No Angry Kids – Fostering Emotional Literacy In Our Children

Remember, crying is a baby’s language – it is a way to express pain, anger, and sadness. Acknowledge the emotions your baby is expressing. Let him know he has communicated.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect

In the beginning, fostering healthy emotional development for our children means listening and trying to decipher our babies’ cries rather than immediately suppressing or ignoring them.  It means that throughout childhood, anger, grief and sadness are acceptable feelings for our children to express anytime anywhere (although never in a destructive or unsafe manner).  Granting our children this freedom to be their whole selves — unconditional acceptance — will lead to far fewer enraged or depressed adults in the future.

I write about this subject so often I feel like a broken record, but since this aspect of child care is both a) the most important, and b) the most intensely challenging, here I am at it again sharing two crucial ways we nurture and promote emotional health:

1. Letting our children’s feelings flow

A supportive, bring-it-on attitude toward our children’s emotions, which ideally begins the moment they are born (rather than at some ambiguous time after the first year as several experts imply), encourages open communication and fosters authenticity. When we allow feelings to be released and cleared in a healthy manner, we send our kids vital messages like:

It’s okay to be mad, sad, frustrated, etc. Your feelings (and therefore you) are totally acceptable and valid.

You are capable of handling strong emotions with my support and expressing them appropriately. You can cope with age appropriate frustration, disappointment, etc.

Share with me. I want to know and understand you.

You are safe — cared for by a strong, confident and capable leader who can witness your most difficult emotions.

However, since our children’s feelings trigger our own, there is nothing easy about allowing our children to let them flow. For most of us it takes a daily, sometimes hourly, at times moment-to-moment commitment.  As Magda Gerber noted, “Nothing really prepares you to experience your own feelings of empathy, irritability, helplessness or maybe even rage when you hear your baby cry.”

Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to gauge whether we’re on the right track:


Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

When in doubt, am I dialoguing with my baby in order to be as accurate as possible? “Hmmm…you just ate and burped, but you still seem uncomfortable. I’m wondering if you still have a gas bubble. I’ll try gently massaging your tummy.”

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Why the emphasis on beginning this approach in infancy?  Infancy is a powerful time. Every interaction we have with our babies begins patterns for both of us. We can always get on track later, but the longer we wait, the harder it is to make the adjustment to calm acceptance of our child’s feelings.  It’s harder for children, too, who may have already become less inclined to fully express themselves.                                                                                


Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Am I staying unruffled and being a calm, confident leader when my child yells “NO”, “Shush!” or “I hate you”? Our best response is usually acknowledgment: “I hear you saying NO, you really don’t want to go now, but we must. Would you like to walk with me or be carried?” Or “I know you hate me at this moment. We all feel that way sometimes. But I won’t let you hit” (while we are firmly blocking the child from hitting).

2. Non-punitive, respectful discipline

Our acceptance and validation of our children’s feelings should most certainly not be confused with letting children do whatever they wish when they’re upset. In fact, this approach I recommend is the polar opposite of parental passivity or indulgence.  We must learn to be so comfortable with (or, at least, accepting of) our child’s feelings that we can give respectful, honest boundaries confidently, all the while acknowledging, “I know this isn’t what you wanted”.

Comfort with our children’s darker emotions is essential for providing them firm behavior boundaries, and behavior boundaries are essential for the health and happiness of our kids.

To stay on track we might ask ourselves: Am I being firm but calm, tempering my emotions? Am I teaching from a place of unconditional love so that my child can feel assured that I am still on his or her team?  Children don’t feel this way when we regularly lose our tempers, shame or punish them. These responses can create an unproductive and even dangerous us-against-them attitude.

(For much more about respectful discipline please check out No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame or the many other posts I’ve written on this hugely important subject.)

Raising self-confident, healthy and happy kids is not about perfection (thank goodness!). It is about retaining a high level of awareness of our own triggers, impulses and projections and understanding how they might thwart the emotional health and authenticity of our children.  We will all undoubtedly make many mistakes along the way, but that’s alright, because in this case, trying is more than good enough.

“I can be sad or happy whenever anything makes me sad or happy; I don’t have to look cheerful for someone else, and I don’t have to suppress my distress or anxiety to fit other people’s needs.  I can be angry and no one will die or get a headache because of it.”  – Dr. Alice Miller (imagining every infant’s wish), Drama of the Gifted Child



(Photo by jesse.millan on Flickr) 


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. My son is going through a sleep regression right now and there is SO. MUCH. CRYING. Crying because he doesn’t want to sleep at bedtime. Crying when he wakes up too early. Crying when he refuses to nap. Then of course, crying all day, because he’s horribly sleep deprived and can’t function properly. I’m TRYING to understand why it’s happening. I’ve certainly read everything I can find about it. But everything says, just wait, it will get better in 4 weeks (already passed folks) or 6 weeks (that’s today, better tomorrow ya think?). And how do I handle frustration or anger or sadness when it’s really all just exhaustion? And how do I meet his needs when what he needs is sleep and that’s something I can’t make him do? And how can I think properly about any of it when I’m almost as tired as he is?

