Respecting My Kids: Feelings

Posted by on Oct 3, 2015 in "Respecting My Kids" series, Parenting

Respecting My Kids: Feelings

“Parents… fear that by giving a name to the feeling, they’ll make it worse. Just the opposite is true. The child who hears the words for what he [or she] is experiencing is deeply comforted. Someone has acknowledged his [or her] inner experience.” Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk

Invalidating Feelings: My Glaring Example

A couple of years ago, our family went out for what we thought was going to be a fun-filled evening of pizza and shoe shopping. Our daughter, Clara, was seven at the time, and we had noticed some marks on her feet, so we’d assumed her shoes were too small. With the help of a salesperson, we soon discovered that Clara still had plenty of room to grow, but that her little sister Rachel needed new shoes. No problem, right? We simply explained the situation to Clara and promised to bring her back in a few months when she would actually need new shoes.

Well, forget it.

Why can’t I have a new pair of shoes? You said I was getting new shoes. Why does Rachel get shoes? That’s not fair.” And on, and on. And on.

Looking back, I cannot believe how much time and energy I wasted trying to get Clara to understand “the situation.” All evening, we went back and forth. I might as well have said, “You’re being ridiculous” or “You shouldn’t feel that way because…”

When Clara and I were having a last cuddle before bed, she looked me in the eyes and stated with such clear determination, “MOMMY. We were going to buy me shoes and then Rachel got shoes instead.” Wow. Finally, I realized my mistake. I got it. Clara made sense. And what she really needed was to know that I understood her. My earlier exasperation just melted away when I imagined being her. I said, “You were so excited about choosing new shoes tonight. And then you didn’t get to pick a new pair and Rachel was the one who came home with shoes. That must have been so confusing and disappointing.” Clara was quiet. She cuddled closer. She seemed visibly relieved. And the subject never came up again.

Accepting Feelings: A Basic Human Need

In the therapy room, I often say, “Feelings aren’t good or bad. They just are.”

So often, we react to feelings,– our own or another person’s,– with judgment, resistance, distractions, and efforts to fix. Ironically, the moment we notice and accept a feeling just as it is, we often find relief, comfort, and even a lessening of intensity.

We all need the message, “I see you. I get you. I understand this moment through your eyes, and you make sense to me.” When children have their feelings and experiences named and validated by trusted adults, they feel safe, contained, and better able to soothe themselves.

Inviting Feelings: Helping Your Child Develop a Language for Emotions

There are many ways to start making conversations about feelings a part of your family life. Don’t assume that your children are too young. Even 2-year-olds are able to name basic feelings like “happy, sad, mad, and scared.”

Share “Highs and Lows” at the end of the day.

I love this exercise because it’s so simple and concrete, and because every family member can take part. Even a very young child is able to identify that patting the puppy at the playground was a high, and falling off the swing was a low. If you have never tried this at home, your kids may be more likely to share about themselves if you go first: “My high was seeing you climb off the school bus this afternoon. My low was being stuck in traffic on the way to work.” Over time, your kids will build the skill of checking in with themselves about their feelings.

Model by naming your own feelings.

You can try this at any time, not just during “Highs and Lows.” I especially love the idea of modeling time-out for our kids: “I’m feeling really frustrated, so I’m going to take a few minutes by myself just to breathe and calm down.” Our kids need to know that they aren’t the only ones who struggle with intense feelings at times. We can show them that taking time out is actually a form of self-care and self-soothing, not a cause for shame. I will note here that it is never our kids’ job to take care of us emotionally,– to comfort us in sadness or calm us down when we’re upset or make us feel better about ourselves,– so it’s important to discern in each situation whether sharing our feelings is in their best interest.

Observe your child and make your best guess.

