Has your kid ever thrown a fit? Has she fallen apart and melted into a puddle of tears for no apparent reason? Has he ever gotten upset and said or done something you thought was unacceptable? Am I asking a bunch of unnecessary questions where the answer is obviously going to be, “Yes?” Kids’ emotions are volatile. They escalate quickly and often subside just as quickly. One minute they’re as happy as can be. The next minute their entire world is crashing down around them. The way we as parents handle our kids’ emotional ups and downs is crucial to whether they become better at regulating their emotional responses and becoming more stable over time. It also has a huge impact on their behavior. “When kids feel right, they’ll behave right.”  So here are four things you can do help your kids feel right, and the mistakes we often make instead.
1. Really Listen
This one may sound super simple, but it’s amazing how easy it is as parents to zone out when our kids are talking about their problems. It’s easy to get caught up in something on TV or your phone and go into the half-listening mode.
When your kid comes to you with a problem, often all they need is for you to really listen. Sometimes you don’t have to say anything at all, but when they see you’re really paying attention, it tells them that what they’re feeling matters. That’s often exactly what they need.
2. Use Fewer Words
When kids come to us with difficult emotions, we’re sometimes tempted to start a conversation. We ask them questions, interrogate them about details, suggest alternative interpretations. But, as well-intentioned as this approach may be, it actually serves to put your kid on the defensive. Instead of being able to process their emotions, they’re busy trying to think about answering your questions or responding to your comments, and this just creates a lot of chaos in their brains.
What your kids are typically looking for in this situation is a sympathetic and listening ear, and the easiest way to demonstrate that is by keeping your responses as short and sweet as possible. Remember these phrases: “Oh, yeah?…Mmm…I see.” In many situations, this as much as you need to say in order to give your child the attention they need, and help them process through their own emotions and associated thoughts.
Don’t put your children on the spot in emotional situations by asking them questions or forcing them to explain things that may be difficult for them to verbalize in the moment.
3. Name Their Feelings
It’s also not all that uncommon for parents to deny their children’s feelings. This is universal among all parents, and it’s because, quite frankly, kids’ feelings are often completely crazy and irrational to adult minds. But, crazy as those feelings may seem, they are legitimate and true feelings for your child. When parents begin denying their children’s feelings, it creates a sense of emotional disconnect between parents and children, and it causes children to distrust their own emotional signals.
Consider the example of a child who says to her mom, “Mommy, I’m really tired.” The mom responds, “You can’t be tired, you just took a two-hour nap!” In that moment, the mom is expressing a perfectly logical thought about what her daughter is saying. But her daughter comes away with the message, “I can’t trust my own internal feelings.” Or maybe, “My mom doesn’t believe me when I tell her how I feel.” Either way, it’s not particularly helpful.
Instead of denying that your child is feeling a certain way, try to understand (using empathy) what your child is feeling in the moment, and then give it a simple one-word name that describes it: angry, sad, disappointed, mad, shy, etc. Every time you help your child by naming their emotional experience, you are increasing their emotional strength and their capacity to recognize their own internal experience and label it accordingly.
This kind of emotional intelligence is invaluable as your child approaches adolescence and adulthood.
4. Stop Explaining and Start Imagining
I know this is going to come as a shock to most of my readers, but kids actually have a very hard time with logic! That’s right. I said it. Kids are terrible with logic.
Despite this, I still see so many parents continue to try to manage their children’s emotional experiences using logic. Now, some kids have the disposition to respond well to logic, but the vast majority of kids find it entirely incomprehensible when they’re in the midst of a serious meltdown. In those difficult emotional moments, most kids are looking for someone who understands their disappointment and is able to articulate it in such a way that it makes them feel better. One way to accomplish this, is to imagine with your child the outcome they are hoping for.
For example, you tell your child it’s time for bed, and he says, “But, I don’t want to go to bed ever!” You could argue with him that it’s good for him. You could threaten him with punishment if he doesn’t. Amazingly, though, simply going with your child to his imaginary place is enough. If you say, “I know, wouldn’t it be cool if we never ever had to go to bed?” You’ve just granted your child’s wish on some level, without actually letting him stay up later. Many times this is all it takes to break down the resistance and achieve cooperation.
Cooperation is Always the Goal
At the end of the day, we’re always looking for cooperation from our kids. Many parents think it’s about getting obedience or compliance, and you can get those things through a variety of coercive activities. However, it’s not really necessary. Instead, you can use the above techniques to help foster cooperation by letting your child know that they are really seen and heard, and that their emotional world matters.
When kids feel right, they behave right, and feeling right begins with you, the parent.
- From Faber & Mazlish’s book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” ↩