Making Feelings OK

Adults who spend time with young children teach terribly important lessons about emotions. The “lesson” might be, “You’re feeling strong emotions and strong emotions are OK to feel!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is OK, that they are healthy and respond appropriately to life. Or we might teach a child, “Your feelings are upsetting or unwelcome to me!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is upsetting or unwelcome.

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Of course when we talk about feelings, we are not talking about something essential about a child’s nature, but about simple emotional reactions to a situation. Emotions are not under our control, are not individually part of what is essential to us (that is, just because we are ‘sad’ doesn’t mean we are a sad person, just that sad is what we are feeling in response to a situation). But, of course, a child does not know this: when a young child feels strong emotions it can be frightening, like something is wrong with them and maybe even with the universe, and an adult’s reaction helps the child understand how to accept and think about their own feelings. Adults who are comfortable with strong feelings, knowing that they come and go, are able to simply acknowledge their presence (“You’re very angry.”) without being threatened by them, which validates the child’s inner world, helping them understand that their feelings are not a cause for alarm.

However some adults are threatened by strong emotions. They may experience emotions as a judgement against them or as destabilizing (or, just exhausting), and reject or threaten a child’s feelings (“You’re not really sad!” or “You’d better calm down!”). There are times when every adult wishes a child could regulate their emotions, turning down the intensity. But the hard reality is that causing a child to feel that their emotional responses are not OK makes regulation so much more difficult. At any age, having our feelings acknowledged, which is to say validated, effectively makes the emotions themselves less powerful. But when a young child is given the impression that their emotions are wrong, that causes a whole other range of complicated emotions to arise: shame, fear, anxiety, etc.

When a child is having a tantrum, we might naturally think that if we “validate” all this emotion it will simply encourage it. However, to validate an emotion is to acknowledge a child’s predicament, which has the effect of reducing the fear, shame, and anxiety that comes along with strong feelings.

A common occurrence on a preschool playground: child A is riding a trike on the track, gets off to go get a toy that needs to be held or put on the passenger seat of the trike; child B sees trike is free and gets on; child A returns to continue the trike ride, sees child B on the trike and screams and grabs handles pushing child B off the bike. Yowza.

There can be a lot of emotion swirling by the time an adult steps in to help. Before there can be any kind of reasonable-ness, justice, or fairness, you have to deal with emotions. In fact, while most of us grown-ups will think that our main job is to enforce an environment of fairness or justice on the playground, often all we need to do is help children recognize the strong emotions at play. In a conflict, naming the feelings of both parties, and helping each to consider the other’s, not only makes it OK to feel, but empowers each child to come up with their own plan to help the other child feel better. Justice and fairness is a tough sell to any pre-schooler. But helping another child who is feeling bad? Easy (and priceless).

Image by Flickr user Mindaugas Danys

Post first appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula Blog

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