Your children experience many feelings in the course of any given day. Yet as a parent, you may find yourself unintentionally, but repeatedly, denying your children the power to “own” their feelings. For example, you may say, “Oh, that didn’t hurt. It’s just a small scrape.” Or you may say, “It’s cold outside. Now put your coat on,” while your child tells you, “But Mom, I’m hot.”
ACCEPTING CHILDREN’S FEELINGS CAN BE DIFFICULT
Over the course of your children’s day, you may dictate to them how they should feel, act and be; and, from your perspective, it makes sense. After all, don’t you know better than your children because you are the one with more mature judgment and broader experience? Sometimes, too, it can be just plain difficult or too time consuming to have to deal with all of your children’s feelings, especially those emotional meltdowns. You may find yourself wanting to say, “Just get over it. It’s no big deal.” It can also be hard to see your children unhappy, angry, or frustrated. You may just want to make it all better for them and “fix” the bad feelings as a way to help them over their emotional hurdles.
What are you really saying to your children when you tell them not to feel what they are feeling or that they do not mean what they are saying? You are telling them to give up ownership of their personal experiences. Over time, children may become confused about what they are feeling and may start to doubt their perceptions, especially if their reactions are different from yours. Children may begin to believe that their feelings are not as important as other people’s, and they may learn to be dependent on others to define how they are feeling. Ultimately, it affects children’s self-worth and puts them at risk of relying upon others’ wishes and viewpoints – rather than upon their own – to keep themselves safe or to make sound judgments about what is in their best interests.
Feelings are very real to a child in the moment that he is feeling them. For example, your child may come home from school feeling very sad, as if he hasn’t a friend in the world. Your first instinct might be to deny that he has a reason to be sad and cheer him up by reassuring him that he does, in fact, have lots of friends, only to find your efforts backfiring and your child’s reactions intensifying. Your attempts to make your child “happy” may actually deprive him of the maturing experiences that come with facing disappointment, frustration and grief – feelings that are, after all, a part of life. However, if you identify his painful emotions and allow your child to suffer through them, you are actually teaching coping skills that will help him to deal with life’s challenges. It isn’t until a child’s angry and hurt feelings are out in the open, heard, and accepted that he will be able to let go of them and move on.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
When you learn to respect your children’s feelings, you respect your children’s integrity. You let them know that it is okay to be who they are even when their feelings differ from yours. You can begin to help your children by teaching them to identify what it is that they are feeling. A simple statement acknowledging their anger, sadness, frustration, or even happiness can be one of the greatest gifts of understanding that you can give.
Being able to acknowledge your children’s right to have those feelings without passing judgment or trying to make the feelings “go away” can be one of the hardest things for you to do. It’s the “negative” feelings that take the most energy for parents to allow their children to have and express.
Remember that permitting your children to own their feelings does not mean letting them do whatever they want. You still need to set limits on unacceptable behaviors. You can use your children’s times of anger, disappointment, and frustration as opportunities to teach them acceptable ways to express those emotions. For example:
“I know you are mad at your sister, but you may not hit her. You can use your words to tell her how angry you are or you can go somewhere quiet if you need to calm down.”
You shouldn’t forget that one of the most powerful ways you teach your children to accept their feelings is by you accepting your own feelings and addressing them in responsible ways. You can tell your child, “I am really disappointed that Aunt Susan did not call to find out how my appointment went. I think I am going to call her to let her know how I feel.”
Remember that your view of the world is not the only one. If you can look at life from your child’s perspective, you can gain a better understanding of who he really is – a unique individual with his own unique feelings, opinions, and outlooks. In the end, after your child has learned to identify and understand his feelings, he will be better able to consider the feelings of others and to make sound decisions for himself.By Deanna Bosley, Certified Parenting Educator
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