    1. Meagan, I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through this… How are you handling naptime and bedtime? Do you have a consistent routine?

      1. Bedtime is very consistent… It’s been the same since he was 5 months old. Bath, pjs and ointments (for eczema), teeth brushing, upstairs to bedroom, story, song, hugs and kisses, goodnight. Nap time WAS consistent (sort of a shorter version of bedtime) but we’ve pretty much given up on a real nap recently… We’re doing 1 or 2 driving naps at 1 or 2 hours a piece every day because I think he can’t sleep if he’s so overtired, and he’s already not getting enough sleep at night. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do or not, but it’s that or no nap for the moment. His nighttime sleep got better for a while, then worse again, with “morning” wake-ups around 4-4:30 lately. Tonight he woke up at 2 and just (maybe) went back down at 3:30.

        1. We are going through something very similar with our 17-month old. A few things that are helping: we upped our routine to take care of her eczema, including a slightly stronger steriod and putting on Eucerin in the bath while the skin is still wet. (Steroids are on a scale of 1-10, and we went from 1 to 2 with great results.) Second, an earlier bed time helps sometimes, like 5:30-6:30 pm. Third, if her eczema is really bad, we’ll give her a mild liquid antihistimane, which also helps with sleep. Fourth, she just got 4 teeth at once, so so rubbing her gums helps her relax immensely. Last, I hold her tight and rock her during naps sometimes. Maybe one of these will help you! Best wishes for sanity.

          1. Thanks for your support, Eli. I agree about the earlier bedtime.

            Also, @Meagan, have you tried staying with your boy and resting while he naps…or at least until he falls asleep? The problem with napping in the car is that he is not getting quality sleep, which is exacerbating the over-tiredness. What happens when you try to give him a nap at home?

            Also, please remind me how old your little guy is…

            1. Ender is almost 19 months. His normal bedtime is 8:30 (though we’re planning on changing that to 8 if this all ever settles). In the past with sleep regressions we’ve done early bedtime (7 ish… Never managed earlier than that) and it’s worked beautifully. This time he WILL NOT HAVE IT. He goes into overdrive scream mode. If I don’t go into comfort him, he’ll scream for two hours (unprecidented). If I DO go in to comfort him, he’ll relax as long as I’m holding him, then start screaming again as soon as I start to put him in his crib and won’t settle for… I dunno. A while? Anyway, long story short, he ends up sleeping later, and even if we switch back to “normal” bedtime, he continues resisting for… Well last time we tried it, he took a few days to get back to the normal routine. This time we’re still in the midst of it, but we’re sticking with 8 rather than return to 8:30.

              If we try to nap at home he simply doesn’t. He screams. If I stay in the room with him, he gets increasingly upset, if I leave, he may have periods of relative peace lasting as long as 20 minutes… No sleep though. I know driving naps aren’t as good, but I figure they must be better than nothing? I worry that taking driving naps is enabling him to resist real naps, that if he weren’t getting the driving naps he might start taking the real naps… But then whenever he goes a day without naps, any progress we’ve made on the night time sleep just vanishes.

              @Eli thank you for the suggestions. 🙂 His eczema is doing fairly well at the moment with lots of the cortisone… So far we haven’t had to move up from the 1%. A few weeks ago it was out of control… I think in part because… He’s so tired. At least MY allergies go haywire when I’m sleep deprived, so it makes sense that eczema would do the same? If anything physical is bothering him right now it’s probably teething (he’s cutting his 4th molar in a month) but we’re giving him Advil at night and I’m not sure what else we can do for him. Do you mean rub the gums on the sides? Or where the teeth come in? He generally doesn’t let me put my fingers in his mouth, but it’s worth a try…

              Right now he’s getting more of his sleep in the car or on me or his dad than in his crib.

              1. Meagan, I assume you are being very clear with Ender about what will happen at bedtime… How are you at handling his feelings when he gets “increasingly upset” at nap time with you there? I would try your best to not be at all afraid of that. I would tell him everything that will happen before rest time, including that you will relax in his room while he is in his crib. But you will really have to relax and let go, or it will be impossible for him to let go. He may need a crying/screaming session…but if you can stay calm and accept it, he should be able to let go of these strong feelings and go to sleep.

                Also, 8:30 is very late for a child Ender’s age to go to bed, in my opinion.

              2. Yes… Very clear, and I believe we are remaining calm. We just introduced a “wake up light” to let him know when it’s time to get up in the morning. It seems to be helping, and at least he seems to understand what it means. We just switched it from 4:45 to 5 am, so we’l see how that goes in the morning.

                I agree that 8:30 (and even 8) is awfully late. My husband gets home from work most nights between 7 and 7:30. Most of the sleep experts say that it’s selfish to keep a child up later so they can “play with” a parent. I disagree. I think it’s essential for both my husband and my son that they have time together… Every day. Even if it means bedtime is not ideal. Before this sleep regression my son would sleep reliably until 7:30-8 in the morning, so I honestly don’t think it was a problem. Right now, if it seemed like a reasonable option, I probably would have him going to sleep earlier. But when he resists so strongly that he ends up falling asleep later… It doesn’t seem like it would help him get the extra sleep he needs.

