Young children can feel and express a lot of big feelings! Figuring out how to best deal with their upsets is all part of the job of parenting. Children cry when they fall, when they get a fright, when another kid jumps on the swing they had their heart set on. They can cry when they’re hungry, when they’re tired, when overcome with frustration because their fifth attempt at their bike trick still hasn’t worked, or when they fight with their sibling or friend. But regardless of why they’re upset, once they’re upset, they’re emotionally fragile and vulnerable and looking to us to help them through it. Do we sympathize, do we encourage them to change their attitude, to be more reasonable or focus on the positives, should we distract them, should we try to anticipate their upsets to avoid situations that are upsetting for them?
Should we “pander” to our children’s upsets? Most of us grew up with the harsh attitude that adults shouldn’t pander to the child’s complaints and that indeed if they did, it's just encouraging them to be dependent, needy and manipulative. Still today, there are strong messages that kids should be encouraged to be as independent as possible as early as possible, starting at the beginning with leaving the baby to cry alone to teach them to “self-soothe”.
Time enough to act like a grown-up when they’ve grown up. So often children are given the message in one way or another to grow up, suck it up, or snap out of it. Does this help them learn to deal with disappointments and challenges? How does that equip them to deal with the disappointment of the boyfriend or girlfriend they’re madly in love with breaking up with them as a teenager. Or not getting into the university course they had their heart set on.
Ideally, we want to help our children develop more skillful ways of working through their big and small challenges in life other than just to suck it up and get on with it, which essentially just trains them to either hide and minimize or dramatize their feelings. They may learn to hide their feelings because having their feelings rationalized or minimized causes them to feel that their emotions, hence they, are wrong, which is both unsatisfying, potentially shaming and often upsetting. Or to dramatize their feelings because they’ve learned that they should have a very good reason to be upset. But then the parent whose always quick to engage with their child’s problems giving lots of advice and suggestions may not be giving their child enough support, space and encouragement to think things through for themselves.
Listening heals. Most of us know from experience that when feelings are truly listened to, accepted and understood, they can become much less painful. When we feel understood, it’s easier to think things through with more clarity and insight. For adults or children, feeling heard and understood helps us come back to peace with ourselves and gives us more strength to tackle our problems. And the more a child feels heard, the better they become at hearing, understanding and making sense of their own feelings.
What does parenting without punishment actually look like, what are the tools, how do we navigate child being uncooperative, sibling conflicts and defiance?
Emotional intelligence. Supporting our children to express their feelings, to problem solve when they’re ready and showing that we trust that they’ll come through helps them develop great emotional intelligence and self-regulation skills. Emotional intelligence involves the skills to identify one’s feelings, find words from a growing feelings vocabulary to express those feelings, learn to identify what they need and be able to access support in times of need. The child who can identify and express their feelings and needs tends to feel more confident in facing problems and is much less likely to take their frustrations out on others. Reasoning, demanding, appealing, threatening or bribing an upset child can add to their underlying frustrations and do nothing to resolve the stress and frustration at the core of the problem, but listening with empathy and reflecting what you hear goes a long way to turning things around.
If they don’t get it out, they will likely act it out. An essential element of peaceful parenting is being very attuned to your child’s stress and frustration levels. For a child’s behaviour to be balanced, they need to be mostly free of a backlog of frustrations. When a child becomes unreasonable, resistant or even aggressive, it’s important to consider: “What are they feeling that’s causing them to act like this? What do they need?” When a child builds up a lot of pent up stress and frustration, they need our help releasing it from their system. Some of the natural and instinctive ways that a child can release and resolve big feelings are through venting, be it talking, crying or even raging (when enraged) and feeling heard and held. Another great release of stress, frustration, fears and tensions, in general, is through affection, fun and laughter.
What about tantrums? When a child has a tantrum, they’ve reached a breaking point and now need to offload huge feelings that their brain is not yet mature enough to cope with without adult help. The child’s fight-flight response is usually activated. The trigger has likely either caused them complete overwhelm, or perhaps appears to be something very small but may be the last straw or has triggered something much bigger that’s still unresolved.
