Let’s say your kid is mad. Pouting, shouting, maybe even punching-the-pillows mad.
Your move as an enlightened 21st century parent: You name the emotion: “Wow, I can see you’re really upset right now.”
So far, so good.
Stop. Right. There.
This is the critical point, says child psychologist and parent educator (and mom of two) Erica Reischer, author of What Great Parents Do: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive.
“Even those of us with good instincts about not doing things for our kids that they can do for themselves—do this,” she told me: We respond too fast—and say the wrong things—which can escalate the situation without actually solving it or, more important, helping our kid develop the chops to deal with future rough emotions.
Here’s where we go astray, Reischer says:
Oops #1: We rush in to tell them how to feel.
Labeling an emotion (“Wow, you’re mad!”) helps a kid put a name on the feeling. But we often then dive right into saying things like:
- “Calm down.”
- “Don’t worry.”
- “It’s okay.”
- “Stop shouting.”
- “Don’t cry.”
- “It’s not a big deal.”
- “It doesn’t matter.”
All this does, says Reischer, is make the other person feel more—more angry, sad, upset. It dismisses what they actually are feeling.
It’s not just kids. We all feel like this when people do it to us!
Oops #2: Then we rush in to “fix” it.
Right away, we offer the solution:
- “Why don’t you…”
- “Let me see what I can do….”
- “It wouldn’t bother you so much if you’d…”
- “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it/get you another one/call the coach…”
- “How about some ice cream?”
We try to “fix” all kinds of emotions, Reischer says, not just anger or disappointment. If our kid complains, “I’m bored,” we might jump in with a long list of potential activities. Or if our kid comes home saying, “Everyone hates me,” the instinctive response is to exclaim, “No, they don’t, sweetie! What about Ava? What about Jack?”
Rushing in with the fix is another way of robbing our kids of the chance to process what they’re feeling and build a tolerance for uncomfortable feelings.
Doing that also implies that we don’t think they can handle it—Mom or Dad has to do it for them. Eventually that’s what they sit back and expect.
“We can’t always be the advance team for our kids, as satisfying as that is,” Reischer says.
Better: Learn to tolerate your child’s discomfort, so he or she can too.
Like bringing a forgotten lunch or homework to school, she explains, “the urge to fix feelings comes from a place of great love and good intentions, from the desire to spare our children from being disappointed, unhappy, cold, hungry, and so on.”
Whether it’s a minor thing (like a growling stomach or frustration over not being able to make a toy work) or major one (like not making a team or social rejection), we hate to see them suffer.
But nestled within that “suffering” is an essential learning opportunity. Kids need a chance to experience a spectrum of ordinary human emotions in order to develop good coping skills that will last them a lifetime—long after we’re around to “make it all better.”
As parents, we really need to get comfortable with their discomfort, she says.
Better: Let them feel the feeling (and choose the action).
Labeling feelings is a fine start, but it’s only a start. Even toddlers can begin to understand what “mad” and “sad” and “happy” mean. They need to learn that everybody feels different emotions all the time, and that it’s normal, even when those feelings are upsetting or scary. Sometimes emotions are mild. Sometimes they’re intense. Sometimes we feel them in our heads or our voices, sometimes in our stomachs or our fists.
To truly learn this, though, they need to actually feel the feeling. Reischer says she’s met adolescents who have little experience with uncomfortable feelings because they’ve always been rescued and petted. As a result, they fall apart in situations when they’re neglected or excluded. “At the extreme end, they drown out the feelings in alcohol or substance abuse, or they lash out and get violent,” she says.
“Feelings are what they are. We can’t change or control them at will, but we can learn to acknowledge them and accept them, and know that they’ll eventually change,” Reischer says.
She teaches kids to “feel the feeling and choose the action.” Even in the throes of a strong emotion like white-hot anger, we can pause to make a choice about how to respond with our words or actions.
“Just going through it with them helps,” Reischer says. “Make an emotional connection.”
Show your empathy by playing back what they’re feeling, a technique that psychologists call reflecting:
- “You don’t feel like you have anything fun to do today.”
- “Oh, honey, it sounds like you had a hard day. That would make me feel terrible too.”
- “Ohhh, your favorite toy broke; no wonder you’re upset.”
Then ASK, don’t TELL.
In many cases, kids calm down, recognize what they’re feeling and why, and can come up with their own solutions.
If they still need help, resist the urge to offer a fix (unless it’s obviously something where an adult must step in because no child should handle it alone, like bullying or abuse). Ask a lot of open-ended questions rather than telling what to do:
- “Well, what are some things you’ve liked to do in the past when you were bored? Let’s make a list.”
- “So what happened today that makes you think everyone hates you? Oh, the other girls wouldn’t play with you? Is there anything else going on that might have made that happen?”
Or walk your child through the steps about how to choose what kind of response to make (without actually dictating the steps):
- “Did the coach explain how the team was picked? Would you feel better if you knew why you didn’t make the cut? Let’s think about how you might ask her. Do you want to practice saying it to me?”
“Remember, you don’t have to fix the situation or make your child feel better,” Reischer says. “Just offer your compassion and presence.”
Anger, disappointment, hurt, resentment, boredom—they come and go.
A kid who knows how to deal? That skill sticks around, benefitting a kid forever.