        2. Have you tried eliminating Gluten? That was my son’s eczema and later behavioral problem.

          1. My son has a number of food sensitivities, including gluten. We removed it from his diet for a time, but his allergist advised us to reintroduce it since he tolerates it and the eczema is generally controllable. I’m fairly certain that for the moment his only behaviour issues are to do with sleep deprivation, and that the sleep deprivation is a normal, if really really difficult, developmental burp complicated by massive teething.

            That said, gluten issues are pretty widespread in my husband’s family, and at least one family member does have behavioral issues related to diet, so it’s certainly something we mean to keep an eye on as he gets older. I just don’t think it’s the issue right now. If things don’t get dramatically better soon, I might reconsider that. 🙂

        3. Meagan, have you tried essential oils, chiropractic care and/or going somewhere where he can get more exercise to reset? I hope you both get some rest soon!

          1. You should really be careful with essential oils around babies and children. Some can be very dangerous with infants. Here is an essential oils safety website. Great resource.

    2. DivorcedAndLovingIt says:

      Hi Meagan! Hang in there. That sounds very tough! I think the first thing is just survival for you and your little one. Sometimes, kids have to do things that they hate but are good for them. I agree – you can’t make a child sleep, but you can make them lie down, and eventually they get bored, most of the time. Give yourself a chance to take a deep breath and say, “I know you are tired, and that’s why you need to sleep.” For me, a statement like that reminded me not to get so upset with a tired child. Do what you can with any spouse/family/friend support to get enough sleep so you can function. I did the “I’m right here – go to sleep” thing where I put the child in the crib and would respond to cries but not pick the child up, and eventually backed out of the door. Single Dad Laughing at says he does fun things at bedtime, and his child doesn’t fight about going to bed, though he wasn’t sure if it was his strategy or his child’s temperment. I figure there are probably a lot of different ways to get to a good end. Keep trying and see what works! Good luck.

      1. Thank you. Yeah… we’re mostly keeping sane. We are mostly tired in frustrated in general, rather than upset AT him. We know it’s more or less normal developmental stuff. We theoretically know we’ll get through it, though as an insomniac myself I constantly worry about allowing him to develop unhealthy sleep patterns.

        1. Meagan, it really sounds like you have tried everything! No wonder you are frustrated. Then you made this comment, “…as an insomniac myself I constantly worry about allowing him to develop unhealthy sleep patterns,” and it got me thinking.

          Janet’s astute comment above,”our children’s feelings trigger our own” applies to more than just feelings. Our children’s behavior can also trigger our own fears. When our fears are triggered, not only is it difficult to stay calm, but our urgency to fix the problem can add fuel to the fire and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          In the case of worrying about insomnia, the fear cycle could go like this: you see your child having difficulty settling, you worry he might have insomnia, he senses your fear and has an even harder time falling asleep, you see this as more proof of insomnia and make more urgent attempts to get him to fall asleep, he senses the urgency and can’t relax…

          So getting whatever help you need to determine if you are actually seeing signs of insomnia or merely a sensitive child seeking his own natural sleeping rhythm may be the missing piece in the resolution of this problem. Then instead of worrying, you will either be in action to help him overcome a real problem or be relieved and, as Janet said, be able to relax and let go and trust him to find what works for him, even if it involves a stress-releasing bout of crying before dropping off to sleep.

          1. I’m aware of this. 🙂 And to be clear, I don’t believe he’s an insomniac, I don’t believe he’s on the path to becoming an insomniac. I am however aware of aspects of my upbringing that contributed to my sleep issues, and like most people I’m determined not to repeat my parents mistakes (at least related to sleep). But yes, sleep is a sensitive area for me, and I’m aware of that.

            1. Hi Meagan. Just thought I’d share because I too had sleep issues with my daughter at this age (and still struggle on occasion) and I realized it was mostly my own experiences around sleep as a child. You mentioned you had some past issues with it yourself so thought I’d share. Since then I have noticed many things that trigger me and it’s always around things my parents couldn’t handle with me. No fault to them, I think these negative concepts are passed down unconsciously unless we break the cycle. I did a lot of journaling and inner child work around my fears with certain behaviors, and sleep was a big one. It really helped me and my daughter. I realized I had very deep feelings of fear and anxiety about sleep and that I was abandoning her in some way. I also could not handle her negative emotions (or my own at the time) and had to do some serious work around that. I found that just identifying with curiosity NOT judgement, the feelings it was bringing up for me and working through those, changed our sleep struggles dramatically and we felt really connected around bedtime after that, even if she was very upset. I would just sit and listen and also pay attention to what was happening for me. I would write down the “stories” I was telling myself and reality check them. I realized I felt too much responsibility for making her sleep and for her feelings. The guilt was getting in the way. Not much in the way of “here’s how to get your kid to sleep” but maybe it will help!