Tantrums are so often discounted as just something that children do, and sadly there’s a lot of advice to ignore them when they tantrum, because it’s misunderstood to be misbehaviour, rather than an instinctive expression of overwhelm. These attitudes and approaches can result in the parent missing an important opportunity to help their child work through some very big feelings that are weighing them down and affecting them in many unseen ways. When my children were younger, the times that they each had a tantrum, I could connect it back to something overwhelming that had happened to them in the previous couple of days. But it’s important to mention that tantrums can sometimes happen when something in the present touches on something in the child’s unconscious that’s still unresolved from the past, even going right back to birth trauma. Some children are more vulnerable than others to experiencing flooding and over stimulation of their senses. So often we parents don’t know the source of our child’s upset, but the child’s very real and raw expression of their feelings are clearly crying out for care and empathy.
One time while on holiday, one of the dads grabbed my son who was three at the time, angrily took him to the bottom of the garden and shouted at him, lecturing him about his general "inappropriate silly behaviour" (normal harmless 3 y.o. silliness!). Once I arrived on the scene, I swiftly rescued my son and took him to a quiet place, but as I held him, he fretted rather than having a good cry. I was aware that having been yelled at, he would have been very shook up and I was concerned about the effects on him. At the end of that day walking back from a fun day at the beach, my son suddenly dropped to the ground and had a huge tantrum. I sat on the grass with him and held him as he thrashed about and cried loudly. Although being in nature and fun, closeness and laughter would have all helped, he additionally needed a very vigorous cry to get all that shock and emotional toxicity out of his system. I wasn’t concerned about the passers-by, I remember feeling very relieved that however he’d been impacted by the adult’s anger it was now all coming out.
Luckily children are born with an innate ability to release, offload and resolve difficult emotions, to emotionally detox just as the body works to push out toxins ingested through food. To make their way back towards a calmer state, what they most need is for the adult caring for them to help them feel emotionally safe and cared for. A calming presence and simple words like, “I know, I’m listening, I’m looking after you, I care” can help the child feel emotionally held and safe and allow them to make their way back to balance, having released their backlog of built-up stress through their cries.
Children learn to listen to and trust their feelings. All their upsets, although stressful at the time, can help children to trust that big feelings can be worked through and that they’ll feel more at peace again once they get it all out. Our response, our words, our care at these times becomes internalized helping them develop their ability to tune in to, care for and generally be compassionate towards themselves at times of distress. Yet it takes years of us supporting them as they build these internal connections and skills.
“How’s your heart?” is a lovely question to ask our children. It helps them tune in to their deeper feelings. It has so often, over the years, immediately brought my daughter’s sad upset feelings to the surface. Until she was about nine, she always talked about the sore feelings coming out through her tears. Nowadays she mostly talks about “getting her frustrations out”. When your child becomes very upset, angry, whiny or just out of balance and unhappy with the world, this is usually a cue that they need your support to get out some big feelings. If they seem unusually uncooperative and unreasonable, if they’re being aggressive, these are all cues to carve out some time to connect, tune in to them and truly listen.
Sometimes expressing a limit like when we intervene to stop them from lashing out physically or verbally at a sibling or ourselves, brings on the emotional release that a child needs. The limit can help them make the shift from fighting to releasing. As long as they gain your willingness to listen and acknowledge their feelings of sadness, disappointment or frustration, then your limits can often squeeze to the surface that which they need to offload to feel settled again.
Who listened to your upsets? Yet, for many parents, being present and empathic while their child is expressing big feelings is far from easy. Many parents didn’t gain this level of emotional support when they were young, and there can be an urge to react in a similar way to how they were responded to. To break the cycle and be an anchor for our children when they have their often very scary emotional storms, we need to become very skillful at managing and caring for our own feelings and needs.
Good relationships depend on finding a reasonable balance between being able to track your own feelings at the same time as you track other people's. They also depend on being able to tolerate uncomfortable feelings whilst they are being processed with another person. ~ Sue Gerhardt in "Why Love Matters"
To be present with our child’s feelings, we need to be able to be present to our own. If when my child is expressing frustration and upset, I can allow myself to notice and feel my stress rising, while being aware of my urge to be defensive or to react, I'm much more likely to respond well to their upset. There's no amount of telling a child to not act out when they become stressed that can help them learn how to self-regulate their emotions. They need emotional coaching and modelling. The next time your child is feeling agitated, stirred up, frustrated, angry, nervous or insecure, remember that they’re unable to think straight. Yet when you support their emotional release of tensions, whether through talking, crying, growling, playing or laughing, be confident that you’re supporting their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing.
First published in the Natural Parent Magazine, available in shops in New Zealand or Australia but can be ordered from anywhere in the world.