Have you ever heard someone tell a child who is upset to stop crying? Maybe they lead with something like, “What are you, a baby?” Or maybe they add in some fear as well by saying, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Oof.
Most of us cringe to think these things are being said to children (and they are) but are we aware of the more subtle ways we ourselves might be dismissing children’s emotions?
If you’ve ever caught yourself wanting to tell an emotional child to just stop, (so basically, if you are a human being) here are three things to keep in mind that will help you help kids process their emotions free from shame.
1) ALLOW FOR EMOTIONS: Kids can actually feel intimidated by their own emotions, especially when adults in their lives react negatively to the expression of those feelings. When we react to a child’s experience and make having big feelings "wrong", no matter how inconvenient or annoying that experience might be, we are minimizing and at times denying that child the right to their own internal experience. And as tempting as dismissing and denying might seem because we think we are "nipping this bad attitude in the bud", in actuality, we are likely making things worse; at times even increasing the likelihood that we will find ourselves back in this very place tomorrow. And really, who wants that?
The first step in helping kids learn to process their feelings is acceptance. We get to accept the fact that this child is feeling one form of not happy or another.
Allow for emotions. Period. End of story. Whether you see these emotions as logical or ludicrous is irrelevant. Hit a pause button on the inner dialog that wants to scream, “What is wrong with you!?!?” and make space for their emotions instead. You do not need to agree with someone’s emotions to make space for them. All you really need to do is allow and hold space for them.
In the face of screaming and whining, allowing is easier said than done, so it’s helpful to have a phrase in your back pocket you can turn to for strength. Mine is this:
“Emotions are sacred.”
For me, this means that emotions are not right and they are not wrong. They just are. Emotions are safe to feel, they matter, and they are always allowed. Kids are simply exploring a whole new world of feelings and benefit greatly when the adults in their world support this process.
2) RECOGNIZE EMOTIONS: Once you’ve made space for big emotions, the next step is to help children learn to recognize their feelings and the feelings of others. If kids are expressing their big feelings with actions like hurting others or otherwise acting out, see these actions as a form of communication - a cry for help. The phrase I turn to for patience and strength in these challenging moments is this:
“Misbehavior is an unmet need.”
Instead of the internal question,"What is WRONG with this child?!" this moves me into thinking, "What's the need?" With my own energies centered, I am then better equipped to approach the situation, maintaining my boundaries and respect the child at the very same time. Instead of punishment, when we center ourselves first, we are then able to help children:
- Think about and express how they were feeling.
- Draw a connection between their feelings and why/how they acted out.
- Consider their thoughts, words, and actions. Tools like this set of (free) printable calming strategies with cute pictures kids can color along with words (designed for ages 3 to about 9) from the Time-In Toolkit are helpful as are any number of play-based approaches to nurturing social and emotional skills in kids.
When we help children process their actions in connection to their thoughts and feelings, free from punishment, shame, and blame, we are teaching important social and emotional skills in the most powerful way possible... and that is by example.
3) MODEL FORGIVENESS: There are times that feel impossible for us to keep our cool. Take the mom in my last parenting class whose son threw a glass of water at her... a challenging moment to be sure. Despite our best intentions, we are going to get knocked off-center. Instead of beating ourselves up for our anger and frustration in times like these, we can see them as a teaching moment for us to model self-love and acceptance in the face of our own mistakes. (Hear this mom's full question and my reply, minute 13:25, in this video replay.)
When we are aware of our own trigger moments, we can simply apologize. The catchphrase we use in my home in the face of our teaching moments is this:
“Mistakes help me learn and grow.”
When we model self-love and forgiveness, children learn self-love and forgiveness. Share how you were feeling, what you might have done differently and something you learned. In doing so, you are teaching children that it is possible for us to learn from our mistakes, free from shame.
Emotions in and of themselves are never a negative thing and everyday life affords us countless opportunities to support children in learning how to process their emotions. This is no small task, but the stakes are high and the rewards for doing so are even higher. Our very world and peace in our time depends on it.