    3. Hi Meagan,
      When he finally does sleep, how does he sleep? I ask because my daughter was a nightmare to put down for bed and naps; it would take 1-2 hours for each and every attempt to get her down. No nighttime routine helped and everyone assumed it was some vibe we were giving off. Rocking was the only thing that would cut the routine time down from 2 hrs to 1 hr. The kid woke up every 30-90 min for years. I was beyond exhausted. At 3, the doctor finally took me seriously and gave me what I had been asking for for months- a referral to a pediatric ENT.

      Turns out my kid had two types of sleep apnea. Her body was telling her it was unsafe to go to sleep because she may not wake up. Kid had surgery and she was a different child two months later. She still has slight breathing issues, but nothing like before.

      After getting her diagnosed it was quite clear that I had apnea as a kid before I got my sinuses corrected. (Perhaps this was/is also at the base of your sleep issues.) Last December my 3 yr old broke my nose with his skull while attempting to give me a kiss in the dark at bedtime (yes, quite painful). I was thrown back into not being able to breathe properly at night and I felt awful.

      You are doing everything right. Maybe it’s him.

  2. Wonderfully wise words as usual Janet. I think there is also another aspect of this.

    We as educators should also feel comfortable to share our emotions with children. Just as we try to understand and empathise with them, by truly being ourselves they will learn to do likewise.

    There are of course limits, but there are very few emotions we cannot show young children we are feeling. Even anger as long as it is not directed at any one child. Anger, fear, sadness, and other so called negative emotions are a part of all our lives. If we suppress them we do ourselves no favours and the children in our care an injustice.

    Also, when children see that we too have these feelings from time to time it kind of normalises it for them (if that is the right term to use). I have found that when you are honest with children they act similarly in kind. Also, they begin to alter their behaviour accordingly. For example, when a coleague has a bad headache the children began whispering to each other and tiptoeing when close too this educator. Similarly, a couple of years ago when I lost my mother I was open about it with my preschoolers. I don’t think I’ve ever received so many hugs and the children kept asking if I was okay.

    I am not perfect by any means and the children I teach and care for know that. I make mistakes just as they do. I quoted one of my “additional needs” 4 year olds on my facebook page a few weeks ago which sums it up beautifully.

    “Don’t get angry Greg. Don’t ever get too angry. Don’t let me down.”

    1. Thanks for bringing this up, Greg. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of acknowledging our feelings around children, especially since young children are so sensitive and aware. They know when there’s something up with us and it can be disconcerting for it not to be talked about… Parents need to do this, too.

  3. Zac Phillips says:

    I would also point out that a lot of adults are not comfortable with expressing or even feeling the full spectrum of emotions. Not only is it important for you to be sensitive to these things for your kids sake but also for your own as well as your partner’s. For surely it would be difficult to really relate to your child’s feelings if you have discomfort or confusion with your own.

    1. Zac, I agree, and it is our experience as children that leads to this discomfort and confusion… For me, the clarity and healing came when I learned to practice something different than what I myself received. But I realize this might not be the answer for everyone…

  4. It takes emotional literacy on the part of the parents to respond this way. That’s why parenting is such a powerful journey, as long as we’re open to it, because our children’s strong emotions so easily evoke our own brokenness. Most of us tuck that pain well under our awareness until a screaming infant, angry four-year-old, or resentful teen heaves it to the surface. By responding from a place of wholeness we soothe and guide our children as well as the child within ourselves.

    1. Beautifully stated (as always!), Laura. Thank you so much for your insightful comment.

    1. I’ll bite…
      I think that this article research does NOT seem to indicate it’s best to “let babies cry themselves back to sleep.” It indicates that by 6 months, 2/3 of babies sleep long stretches, and 1/3 do not.
      That does NOT mean that the 1/3 who do not would be best off left alone to cry!

      Our son was TERRIBLE sleeper until 10 months. Never more than 2 hours asleep at a stretch. And, as a nursing mom, and with him on tghe low end of the weight spectrum to boot, it was a stressful time.

      Would “letting him cry” have made him a better sleeper, sooner?

      I seriously doubt it.

      Eventually, we were confident enough that he wasn’t hungry that we began exploring letting him cry a BIT longer– but we’re talking between 10 months and a year.

      And once he started sleeping better, it has been 10+ hours, ever since. But on HIS timetable.

  5. Meagan, my kids dropped all day sleeps at 23-24 months. One family I know was 20months. We fought it, but in the end I gave in. I had a nap routine, if DD kept resisting me I had a set amount of time of persisting on settling her then I said ok, if you won’t sleep then you are up til bedtime. Bedtime and dinner would be rushed an hour or so earlier, and she would go to bed much easier with no nap. After 2 to 3 days she would v exhausted and I would plan a car trip and let her nap for maybe an hour. But then that night would be harder at bedtime. Weaning off naps can be tricky. Usually I would say they are only ready for this if they happily push thru nap time and don’t get cranky til say 5 or 6pm. But you can get in a vicious circle of naps and sleeps being a battleground. Relaxing and saying ok, no nap, may take the pressure off. And if he doesn’t cope then gently and calmly try and go back to your routine. Also, check the ingredients of your sons fave foods. We had massive behavioural issues with one child at 18mth-2 due to food additives incl colours, MSG and annatto. Changed diet and got my good kid back!

