Children experience difficult emotions such as anger, frustration, fear, worry, and sadness. Sometimes, like we all do, they can plain-out have a bad day. How can parents best help their child to understand and cope with their emotions?
A common response is to try to talk the child into feeling better. When your child comes home from school and says, “Everybody hates me!” it seems natural to respond by pointing out the friends that you know your child has. The problem with this is that your parental attempts to soothe can get lost in your child’s emotion. Your child may actually escalate by yelling louder or crying harder, or attack you for “not understanding.” Or a child may quit talking and withdraw.
Instead of responding to the “truth” of the child’s words, try naming and validating the feeling they are expressing. Observe your child for the emotion they are showing. Then name that emotion in your response. If your child says, “Everybody hates me!” you can take in the teary eyes and slumping shoulders and respond, “You seem worried about not being liked.” This validates your child’s feelings. They will feel heard, rather than dismissed. This is supportive to the child and allows them to open up further. “Yeah, Elise called me stupid and Jory laughed.” The next step in validating is to empathize: “It’s hard when a friend makes fun of you.” Notice that you still aren’t attempting to solve the problem. The emphasis is on helping your child learn how to communicate emotions, not on problem-solving to try to make the emotions go away.
What if your reflection of feelings turns out to be wrong? What if your child is angry instead of worried, or had an incident with a teacher instead of with friends? If your child feels that you are really trying to understand, they will offer more information. To your comment, “You seem worried about not being liked,” they may respond, “No, I’m mad.” Follow your child’s lead and reflect this feeling: “You’re really angry. I wonder if something happened today that you feel angry about?” If your child does not feel like talking about it, let them know that you would like to hear more when they are ready.
Responding with validation, naming emotions, and empathy has a number of benefits. Your child is less likely to escalate their negative expression of feelings. They are learning to communicate emotions, even “difficult” or “negative” ones, in a positive manner. You are giving your child the message that you can listen to them and be supportive to them instead of negating their feelings. You are also giving your child the message that they are capable of tolerating the discomfort of strong emotions, rather than stepping in and trying to smooth over the feelings and solve the problems for them.
A good resource for learning more about communication of emotions is the book, “How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk,” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. If you are concerned that your child’s emotions are overly intense, you can seek advice from their pediatrician or school social worker. Child therapy can also be an option for assisting your child to grow in their ability to regulate their emotions.