.” It reminds me of an exchange I once had with my 3-year-old son:
Son: Mama, I’m hungry.
Me: You can’t be hungry – you just ate.
Son: (whining louder) No. I really AM hungry!
Me: You are not eating another thing until lunch. You have been eating all morning!
Son: (throwing himself on the floor at my feet) I’M STAARVING! I WANT TO EAT!
Needless to say, the next time around, I decided to try it differently.
Son: Mama, I’m hungry.
Me: You are still hungry, huh? I wonder what you are going to do about it?
Son: I want to eat something else?
Me: What do you think sounds good?
Son: I would like a treat.
Me: Well, I can’t offer you a treat, but if you want an apple or a banana, you can have that. Otherwise, lunch will be in an hour.
Son: No. I’m not hungry for an apple or a banana.
Me: Okay, well, in an hour we’ll have a nice lunch. If you don’t think you can make it, I will set an apple right here for you.
Different approach, different outcome. Let’s take a look at why:
The first time he became louder and increased his expression because I was not acknowledging what he was feeling.
Each child is born with unique ways of perceiving the world. They express themselves to their parent from the moment they are born. It is a parent’s job, at the beginning, to figure out what the baby wants, and fix it.
When a child begins to figure out they have their own feelings, they begin to tell us what they want or need. Parents are so used to fixing the child’s problem that it limits the child from taking ownership for their problem.
When I told my son he shouldn’t be hungry because he just ate, I was teaching him not to trust his own feelings, but rather trust what I am telling him to feel.
The second time around, I provided boundaries on what he could eat – a choice. When we teach our children how to handle the everyday feelings of hunger, fatigue, and boredom they will start to learn and also recognize sadness, anger, and being scared.
Although he didn’t get the treat that he was probably after, I showed him that I recognized his feeling and allowed him to figure out how to take care of it. I gave him the option of something healthy and didn’t just shut him down.
When we give our children space to learn about themselves and opportunities to make choices, we are invited into a whole different kind parenting which allows us to experience our children as individuals. As parents, we can then show our children boundaries and provide limits so that they can safely learn how to function uniquely.
Young children experience and understand time differently than adults. Adults know that just because I didn’t allow him to have something to eat again, that doesn’t mean he won’t ever eat again. Young children may not always fully grasp that – they tend to think much more in the moment. This can add fuel to the fire causing even more confusion and frustration.
The second time around, I explained to my son that we would be having a nice lunch in about an hour. This gave my son information that he will eat again soon – even if he choose not to take my offer of an apple or banana right then.
Parenting is a lot like navigating uncharted territory. Every parent wants their child to have a happy life and to not hold on to uncomfortable emotions. If you and your child or family are facing difficulties, I’d be happy to help with your next step.