    1. Hi Claire,
      Yeah I know kids like this too (heck, I was one!) but he definitely still needs his nap. He starts to get sleepy before lunch time, gets a little energy spurt from eating, and is definitely ready around 1-1:30. Before we gave up on “real” naps he’d even go along willingly with the nap routine, right up tell the moment I went to set him down in crib. Then screaming bloody murder. We aren’t even trying right now, we’re driving in circles, poor quality sleep or not, until his nighttime sleep gets back to normal.

      1. Meagan,
        It sounds like it could be possible you might be missing your son’s nap window and he is becoming overtired by nap time. You mention he starts to get sleepy before lunch time. Try to see if you can watch him a little more closely for signs of sleepiness and get him off to nap before he becomes overtired. If he is waking up for the day around 5 am it is very reasonable to expect him to need a much earlier nap time or even going back to 2 naps a day for a while until he is caught up on sleep. If you haven’t already maybe check out the No-cry nap solution by Elizabeth Pantley (hope it is ok for me to suggest this here).

  6. I often have such trouble articulating this approach to my friends. Thank you so much for posting this so I can share with others and help them to be the best parents they can be. Janet, you are an absolute angel.

  7. “We will all undoubtedly make many mistakes along the way, but that’s alright, because in this case, trying is more than good enough.”
    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I really appreciate that reminder today along with some of the other comments about the importance of being as emotionally literate and honest as we can be for ourselves, our partners and our children. Something about being reminded how powerful this journey of parenting is, allows me to be easier on myself in the moments when it feels so overwhelming…

  8. Naturalistic says:

    I don’t know about leaving them in the room. I admit I stayed with mine far longer than I should have and at 5 and 3 my girls still try to get me to stay even though they can fall asleep on their own now. I think about what’s natural and a fear of being alone at night is natural. It’s a survival instinct. It’s amazing that some are able to just walk away and train their young to cope on their own but I’m not sure it’s as easy for most as I’ve read it to be. In the long run I found the family bed to be easier. The biggest thing that made me resent having to be a human teddy bear was all of the reading I’d do that made me feel that I was doing it wrong. In the end I just had to learn my own way…the hard way I guess….the sloooooooow way. I just started staying up late and didn’t want to go to bed. They’d call me back 3 or 4 times before I’d finally give in and stay. Then I started sleeping in the other room and found they would sleep through a few nights here and there, more and more. Ive talked to a few moms who’ve mentioned that this bed time is when the important stuff comes out of them. This is a bonding moment and the routine can get in the way because you are just going through the motions waiting for it to end. They can really sense when you are not present. Mine would look forward to bedtime but the routine was quite large at the beginning. A storey book each. Either a favorite song or a story from my own imagination each. Cuddles and only whispering. Later a massage, which I wished I would have kept up but I can’t do it laying down, so I guess I’m lazy. There were definitely nights where I was far from the perfect parent but I learned better ways to deal over time.

  9. I am totally on board with letting my son (12 months) express his feelings, even the ones I consider “negative.” But I wonder… at what point do I say, “Enough. You may not continue to scream and writhe in frustration because I won’t give you another cookie.” (Translation: “Your feelings are completely out of proportion to this situation and you are old enough to control yourself.”) I guess I’m wondering at what point I start to imply to him that he does need to control himself. Certainly, I do not want an 18-month old who is still screaming and writhing in frustration over every little thing when I am certain he is capable of a calmer response. Or am I mixing up feelings with behaviors?? Or am I just way off base? This is all new; he is showing emotions like anger and frustration for the first time and I’m a little thrown off!

    Oh–and here’s the thing: when he does have these little fits, he almost always turns them on and off like a switch. I guess that’s why I’m thinking he is fully capable of choosing a different response, so why wouldn’t I say, “You are being ridiculous and you need to choose a different response”? As “emotional” as he can be, he doesn’t really seem that emotionally invested in his fits! It almost seems like he’s faking them… And before you ask, it doesn’t make me mad at all. These fits really look like a performance to me. Full disclosure: I usually just roll my eyes and keep moving.

    Part of what is so confusing to me is that, at almost 13 months, I’m just realizing how much he understands–way more than I thought he did. I feel like someone suddenly switched out my peaceful little baby for an actual, communicating, opinionated person and I am in new territory.

    Thank you!

    1. These are great questions, Cristen. Being “totally on board” with letting children express feelings means not judging their feelings, timing them, or limiting them in any way. (Yes, it sounds like you are confusing “feelings with behaviors”.) And, ironically, this parental patience and acceptance is the way to raise children who are NOT easily and constantly overwhelmed, do not have extended crying jags, and do not use meltdowns to manipulate. Those things can happen when parents limit emotional expression by either giving in to demands, or reacting impatiently or punitively. Perhaps they try to coax children out of their feelings, “fix” age-appropriate situations for them to avoid hearing their cries or tantrums or react with ambivalence when a clear limit is needed, etc.

