Therapist’s Corner – Helping Children Deal With Their Feelings

A lot of us are locked inside the house spending lots of quality time together. Sometimes it might not feel like the best quality time as a family because when tensions are high, feelings can start to come out that are hard to deal with. It can be difficult to try to navigate the arguments, emotional outbursts, and big feelings happening in our children during this difficult time. Instead of reinventing the wheel, I’d like to summarize key points from a great book that I love to use in my office. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, have helpful insights for parents to help their children recognize and understand their emotions in hopes that “when kids feel right, they’ll behave right (Faber Mazlish, 2002).”

Get Spanish version

How do we help kids feel right?

Faber and Mazlish discuss that the best way to do this is by accepting, acknowledging, and putting a name to the feelings children are experiencing. First let’s look at some examples from the book that will illustrate what the authors are talking about.

Child: Mommy, I’m tired.

Mom: You couldn’t be tired; you just took a nap.

Child: But I’M TIRED!

Mom: You’re not tired, you’re just a little sleepy. Get dressed.

Child: (wailing) But I’m tired!

Another example:

Child: Mommy, it’s hot in here.

Mom: It’s cold. Keep your sweater on.

Child: No, I’m hot.

Mom: I said, “Keep your sweater on!”

Child: No. I’m hot.

We want to accept the feelings our children have.

When we deny children’s feelings, we are telling them not to trust their own responses and what their bodies are telling them. Constant denial of feelings can lead to confusion and anger (Faber & Mazlish, 2002). Children are learning how to communicate needs and wants every day. If we deny those perceptions and require that they rely upon ours as truth, they can be left feeling confused and unheard. Alternative responses to accept feelings could be, “So you’re feeling tired—even though you just napped”. Or “I am cold, but for you it’s hot in here”. We are two separate individuals so having two separate experiences is normal.

We want to acknowledge their feelings.

How many of us are guilty of listening to a story our children are telling us while watching the news? Or talking on the phone while scrolling through social media? We all do it. It is normal to divide our attention and do multiple things at once. Time is precious and we cannot afford to waste it. Knowing how valuable our time is and still choosing to acknowledge our children with our full attention sends the message that they are important and deserving of being heard. Acknowledging feelings doesn’t have to drain us of our time or energy. It can look like finding a set time during the day to turn off the television, put down our phones, and give our children our full attention with simple “I see.”, “Mmm.”, or “Oh” responses. These little words can go a long way with kids feeling heard. It is very important to be aware of our attitude during acknowledgement of feelings. If we are empathic in our tone, we will come across genuine and inviting, allowing the child to explore his or her own thoughts and feelings and possibly come up with his or her own solution (Faber & Mazlish, 2002).

Lastly, the most difficult of these skills is to  name to the feelings our children are having.

What makes this skill challenging is the practice and focus necessary to look beyond what a child says in order to identify what he or she might be feeling underneath the surface. Providing a vocabulary for feelings gives children an understanding of their inner reality. Once that vocabulary is learned they can begin to help themselves (Faber & Mazlish, 2002). Examples of giving a name to the feeling:

Example 1:

Child: “My teacher asked me to read aloud during virtual learning today and I made a mistake, and everybody laughed.”

Parent: “That must have been embarrassing.”

Example 2:

Child: “I don’t know why teachers have to load us down with so much homework over the weekend.”

Parent: “Sounds as if you really resent all that homework.”

These statements can provide children with comfort and freedom to deal with their own problems.

Following these reflective statements, a lot of times parents are tempted to give advice to help with tough feelings. Be careful not to get caught providing the child with advice. This is an example the book uses to demonstrate what advice giving looks like:

Example:

Son: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!

Father: Why? What happened?

Son: He threw my notebook in the dirt!

Father: Well, did you do something to him first?

Son: No!

Father: Are you sure?

Son: I swear, I never touched him.

Father: Well, Michael is your friend. If you take my advice, you’ll forget about the whole thing. You’re not so prefect you know. Sometimes you start up and then blame someone else—the way you do with your brother.

Son: No I don’t. He starts up with me first… Oh I can’t talk to you.

 Here is an alternative way to help children deal with feelings:

 

Son: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!

Father: Boy, you’re angry!

Son: I’d like to push his fat face in!

Father: You’re that mad!

Son: You know what that bully did? He grabbed my notebook at the bus stop and threw it in the dirt! And for no reason!

Father: Hmmm!

Son: I bet he thought I was the one who broke his dumb clay bird in the art room.

Father: You think so.

Son: Yeah, he kept looking at me the whole time he was crying.

Father: Oh.

Son: But I didn’t break it. I didn’t!

Father: You know you didn’t.

Son: Well, I didn’t do it on purpose! I couldn’t help it, I got pushed into the table.

Father: So, you were pushed.

Son: Yeah. A lot of things got knocked down, but the only thing that broke was the bird. I didn’t mean to break it, but he wouldn’t believe me if I told him.

Father: You don’t think he’d believe you if you told him the truth.

Son: I don’t know… I’m going to tell him anyway—whether he believes me or not. And I think he should tell me he is sorry for throwing my notebook in the dirt.

When parents provide the answer, it robs the child of the chance to develop the ability to reason and come to their own solution. Resist the urge to “make things better” right away and allow an opportunity for children to explore their own ideas by acknowledging and accepting their feelings first.

A common question parents have is “If I accept all my child’s feelings, won’t that give him the idea that anything he does is all right with me?” Faber and Mazlish are clear that even though “all feelings are permitted, not all actions are.” For example, a child that chooses to play with his food at the dinner table will be told, “I can see that you’re having fun making designs in the butter with your fork.” (Feeling is acknowledged.) As you remove the butter from the child’s reach you can remind them what behavior is acceptable. “Butter is not for playing with. If you want to make designs, you can use your clay.” (Faber & Mazlish, 2002).

Faber and Mazlish have found that when we accept our children’s feelings, they are more able to accept the limits we set for them. It is important to remember all feelings can be accepted, while certain actions must be limited (Faber & Mazlish, 2002).

For more information about accepting, acknowledging, and naming feelings check out How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

I hope this short exploration of the book and these authors’ knowledge was useful to you during this time at home when tensions might be running high. A lot of us were not raised hearing this type of language, so it can be challenging to make the change. Just know, we are all doing our best right now and that is enough.

You got this!

Lauren Klosterboer, M.A., LPC