How to Discuss Emotions With Our KidsApr 19, 2022
When discussing kids’ emotions with parents, I often probe into how, and how often, parents actually talk with their kids about their feelings. Not just notice the emotions. Not just worry about the emotions. But talk about their emotions together. It’s not uncommon to get the following sentiment:
“Ugh! I DO try to talk to my kids about their emotions, but they always just storm off and never want to talk to me.”
If that feels familiar, gently think about this: how have you talked to them about their emotions in the past? Does it sound anything like this?
“Why are you mad!? Get a grip and get over it!”
“You’re fine, just walk it off.”
“Don’t cry! It’s okay! There’s nothing to cry about.”
“There’s nothing to be scared about! Toughen up!”
If those statements sound familiar, you are certainly not alone. It is common to notice our kids’ extreme emotions and want to neutralize those emotions for them. “Oh, don’t be scared! That’s just an airplane. It’s not going to hurt you. You’re just fine!”
These neutralizing statements are coming from a genuine and altruistic place. After all, no parent enjoys seeing our kid hurting. It’s natural to strive to make that uncomfortable feeling go away.
Furthermore, our kids’ emotions can feel surprisingly uncomfy to us. You know the moment. The one where your kid unexpectedly bursts out in tears, or rage, or is frozen in fear, refusing to respond to the nice stranger asking them a benign question. First, you may think, “Wowza. I wasn’t expecting that. This. Is. Just. A lot.” Then (if out in public), you may notice the judging eyes of other adults. Then, come your own emotions. Finally rushes in the powerful urge to make this uncomfortable thing go away.
However, the trouble with this is that our child DID feel an emotion. Even if you don’t agree with it, or it was “too much,” it was a real-life emotion, with real-life physiological underpinnings.
That’s why neutralizing statements like, “oh, you're fine, just don’t feel that,” don’t quite compute. Your child’s already scrambled brain, thinks, “What? That wasn’t real? It felt real. My heart rate increased. My breathing increased. I started sweating. I lost control. But, she’s telling me everything’s fine. Okay…….”
Think about it from this perspective: You’re rushing to work and spill coffee down your favorite blouse. You must quickly change into that shirt that feels a little too tight and scratchy. You get pulled over and ticketed on the way to work. You arrive late, and your boss scolds you for the second time that week. You pull up the file you’ve been working on all week and it’s corrupted. You must start over. After what seems like 97 hours, your lunch break finally arrives. You start ranting about this dumpster fire of a day to your work bestie, and she responds with, “Oh, you’re fine. You are overreacting. Don’t be so upset, your life is great!”
How do you feel? Better? Yeah, I wouldn’t either. This is exactly how our kids feel as well. Our altruistic attempts to neutralize their emotions, end up just feeling even more awful. Thus, when talking with our kids about their emotions avoid giving in to the following “make it better” traps:
- Neutralizing (“Don’t cry, it’s not scary!”)
- Dismissing (“Walk it off, you’re fine”)
- Fixing (“The dog is scary!? I’m sorry! Get the dog out of here. It’s okay, baby, I won’t ever make you see that mean dog again…”),
Instead, try the following:
- Pause before you respond. Other people’s intense emotions nearly always make our own emotions flair up. Your child flops to the floor wailing, and you instantly feel angry. Your child says he hates his teacher, and you are filled with anticipatory dread (“Oh no, he’s going to always hate school because of this teacher. He’s never going to get into college, or…”). Your child calls you the “worst mother ever” and you suddenly feel like the worst mother ever. Those emotions you are feeling are just as important as your child’s emotions. Note them. Acknowledge them. But don’t react out of them. Don’t give too much weight to those automatic emotional responses. Take a moment to breathe and calm yourself before responding to your child.
- Label, Label, Label. Label your child’s emotions as you see them: happy, sad, angry, excited, frustrated, dreading, irritated. There is no age too young or too old to begin this. You are not judging as you are labeling, you are just stating what you see:
- “You are frustrated!”
- “You are dreading going to school today.”
- “It made you feel angry, and even scared when I yelled.”
- Remind your child that no emotion is wrong or unusual or crazy. We have all felt all the things! All emotions have a purpose.
- “That plane is loud. Loud things can feel scary. That scary feeling is our body’s way to keep us safe. You are safe right now.”
- “You are furious that your brother hit you. That is understandable. You are so mad; your body is trying to tell you that you do not want that to happen again.”
- “You're sad that grandma died. That’s totally okay. Your body and mind will miss her for a while, and that is okay.”
- Be present. After labeling and normalizing, you may find that your child is doing okay. That may be all they needed to feel “heard.” But there may be more they need to express. Listen to what they are saying and reflect it back. Remember, you do not need to fix or neutralize the feeling.
- “Ugh, you are dreading going to school tomorrow. I get that.”
- “You’re sad that this was Lexie’s last day at school. That is sad. Ah, you’re also worried that you won’t get a chance to see her again.”
- “It made you feel really mad when he yelled at you. Especially when you got in trouble for yelling yesterday. I see, that also feels unfair to you.”
This week, try pausing, labeling, normalizing, and being present for your child’s emotions. You may find that your child’s intense emotions actually neutralize on their own. You may also find that your child begins to open up and talk just a little more than is typical. Let us know how it goes!
We talk about this, and much more, in our ‘Parenting 101’ video course. If you haven't already, check out the free video from our course, "Love, Like, Enjoy" here: Watch Free Video from Course
-Dr. Erin Avirett
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