      Yes, children will go through difficult phases, but if we fully accept their feelings while confidently limiting behaviors, they will pass through these phases quickly.

      Cristen, your boy’s emerging personality is a very positive sign! The “turning on and off like a switch” means he expressing his feelings, getting them out and moving on as he should. This is very healthy — exactly what you want to foster. It is when parents try to either avoid or put a damper on these strong reactions that problems begin. As bright and aware as our young children are, they don’t have impulse control until much later…and they cannot control emotions as we do. This is also why parents should not make the mistake of perceiving their children’s strong reactions in adult terms. If we screamed over a minor disappointment, it would be concerning indeed. But this is a typical, healthy response for a young child.

      1. Ah! That is very helpful! I really have a hard time getting out of the constant teaching mode, and letting him just develop (including developing his responses) at his own pace. It takes some real trust, doesn’t it?? I need to trust that age-appropriate is wherever he is. 🙂

  10. wow – this is all v relevant, thanks for posting. my qstn is similar to Cristens- my daughter is 2yrs 7mos and she has a tantrum every time she wakes up after her afternoon nap. i attribute this to falling asleep before having eaten lunch, and general de-sress after nursery, but sometimes she goes on and on and on..i have a baby who needs tending to and dinner to cook etc. she will be hugging me or lying on me and wont let me go. sometimes i say ‘i understand you are upset but i have to get on now’ which can either break her out of it or make it worse. is this the right way to deal with it? what else can i do? i also feel that im always the one on the receiving end of the tantrums.. any advice?and is this age appropriate? thank you so much. btw, i try giving her a snack on the way home from nursery but she either doesnt eat it (shes v picky) or she falls asleep mud bite.

    1. Dear Megan,

      As usual, Janet, thanks so much for this dialogue and all who contribute.
      I was just bookmarking this page to send to my clients and read these posts myself.

      Megan, my heart goes out to you and the challenge of this situation. I agree with Janet. The next transition that would be helpful is to stay with him while he falls asleep for nap. But it is essential that you talk to him first.

      Development in and of itself is the MOST interruptive thing to child sleep. At 19-months your son is old enough for a “Play Scenario and Story” about what is going on with sleep. In this short and very simple play or ‘puppet show” as a client called it…you show him the problem, acknowledge how difficult it has been and then act out the solution. Use play objects he is attached to. I have had clients use trucks and one toddler even had sleep rocks. If it is an item he can take into bed with him this is great. In this short play one stuffy is your child…the other is you. Only show him the problem once or twice then it is on to the solution. With confidence and wonder, show him what you will do, and act out the solution. Remember toddlers are by nature curious and enthusiastic. If you can meet him mentally and emotionally in this regard it can work wonders. We never want to hype it or try to convince the child to go along with our idea of the solution. We want to involve them in the process and then reassure them that we are there and will help them get through the necessary struggle. At this time it can also be useful to acknowledge your own feelings around how this has been. Honestly and authentically keep it short and simple.

      If you have a meditation practice… use it…If you do not…get one. It is simple, not necessarily easy.
      But breathing and staying present in your body is essential.

      If you are emotionally regulated this will help matters the most.
      Mommy will sit near and breathe (or meditate, or pray, or be present)

      An earlier bedtime will help so keep at it in that area.

      This will get better and this phase will pass. But being in the middle of it is so difficult.

      Eileen Henry, RIE Associate and Sleep Specialist
      Compassionate Sleep Solutions

    2. Sharon, hello!

      Before Janet answers your question, here’s my take on what you’re going through. You say, “Sometimes I say, I understand you’re upset, but I have to get on now.” So, it sounds like there are times when you don’t leave and stay with her. Perhaps this inconsistency is causing her to test by going on and on to see if you’ll stay. I would try to be consistent and honest. As I gently move her away from me, I would say, “I see how upset you are. I know how much you want to keep hugging me. It’s time for me to feed the baby. I’ll be back with you in a few minutes.” Then, if she escalates, I would acknowledge her reaction by saying, “I see how much you want me to stay. I’ll be back as soon as I’m done.”

      Remember you’ve given her support. Just not as much support as she WANTS. And that’s okay. So don’t feel guilty. The following post offers more suggestions.

      Take care and all the best!

  11. Christina Kessler says:

    Thanks for this, Janet. I’ve read your other posts about setting limits, accepting emotions, etc, and lots by other folks as well. This is the best I’ve seen so far! I love concrete suggestions like this.

  12. Hi Meagan, I am still partway through reading the commments so I apologize if I jumped the gun.

    I work with infants and toddlers, and the last couple “older infants” who screamed in the crib, seemed to need rocking, and would wake up screaming almost as soon as being put in the crib… have both responded well to transitioning to a cot. I wonder if there is a small bed or a mat in the house that would be helpful for your little one. I think the two main reasons this helps the children are that

    1) they don’t feel trapped; when they wake up, they can wander off or choose to stay on the bed, and

    2) it is much easier to be close to a child who is on a bed, cot or mat. If they seek the presence of a comforting adult, I can sit right next to the cot without a barrier in between, and if they want touch, I can pat their back, stroke their hair, etc. Even a couple children who do still fall asleep better on an adult seem to accept the transition better to a cot than to a crib. (and they are almost “weaned” from the dependence on being rocked to sleep! Yay independent babies!)

