What do you do when your child starts to break down? Do you try to reassure them that everything’s fine and there’s no reason to be upset? Do you try to be logical and tell them why the situation isn’t upsetting? Do you tell them to just dust themselves off and keep going?
Anyone who’s ever dealt with a kid and big emotions has tried to calm them down by telling them they shouldn’t be upset.
You want your child to grow up so they can handle their emotions. You want them to be able to interact with other people without their big emotions getting in the way. You want them to be able to keep their emotions under control so that they can get a job. You want them to get along in this non-disabled world that doesn’t kindly accept big emotions.
You tell your child to stop being upset because you want them to be able to handle their emotions well and live a happy, successful life.
But do these strategies really help kids do that?
Recently, I came across an article on Psychology Today and the following quote really stuck out to me.
“As children, we can’t distinguish between our feelings and our ‘self.’ We think we are our feelings. If our feelings aren’t treated as acceptable in a certain situation, we may decide that we aren’t acceptable.”
This quote is saying that when we tell a child they shouldn’t have certain feelings, they think that their entire self is unacceptable. It’s not just a rejection of their feelings, it’s a rejection of them as a human being. According to this quote, not only does telling kids to stop being upset not work, but it could actually be harmful to their emotional well-being.
The article this quote came from was actually aimed at adults in reference to their own childhood, so think back for a moment. Were there any times in your own childhood when you were told you shouldn’t have certain feelings? Did this experience leave a lasting impression on you?
Also think about yourself today. Is it more helpful when someone tells you that everything’s going to be fine and you’re overreacting? Is it helpful when someone tells you all the logical reasons you shouldn’t be upset? Is it helpful when someone tells you to just dust yourself off and keep going? Or is it more helpful when someone tells you they totally understand where you’re coming from and they get why you’re upset right now?
When I’m upset, I find that other people validating my feelings is one of the most helpful things they can do.
But I like validation for more than just how it makes me feel. It also affects my actions. I find that when people tell me I shouldn’t be upset, it makes me more upset and pushes me further into inaction. In contrast, when people validate my feelings, it calms me down and helps me get to a place where I can actually deal with whatever was causing my big emotions in the first place.
While as a non-disabled adult I can tell the difference between me and my feelings, having someone validate my feelings still helps me calm down so I can take appropriate actions.
Let’s look at this in terms of helping a kid through their big emotions. The other day I was having a session with a kid and he kept telling me he wanted to draw a butt. He was getting frustrated because the activity was hard for him, and in an attempt to avoid the difficult and big emotion of frustration, he was acting silly.
Initially I tried being upbeat and making it sound fun. That didn’t work. So, I reminded him about the prize he could receive at the end of the session. That didn’t work. Eventually I asked him about his feelings. While I had to help him answer as he couldn’t fully articulate it himself, he affirmed that he was feeling frustrated. From there I could reassure him that it was totally normal to feel frustrated during difficult tasks. I told him how I can get frustrated too when I do difficult tasks and, after deciding on a more appropriate silly object to draw, he was significantly more focused.
Just as in this example, validating a child’s emotions can help them calm down and resume difficult tasks.
Now, validating a kid’s emotions doesn’t mean that we condone all of their actions nor does it mean we coddle them. When we validate kids’ emotions, we tell them that what they’re feeling is totally okay, and we help them learn the difference between their feelings and their actions. It makes their big feelings seem less scary so that they actually have the capacity to manage their actions.
Let’s say your child is hitting their younger sibling because they took their toy. Telling them their feelings aren’t okay would look something like this: “Don’t hit them! Your younger sibling doesn’t know any better! You have to show them how to behave!” I’ve definitely said things like this before, and it wasn’t very helpful or effective.
In contrast, validation and differentiating emotions from actions would look something like this: “It’s okay to be upset that your sister took your toy. I totally understand that. I get upset when people take things that are mine too. However, hitting your sibling just makes the problem worse. Let’s figure out another way to solve this problem together.” This response helps kids calm down and learn about their emotions and actions.
Telling a child their feelings are valid helps them learn to identify and manage their emotions, and in response, manage their actions.
When I started using this technique, I found it to be generally helpful for most kids and exceptionally effective for a few kids. However, there are many other techniques, and this one may not work for every child. While validating a child’s emotions is not the only way to help them work through big emotions, I enjoy using it because I know that I’m not only helping kids improve their motor skills, but I’m also helping them grow emotionally.
I would love to know. How do you help your child work through big emotions? Have you tried validating their feelings? How does it work for you?
Article Source: Brandt, A. (2018, April 02) 9 Steps to Healing Childhood Trauma as an Adult. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mindful-anger/201804/9-steps-healing-childhood-trauma-adult