As parents, our initial—and perhaps instinctual—reaction to our children’s negative emotions is to get rid of them and replace them with positive ones. This may be due to numerous reasons, including our own childhood experiences, where we learned that negative feelings are a sign of weakness, or our deep desire to always see our children happy. As parents, we want what’s best for our children, and many of us would instinctively say that our ultimate parenting goal is to raise a happy and well-adjusted child. Therefore, it makes sense that we may feel very uneasy when our children are upset. We may want to drop everything, run to their side, and tell them that it’s okay and that mommy or daddy will make them feel better. In some cases, we may feel desperately inclined to go to extremes by offering to purchase a toy or take a trip to a favourite restaurant in hopes of quickly extinguishing that terrible negativity our children are feeling. As a matter of fact, it may seem completely counterintuitive to encourage our children to sit with and explore their negative feelings rather than rescue them from those feelings.
Take a moment to ask yourself: Am I showing my children that it is perfectly normal to be upset at times and that I have confidence in their strength to experience these emotions and to channel them into positive actions? Or are my actions conveying to my children that negative feelings are abnormal, that they are not capable of containing their emotions, and that it’s best to replace negative feelings with a positive experience as quickly as possible?
One mother I talked to about this told me that she wants her son to know that life has its share of disappointments but that she believes in his strength to endure and work through them. Certainly, no one can argue that life is full of ups and downs. What better message to send our children than that we have faith in them and their ability to sail through the storm!
How to respond when feelings run hot
In his extensive research on emotional intelligence in children, Dr. John Gottman found that when parents give their children guidance about the world of emotions and use difficult emotional moments as opportunities for teaching life lessons, their children showed numerous advantages, such as better physical health, higher academic achievement, better social skills, fewer behavioural problems, and fewer violent acts. In other words, these children were more emotionally healthy.
Dr. Gottman identified five specific steps that these parents used:
- Become aware of the child’s emotions.
- Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
- Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings.
- Help the child find words to label the emotions he or she is having.
- Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand.
To illustrate this approach, let’s say your six-year-old son comes home from school feeling sad about a rejection to play from a friend. As the parent, you could say, “I can see that you’re feeling really hurt and sad about what your friend said.” Next, after the child’s affirmative response, let him know that it makes sense to feel this way and that you understand his predicament. You could offer something along the lines of, “Wow, it must be really hard to hear your friend tell you that you cannot join in the game. It makes perfect sense that it would upset you. I think anyone in your situation would feel sad.” The key is now to stay with him in the feeling; you don’t even need to say much, but what you’re doing is helping to contain his feelings in a healthy way. Finally, after some time, you may want to help your child come up with a solution: “What could you say to your friend the next time he says this?” Or, “What do you think you could do differently next time, so that you don’t become this upset?” Your child will not likely be able to come up with his own solution initially, but do give him the opportunity. Next, you could offer a couple of suggestions; for example, “Do you think you could tell your friend that you don’t like being spoken to that way, and maybe ask another friend if you could play with them? Or could you go to another area of the playground and play there?” Even if your child does not seem to be very creative in coming up with an alternative course of action right away, or is not very receptive to your suggestions, keep in mind that you have validated his feelings, made him feel understood and helped him to start to think of creative ways of overcoming difficult feelings.
It may not seem like you’re doing much now, but it is the foundation that you build today that will enable growth and success in the future. The bottom line is to learn to use negative feelings as opportunities for growth by working through them and by believing in your child’s own ability to do so.