  13. This all sounds great in theory but my 6 year old girl acts like a teenager already. I set very clear boundaries and send her to her room whenever she breaks them (often!!) and this often means she misses out on treats and pleasurable events like birthday parties. But she seems to just get worse and worse. And now it has gotten to the point that I am just so tired of dealing with it that I feel out of control. I have to call my husband home and get him to deal with her, I shout at her and sometimes I slap her because I do not know what else to do.
    Ironically, at school, she is apparently an angel. This makes me even more exasperated.

    1. Michelle, sending your 6 year old to her room is a punishment and punishments are not good teachers. The only thing children learn when they are sent away and/or lose privileges is that did something “wrong” and their parents are angry with them. They don’t learn how to do it “right”. A 6 year old is still very much in learning mode. She needs you to model patience and forgiveness and show her a better way… If you can give me a specific example, I can show you how this would work.

      1. Hi Janet,

        I would actually love to hear what you would do in this situation. I struggle with what to do when my 3.5 year old escalates to the point of throwing items or hitting. I’ve tried calmly sitting with her through the anger, but it seems to enrage her more. I end up putting her in her room, then coming in 10 minutes later to help her calm down (she’s usually more open to my help at that point). What would you do? How do you set a clear, loving boundary in this situation?

  14. Hi,

    My son is 17mths old, for past two mths when we rout walking, he tries to play with other kids wheels on their bike, pram, whatever.. Or wants to see a fire extinguisher up close, or wants something that he cant have anymore as its someone elses or we r in a position where we can not stay to play with it. This is fine until it comes time the item he wants to play with, has to go.them to leave.
    He then gets upset and cries begging to play with it more.
    How do we deal with this? A few days ago, when i see he is going towards someones wheel on the pram, i direct him another way and say “i kniw u want ti play with it,jts a grt wheel, but its not ours” to that effect. He has been fine with that redirection. But if he gets hold ofso ething he wont let it go emotionally, he wants it. I dread taking him out for walks now, as im 8mths pregnant and its getting harder to comfort him when he js screaming and pushing me.
    Ay advice for this age? Tomainly ensure he doesnt end up in a tantrum everytime we go out when he is older,,, or is this just a normal thing that will pass as he understand more of my words, As i dont want him to be in a tatrum everytime we go out.

    1. Also i want him to be able to play with what he wants, as other kids dont mind, or their parents, but its so awquard when they have to go and my child is throwing a tantrum. They feel guilty etc and its getting embarrassing for everyone and im sure so tough on him.

      1. Hi Bee, I don’t know if it will work for you. But when my daughter was that age it really helped if I said you can do one mpre thing with that toy (e.g push the car one more time) then we ‘re going to say bye bye to the toy and the playground. We would go to each piece of playground equipment and wave bye bye. It seemed to often help the transition for her.

  15. Thank you for this important information.

  16. Joe Simeone says:

    Very appropriate and insightful. I also see something here that is ironic in my own personal life. That is my wife has been chiding me for not being as attentive to our toddler’s feelings and has made me very much aware that I/we grew up in a time when it was inappropriate to express your feelings, etc. Yet, with that said, she will sometimes discount my own feelings as an adult and label them immature forgetting that we spent a lifetime suppressing our expressions! So, in many ways, speaking only for myself of course, I am not much further along than our toddler. At least my wife would agree about that! LOL

    My point is that we have to be able to experience this freedom ourselves in order to be able to convey this to our children. Otherwise, it is like me teaching her what it is like on the moon…having never left the earth!!

  17. Rob Thorpe says:

    I just think this is spot on. As someone who struggled emotionally as I was raising my daughter and after a break down discovered the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and literally changed almost overnight from this angry, anxious emotional mess to someone who fortunately was able to be the witness to their own emotions, and was thereby able to separate my ‘self’ from my reactions, buying me those few moments to control my reaction, I can see the immense value in awareness as a the key ingredient to making these methods work. (wow, that was a long sentence! Lol)

    I think that must surely be the biggest challenge for many. It took an emotional breakdown for me to realise that ‘I’ did not have to be a slave to whatever thoughts emerged about a situation. All too often we are slaves to our past conditioning and the thoughts that arise in our minds are prejudiced and narrow minded. Awareness is not an easy thing for people to grasp but the message is spot on.

    Also, from a Naturalistic viewpoint (check out Naturalism, Tom Clark’s group on Facebook) which is an entirely science based world view, since we don’t have un caused free will, or put another way, a child in any given moment ‘could not have behaved otherwise’ it is wholly illogical to blame, shame and be punitive. A human is subject to the same causal forces as any other physical entity and so whilst we can shape future behaviour by showing the ‘right’ way to do something, if a person makes a mistake (and it should be noted that it is only a mistake relative to a pre-conditioned human standard of behaviour – nature doesn’t make mistakes as such) it is not as if they could have done otherwise given their genetics and their conditioning up to that moment.

