Dealing with Child’s Emotions: How to listen and HEAR your child

I was a fabulous parent before I had my own children.  I was an expert on how parents should handle their children. Then I had 5 children of my own.

My experience with my own children was humbling. On a regular basis, I heard, “You’re not the boss of me.” “It’s not my fault.” “He started it.” “These vegetables are gross.”

My children finally wore me down. And though it was the last thing I ever dreamed I’d be doing, I joined a parenting group. I learned that children’s feelings are important.  

Direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.

When kids feel right, they’ll behave right.

How do we help them to feel right?

By accepting their feelings!

Problem – Parents don’t usually accept their children’s feelings; for example:

                   “You don’t really feel that way.”

                   “You’re just saying that because you’re tired.”

                    “There’s no reason to be so upset.”

As a parent, I never realized that I was NOT listening to my child’s feelings.  

CHILD: Mommy, I’m tired.

ME:  You couldn’t be tired. You just napped.

CHILD: (louder) But I’m tired.

ME: You’re not tired. Let’s get dressed.

Child: (crying), No, I’m tired!

CHILD: That movie was stupid.

ME: No, it wasn’t. It was educational.

CHILD: It was boring.

ME: It was interesting.

CHILD: It sucked.

ME: Don’t talk that way!

Can you see what was happening? Not only were all our conversations turning into arguments. I was also telling my children over and over again not to trust their own perceptions, but to rely upon mine instead.  

Children are expected to tell the truth; “Where are you going?” “Who are you going with?” “Did you do your homework?”

Yet if your child says, “I hate Grandma!” a parent is quick to snap back and say, “That is a terrible thing to say.” “You know you don’t mean it. I don’t ever want to hear that coming out of your mouth again”

Hating Grandma is that child’s truth. If we are quick to shut it down and tell them to never say it again, we miss the reason why that child hates Grandma. 

So, what happens when a child has a Grandparent that physically or sexually abuses them?  If we don’t listen to our child’s emotions and feelings and inquire why he/she hates Grandma, they will never tell us when someone physically or sexually abuses them. 

If we don’t listen to our children’s emotions and dismiss them, they learn to lie about important things and hide their true feelings. They will grow up to be inauthentic. It’s a hard life when you live your life anonymously and can’t be true to who you are with others.

If children say, “I hate Grandma, then truth is a bad place to go. It confuses children if they are supposed to tell the truth about where they are going and who they are going with and then not tell the truth about hating Grandma.

When adults don’t take children seriously, it confuses them. Do kids lie? Absolutely.

Unfortunately, some children are being punished for having feelings, such as feeling sad, angry or being upset. Never say to your child, “That’s not worth being upset about.” Fact is they are upset.

To dismiss someone’s feelings is devastating.   

When our child is upset, there are certain things we shouldn’t say or do.  I call them the NEVER,NEVERS. We shouldn’t turn your back on an angry child. We shouldn’t apply consequences when our child is emotional. You can get the complete list of NEVER, NEVERS by clicking below

I grant you that children’s feelings are not always rational, and they shouldn’t always act out on their feelings.  None the less, when a child expresses a feeling, listen to it.  

If we dismiss children’s feelings, and we are upset with them telling their inner truth, they are going to grow up into people who can’t handle relationships. They can’t be authentic because they are so used to not being real, which includes even to themselves. 

Helping children understand and control their feelings needs to be taught. 

 If it not taught at home, you need to address the issue.  Don’t assume kids know how to control their feelings of frustration and anger. Most adults don’t.  

Dealing with your feelings is a life skill that all people need to learn. It is better to be proactive and teach children how to manage their feelings than to react and get anger-provoking situations.  

One way to help children deal with their feelings is mindfulness meditation. We have teamed up with Mellisa Dormoy to provide parents with some tools to help their children with impulse regulation.  

Don’t tell your child, “Don’t be angry.” You can’t take away feelings. It’s like telling someone not to be happy. Children must understand that stress, frustration, and anger are common feelings that we all have.  It’s not wrong to have these feelings. It’s wrong if we act inappropriately when we feel this way. Give examples: hitting, kicking, name-calling. You say, “It’s okay to be angry but it’s not okay to hit your sister.”

Once you have told them what not to do, you need to give them things to do when they get these feelings of frustration, stress or anger.  

Most of us grew up having our feelings denied. To become fluent in this new language of acceptance, we have to learn and practice its methods.

To Help with feelings

Listen with full attention.

Acknowledge their feelings with a word – “Oh” ….

Give their feelings a name

Give them their wishes in fantasy. (I wish I could be a fairy and grant us more cheerios)

It’s much easier to tell your troubles to a parent who is really listening. The parent doesn’t even have to say anything. A sympathetic silence may be all a child needs. 

There’s a lot of help to be had from a simple “Oh….ummm…” or “I see.” Words like these, coupled with a caring attitude, are invitations to a child to explore her own thoughts and feelings, and possibly come up with her own solutions.  

Parent’s don’t usually give feelings a name.  However, by giving a name to the feeling, a child feels heard and comforted. Someone has acknowledged his inner experience. For example:  

Child:  My turtle is dead. He was alive this morning.

Father: Oh no, what a shock!

Child: He was my friend.

Father: To lose a friend can hurt.

Child: I taught him to do tricks.

Father: You two had fun together.

Child: I fed him every day.

Father: You really cared about that turtle.

Sometimes just having someone understand how much you want something makes reality easier to bear. For example:  

Child: I want my Cheerios!

Mother: I wish I had some in the house for you.

Child: I wish I had them now!

Mother: I wish I had the magic power to make a giant box appear.

Child: Well….maybe I’ll have some oatmeal. 

Mother: Oh. 

When helping our children sort out their feelings, it’s important that we have an attitude of compassion.  If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative. It is when our words are infused with our real feelings of empathy and that they speak directly to a child’s heart. 

Yes, it’s important that we give our children a vocabulary for their inner reality. Once they have the words for what they’re experiencing, they can begin to help themselves. 

 Our job as a parent is to help them become competent adults. By helping them to work through their feelings, we are doing just that.  

KCA Parents' ToolKit