While we were shopping for school supplies at the end of the summer, my daughter, Rachel, was unusually quiet. She was staring at the other families who were crowding this section of the store, checking off items on their supply lists. I paused for a minute right there by our cart and just noticed aloud: “You look worried. I wonder if you’re thinking about starting in a new classroom with a new teacher and different kids. It’s fun to pick out school supplies, but it can also be a little scary not knowing what to expect in a new situation.” Rachel nodded and leaned against my leg for a hug. She asked, “Is first grade going to be fun?” As we went on shopping, the three of us talked about past school years and about what the girls expected this year to be like. Rachel seemed lighter, less preoccupied.

Try observing and naming a whole range of emotions: “I can see that you’re so proud of yourself,” or “You have a lot of loving feelings for your Lambie,” or “You’re really frustrated that we have to leave the playground, aren’t you?” Teach your kids that they can have two very different feelings at the same time: “You’re excited and curious about starting first grade, and you’re also sad about leaving your kindergarten teacher whom you loved.” “It seems like you feel protective of your brother when someone teases him on the bus, and you’re also a little embarrassed.” “You love the new baby and you also feel jealous when people say how cute she is.” Children are so relieved to know that mixed feelings are normal and make sense.

Explain the mind/body connection. 

Our bodies often provide clues to feelings before we’re consciously aware. We can help kids to tune into their bodies and to translate the tummy ache or butterflies, the clenched fists or jaw, the pain in the throat just before crying. You might even ask, “If your tummy could talk, what would it say?”

Teach the idea that feelings fall on a spectrum of intensity.

A few weeks ago, I played a game with Rachel and Clara in which I asked if they could come up with words to describe different feelings on a spectrum, and then they acted them out. They had a great time showing me “annoyed, irritated, mad, angry, furious!” and “nervous, worried, scared, frightened, terrified!” and “happy, joyful, excited!” Some kids are helped by a number scale. If your child struggles with intense anger or anxiety, you can turn this idea into a fun art project and use the finished scale as a way to slow down and identify the early stages of an escalating episode.

Suggest drawing feelings. 

Even adults can have trouble finding words for feelings at times. If your child is unable to talk about what she or he is experiencing, provide some paper and crayons or markers and suggest drawing. The art may be enough on its own, or it may lead to a conversation.

Read children’s stories that show characters experiencing a variety of feelings.

I am not talking about books that are explicitly about feelings, though I’m sure these books can be helpful. My own opinion is that a well written story can powerfully convey human experience without having to spell out a message.

Check out “Children’s Books We Love” if you want some suggestions.

Final Thoughts

If you have tried but you find it consistently very difficult to give your kids this supportive acceptance of feelings, ask yourself if any of these things is true:

  • You think it is your job to make sure your children are happy all of the time. When they are uncomfortable or struggling, you feel as though you are failing as a parent.
  • You have trouble accepting your own feelings and don’t know how to offer something you’re unable to give yourself.
  • You feel personally threatened or wounded by your kids’ feelings.
  • You are very skilled at problem solving, but the idea of noticing and accepting feelings seems foreign or pointless to you.
  • You and your family are coping with a chronic or traumatic situation, and you are overwhelmed, burned out, or simply unable to be emotionally available to your children in the ways they need right now.

If you identify with anything here, you may benefit from individual, couple, family, or group therapy for added support.

Respecting My Kids Series

This post is part of a series called “Respecting My Kids.”  The following are links to other articles in the series:

Group Therapy Opportunity

If you or someone you know would be interested in joining a weekly therapy group for parents, please contact me.  Day, evening, and weekend times are available.  Groups are kept small and provide a safe place to share your experiences, as well as to explore new possibilities.  I offer a free brief phone consultation to determine whether or not this group would be a good fit for you.  You may reach me with questions at lynndaviesknaub@gmail.com or 443-286-3432.

About Lynn Davies

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. I have been in private practice for over fourteen years and have experience working with adults and adolescents, addressing a variety of issues: anxiety, depression, relationship problems, past or current trauma, eating disorders, self-mutilation, bereavement, parenting concerns, boundaries, and self-care.

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