    Anyway, thank you, it is great to see some (not so common) sense and practical guidance in this massively important area. This is the path to a more peaceful world, IMHO.

  18. I agree with the information in the article and strive to parent this way. What about incessant whining. I know whining too has a reason behind it, but often when I encourage my 3 year old to tell me in words what the reason is, he just keeps on whining. A lot of times it’s exhaustion or hunger, but sometimes I genuinely don’t know. Sometimes I find myself saying “No fussing, you have to use words or I can’t help you,” especially when I’m busy changing his younger sister’s diaper or Gwen she’s crying too, but this response doesn’t really seem sensitive or effective. It’s just so hard to get down on his level and sit with him each time until he calms down when he’s not the only child whose needs I have to meet.

  19. Hi and thanks for this, definitely needed now! My 3 (almost 4) year old daughter is strong willed, full of life, emotion, is very expressive, and can be obstinate at times. I’m struggling with needing to ask her things many times a day – such as being gentle with her baby brother or not always yanking toys away from him. She also gives other removed family members and friends sour looks or comments saying she doesn’t want them to talk to her when they greet and talk to her sweetly. Also, I’ve asked at times to let mommy finish her conversation with ‘so and so’ and not interrupt, but she continues to whine or scream to get my attention – and usually only happens if I’m speaking to another person. I know it’s happened more since her baby brother was born, so I make sure to spend extra quality time with only her, and acknowledge her feelings and needs, for instance by saying “I know you want another snack and it’s hard to be patient. Please play with your toys and when I’m done talking I will help you.” But she rarely accepts this and usually interupts or screams, etc. Any help with being kind and courteous to both me, her baby brother and others would be so appreciated!! I know that this is typical 3 year old behavior and I need to acknowledge that she may not want to talk to people or want me talking to people but I’m struggling with teaching her kindness and manners as well.

  20. Hi Janet

    I’m really struggling with the crying that seems to happen when I’m doing something and he needs my attention. I get angry and have started to tell him he is a whinger whilst I’m angry. I feel terrible that I can’t control my anger and am verbally lashing out more and more often – its now daily that I yell. I’m hating myself and think he might be better off without me in his life. I do give him loads of cuddles normally and talk to him after telling him what I said and yelling at him were not OK and that I’m really sorry, but I see him stuffing his emotions away and feel awful about it. I really don’t know what to do about it as I do really try to control my anger, but it bursts out. I need help!

  21. Do you have any suggestions for parents with sensory issues? I handle most situations quite calmly, but I have one kid I tend to rush through being upset more than the other because he’s very very shrill. The noise is physically very painful and pushes me quite quickly to being over stimulated. My other child, and other people’s children, don’t do it to me. Just the incredibly high pitched shrill shrieking he does. I find I either rush him through crying to quiet him, or I can’t be physically present.

  22. Stephanie says:

    I find myself shushing my 19 mo old in the night and offering nursing (I co-sleep with him) to get him to stop crying so he won’t wake his sister. I am aware that he likely at this age is not waking up because of hunger but if he wakes the whole house then everyone is tired and cranky the next day and doesn’t seem worth it. I would like for him not to nurse overnight, he currently wakes anywhere from 2-5x overnight between 10 & 6 but he isn’t really vocal yet and nursing usually does calm him back to sleep. I don’t want him to just stop his crying, I really would prefer to meet whatever need he has but resort to nursing to get everyone back to sleep. What would be the RIE way to handle this situation?
    Thank you!

  23. Fantastic post. I’m unsure if I’handling things well with my almost 4 yo. I’m pretty good at not getting upset myself but I struggle in extended family situations. For example, we were away together for 4 days. My daughter has intense emotions and was crying/ yelling because a game wasn’t being played how she wanted it to be played. She was also generally escalating because her 9mo brother just started crawling 2 weeks ago and it seems to have started another round of jealousy.
    She got very upset, grandma and her aunt kept telling her to calm down & stop whinging & how it’s not nice to whine all the time. I took her to the bedroom and sat with her and discussed how she was feeling. She cried & I let her release then calmrd down. I said if she would like atrention from me, just come and ask.
    My mum (grandma) complained that she was manipulating me, getting mt attention & I shouldn’t go to the bedroom with her as that ‘s what she wants. I feel she is entitled to want to spend time with me, we both just need to pay attention when she wants that (rather than trying to push/ prod her little brother when I’m trying to get her down for a nap). I try to give her a decent amount of one-on-one attention.
    She is the eldest of 5 grandchildren but she feels emotions the most intensely. I feel my family is starting to find it quite tiresome.
    I also worry will she ever be able to be regulate her emotions? Her uncle is the 28 years old and is emotionally intense & can derail the entire mood of a party with his mood (for example just because he found his ravioli dish to be quite average). I don’t want those sort of reactions for her into adulthood but I also think she’s entitled to feel what she’s feeling. So I’m unsure if my appraoch is in the right direction.

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