How many times have you been out shopping, or at a park and witnessed a young child melting down, crying, pleading, maybe even screaming? Perhaps they wanted a new toy, maybe they were tired or hungry, or they experienced a conflict with another child. I’ve seen this scenario play out more times than I can count, and I’ve often wished I could intervene and offer a hand (and hug) to the stressed out parents or caregiver. More often than not, I notice how frantic they become when the child is expressing such big emotions…something children are very good at. They try their best to appease the child by distracting them with the promise of something else, going somewhere new, or by engaging them in a new thought. Sometimes they become instantly impatient, angry even, in the face of a tantrum. I’ve heard some unreasonably harsh and shaming words in the toy aisle of Target. While it’s impossible to stop a tantrum, and our best efforts are usually met with some resistance, there is something that takes the edge off and allows the child move through their feelings more quickly. It’s a simple thing that feels counter-intuitive at first but soon becomes the easiest and most respectful way to address your child’s upset.
Simply acknowledging a child’s perspective… ”you really wanted a new toy, you’re so disappointed”…is a powerful way to connect with them when they are experiencing difficult emotions. Perhaps even more than a new toy, what children really want is to be heard and understood.
Think about it. If you were feeling upset about something, maybe a loved one just passed away, or you lost your job, can you imagine someone you trust quickly dismissing your concerns or trying to distract you from what was going on, or even yelling at you? A child’s desires don’t always seem important to us but when we try to look at things from their vantage point and give them our support we model empathy, kindness, patience and love. These are surely qualities we want to pass down to the next generation.
Children look to us to be competent and calm leaders who set clear boundaries, listen to their ideas and take them into account when making important decisions. When we meet them where they are when their feelings are spinning out of control, and tell them “I am here, I am listening to you, I know this is hard” it gives them permission to be authentic and vulnerable. They learn to trust us with their biggest and scariest feelings.
This is, of course, easier said than done. It is alarming to hear a child in distress, and can easily bring up feelings from our own childhood experiences that might be difficult or triggering. Our immediate feelings play into our reaction as well and if you feel out of balance it can make it more difficult to be patient and present for a child. Sometimes all it takes is a breath before engaging or reminding yourself that there is no emergency that needs swift action. When you can shift your perception of an upset child from “they’re giving me a hard time” to “they are HAVING a hard time” it becomes second nature to respond with empathy rather than frustration or anger. Here are some helpful things to remember.
- Start with acknowledgment. Sometimes it’s all a child needs to move on.
- Before trying any problem solving simply observe and state what you see. “You were building a tower and it fell. You seem so frustrated.” Then wait for a response…
- Try to avoid “fixing” a problem for a child…stick with their feelings about the issue and ask them if they have ideas about how to get their need met.
- Keep them safe from harming themselves or others if they are trying to hit etc. Block the hit if you can and tell them “you are upset, I won’t let you hit me.”
- Don’t hesitate to ask questions to seek clarification about their feelings, sometimes we can jump to conclusions that might be inaccurate.
The benefits of validating a child’s feelings are clear: acknowledging a child (instead of praising) helps foster inner-directed play and encourages self-motivation. It supports emotional intelligence and encourages language development as well. When we give this kind of attention to the emotional needs of our child we are sending the message that we are tuned in to who they are and what they care about. We help them feel understood, accepted, supported and deeply loved for who they are. Is there any greater gift we could give?