“Being With” Our Children’s Feelings

A child spends 14 years in school, building skills like speech, reading, writing, critical thinking and memory.  But when tricky times hit (for example, losing a loved one or facing lockdown), or during different milestones (e.g. transitioning to secondary school or university), what children need most is emotional literacy.

Emotional literacy means learning to regulate your own emotions (as well as those of others), and restore calm. We want our children to be able to recognise “big feelings”, to understand where they come from, to label them correctly, and to express how they are feeling in healthy ways. From an early age, emotional literacy is at least as important as cognitive development.

When our children experience joy, we typically join in and encourage them to express their happiness. But when our children are afraid, sad, or angry, we find it harder to handle. Instead, we are tempted to distract from these unpleasant feelings, often without acknowledging or labelling them. We thus risk inadvertently teaching children that these feelings are too scary. This can lead children to grow up thinking that their emotions are too big to handle or that there is something wrong with them for feeling this way. 

A child’s ability to understand, express, and regulate emotions helps improve self-control, cooperation skills, and relationships with family and peers.  On the other hand, difficulties expressing and understanding emotions are associated with depression, anxiety and loneliness in children. L.R. Knost, an author and children’s right advocate and consultant, says “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.” Sometimes, emotions can feel too big for children to handle by themselves. They need us to step in and help them to organise their feelings. We can do this by simply “being with” our children’s feelings.

“Being with” feelings means accepting emotions as they come, and showing children that they can share them with you. You can also help your child to label and understand what they are going through.

Suppose a child has a fear about lightening. We might be tempted to say, “there’s nothing to be afraid of, don’t worry,” and we leave the child with their own feelings, not knowing how to regulate them. We also might say, “This is terrible! Stop crying, quick we have to hide!” and we teach the child that the world is a frightening and potentially unbearable place. Being with this feeling might sound like, “I can see that you are afraid right now. It’s ok to feel afraid. I’m here with you to keep you safe. Let’s have a cuddle while the storm passes”.  

In another example, say a child feels anger and hits out at a sibling. Our instinct might lead us to place them on a “time out,” or to give out to them. Instead, we might consider that hitting out suggests that the child is overwhelmed – their feelings are too big for them to use their words. We might say, “I can see that you are angry right now. It is ok to feel anger and I can help you with this feeling, but it is not ok to hit”.

For parents, it is often easier to be with children’s feelings of happiness. Delighting in their play and celebrating their successes is very important. By being with the unpleasant feelings too, we validate our children’s experiences. We teach children to recognise big feelings, to cope with them, and to express them appropriately – even if it’s just some of the time! We also help them to learn how to reach out for help from others when they need to. These are valuable life skills that will benefit children into adolescence and adulthood.  

Tips for “Being With” Your Child’s Feelings:

  1. Tune in to your child’s emotion:

Ask yourself: what feeling is my child having in this moment? What do they need right now? If they are too young or too overwhelmed to use their words, you may have to do some guesswork

  1. Check in with yourself:

Ask yourself, what am I feeling right now? If you are also stressed or upset, this can be difficult. You might try taking a deep breath and asking yourself, “Am I overwhelmed or upset by my child’s feelings now?”

  1. Show them you understand:

Label your child’s feeling. “I can see you are feeling sad. I have felt like that too, and it is difficult”. Try to let you child know that you can empathise with what they are feeling. Try using a facial expression that mirrors what they are feeling. Some guessing might be necessary. For example, I can see you are upset, I’m wondering are you feeling angry?

  1. Offer acceptance:

Let your child know that their feelings are acceptable, and that you will stay with them during this feeling: “I’m here and I’ll be with you no matter what”. You can also offer a hug once the situation has calmed. The message here is that there’s nothing wrong with big feelings, and children will not be punished for feeling this way. There are many other ways to do this – you know best what your child will understand!

This article was contributed by Katie McClean, Assistant Psychologist with HSE Primary Care Child and Family Psychology Services and a member of Parenting Limerick. Parenting Limerick is a network of parenting and family support organisations.