Getting Real About Feelings

Recently, a mother told me about overhearing another mom in the park saying to her child, “I know you feel sad because your friend couldn’t come over to play.”  She wondered what I thought about that, because it seemed to her like putting ideas in a child’s head that might not be there.

I don’t know if that child was sad or not.  He might have been, or his mother may have been misreading something in his behavior about the way he did feel, or she might have simply been trying to console him in his disappointment about his friend.  What it made me think about, though, is the way our attempts to give recognition to children’s feelings sometimes sound a little rote – almost like a memorized formula.  We’ve lost the feeling in feelings.

What I mean by that is that feelings are emotions, and are usually expressed in very emotional ways.  If we are angry, or sad, or upset about something, we not only express it in words, but also in the sound of our speech, our body language, and facial expressions.  We might even cry, or slam a door.  The fact is there is intensity in the way the feeling is expressed.  Think about it.  If someone tells you they are angry in a calm, reasonable way, does that sound genuine?  We often describe someone who does that as cold.  Emotions are hot.

Hopefully, as adults we have some measure of control over the way we express our emotions.  Children, on the other hand, are mercurial.  Everything is black or white and the shift from one to the other is fluid – sometimes it seems without warning.  The world – including you – is wonderful, until a dark cloud appears, and then it is terrible.  Children express these feelings in extreme ways, primarily through their behavior.   

Of course, our goal as parents is to help our children express their feelings in words.  “Use your words” has almost become a mantra when children act out their emotions.  But words are not that readily available to children when they are angry or upset, and even when they have them, words don’t seem adequate to the feelings.  We are asking them to be reasonable in the heat of emotion.  Most often it is we they think are being unreasonable.

At the same time, almost everyone has gotten the idea that we’re supposed to let children know that we recognize how they feel.  Almost as often as “use your words”, you can hear mothers say, “I know you are angry”.  Then we think that having said that in a calm, reasonable way, our children are supposed to become calm and reasonable.  When they don’t, we may start to feel angry that their behavior continues to be so unreasonable.

Thinking again about ourselves, if we are angry at someone for something they have done, or we think they have done, and they say in a somewhat unreal way, “I know you are angry”, and then the equivalent of, “Get over it!”, do we now feel better or perhaps even angrier?  The point is, we want understanding and acceptance of what we are feeling.

In the same way, our children want to let us know how strongly they feel about a situation and we have to let them know in a convincing way that we do.  But we can’t expect that just by recognizing the feeling verbally we will make it go away.  Accepting the anger of others is not easy, especially when it is coming from our children who often express emotions in behavior that is difficult to deal with.

We not only do not like their behavior, we really do not like it when children are angry at us.  In fact, we often have a hard time truly accepting the whole range of our children’s emotions.  We would like them to be happy and even tempered all the time.  Life would be so much easier if they were.  Besides, too often when they are not it seems as though it is somehow our fault.  Our children may think it is, and much of the time we think maybe it is.

There are ways we can be helpful if we are not focused on somehow making it all stop. If a child is angry and we know what it is about, we need to let him know directly that we know he didn’t like it that ….. whatever the situation might be.  Let him tell you what he didn’t like and show that you are listening.  Maybe there is a way to work things out.  If he is too angry, or the behavior doesn’t permit it, you can let him know you understand how angry he is and when he is feeling better you will talk it over.

Thinking about what we ourselves find most helpful when we are angry or upset can really give us some good guidelines in responding to our children.  Children are still learning about their emotions, and we can help them learn about these emotions not only by naming them, but by responding to them in a way that is real.  Perhaps, most helpful is to reassure them that whatever they are feeling, they will feel better eventually.  They really don’t know that, and sometimes we forget it, too.