The Hardest Thing to Remember When Your Child is Upset

I was running late for my parent-infant and toddler classes, and the only available parking spot required me to move a resident’s trash bins a few inches. As I locked my car and started down the block, an elderly man suddenly appeared and confronted me. “Why did you move those?!” he growled, pointing toward the bins with his cane, his whole body vibrating with rage. He’d obviously seen me through his window.

I felt shame (a place I go easily), and that quickly turned to defensiveness and annoyance. He’s seriously going to yell at me for moving his trash cans 3 inches? But I was well aware that arguing in confrontations like these doesn’t get you anywhere. There’s no point trying to reason with a dysregulated person, child or adult. Besides, I had to get to work and was concerned he might do something destructive to my car if I ignored him and just walked off. I took a breath, swallowed my pride, and decided to do what I teach: just acknowledge.

“You really didn’t want me to move those! I’m sorry.”

I did not follow that up with, “Okay, I’ve acknowledged your side, but now see this my way.” I didn’t try to explain or defend myself. All I did was let him know I’d accepted his view as valid. No add-ons.

His tone instantly changed, and his hackles vanished. He started sharing with me. He told me how uncomfortable it was for him to have cars parked bumper-to-bumper in front of his home all the time (and I could relate to how claustrophobic that might feel). Given a receptive audience and a moment to express himself without judgment or pushback, he was able to eventually consider me. He asked where I worked. Turns out he knew someone in another office in that same building, so he asked me to say hi to her for him. I assured him that I would, and we said goodbye. The whole conversation took under two minutes.

Letting go of my opinion and pride to embrace his side of things was less painful and more invigorating than I had anticipated — as it always is, I suppose, but one forgets. In recent years, my experience with angry feelings is mostly in classes with other people’s toddlers. They’re so small and obviously blustery, and they seldom intimidate me. I get more concerned about the feelings of the parents when I’m holding a boundary with their child, but they always end up appreciating it. So, it was interesting and validating to see that I could do this with a grown-up. And the feeling I was left with was uplifting.  I’d lost nothing. I’d connected and made someone feel a little better. Best of all, I could teach for several hours in peace knowing that my car wasn’t likely to get scratched or towed.

Just acknowledge sounds so easy, but it can be the hardest thing to remember, and it means much more than just saying words. Our tone and subtext matter most, because people of all ages read between the lines. Our acceptance must be full and genuine for at least those few moments. We can’t be impatient or get annoyed. We can’t use our words as an analysis and attempt to tie a big tidy bow around a child’s feelings, talking at rather than with them. Nor can we use words as a tactic to try to make our child stop: “I understand you are upset… but let me re-explain my side of things.” Or, “I see you’re upset, but here’s why you needn’t be…” No, we have to mean it. We have to open the dam and give way to the feelings. That’s going to feel risky, but giving them room is the only way to help facilitate a positive change. And even then, it doesn’t always happen instantly. It can take time for the flood to subside, particularly if there’s been pushback from us in the past.

Nicole shared a story about her struggle to remember to just acknowledge:

“I wanted to share my experience today with the power of acknowledgment. Backstory first: We have a 7, 5 and 4-year-old. In June we began fostering twin 4-year-olds and a 2-year-old. As you’d imagine, it was quite an adjustment having 3 strangers come live with us 24/7. My 4-year-old has had the toughest time with the transition. This afternoon he lost a toy battle to one of our foster 4-year-olds.  This struggle occurred while we had a caseworker here for a visit, and the end result of the struggle was my son having a tantrum. Typically, I’m unfazed by tantrums, and I’m rarely embarrassed by them. Today though, the fear of being judged (by the social worker) took over and made me a bit frazzled, and I admittedly did not do the best job of handling the situation. I rushed through dealing with the tantrum. I just wanted it to end so we didn’t look bad, plus I was in the middle of an important conversation with the caseworker that I was anxious to continue. So I sent him to his room by himself, telling him he could come out when he was done screaming and hitting, then went back to my conversation.

A few minutes later my son quit his tantrum and came back out calm. I chalked that up to a “win” for me and went on with my day forgetting all about it. At dinner another full blown tantrum hit. This time I took him to his room and sat with him. I said it seemed like he was having a hard time and asked if he wanted to talk about it. He said he wanted that dinosaur (the toy from before). At that point I realized he had been more subtly struggling with his behavior ever since the incident. I had forgotten all about it, but he sure hadn’t!! Instead of simply acknowledging, I went on to say, “I know, but she had it first…” to which he replied angrily, “She shouldn’t even be here!”

I was a little taken aback by that statement and asked what he meant. He responded, “This isn’t even her house! Why can’t she go live with her mom?”

Again, instead of acknowledging, I tried to reason and explain… “Well, she can’t live with her mom right now. It’s not a safe place for her at this moment…If she goes back home she could get really hurt. Don’t you think we should let her stay here so she has a safe place to live?”

He responded, “No! She should live somewhere else.”

After several minutes of this back and forth, I realized I had failed to acknowledge. I started over. “Wow, you’re still upset about that dinosaur. You really wanted it right then. It must be hard to have these new kids come live with us and to have more people to share your toys with. It sounds like you don’t like her living here right now.”

The anger on his face melted instantly and he replied, “No, I like them living with us. That dinosaur is mine, but she can have it.”

Then he gave me a hug, hopped up and had a good rest of the evening.

I’m still fairly new to this approach to parenting, and I sometimes struggle to get it right, but I’m always really happy with the connections made and the understandings reached in the moments I do get it right.”

Exciting news! Acclaimed family therapist Susan Stiffelman and I are co-presenting a parenting master class on navigating our children’s emotions. We’ll be covering the whole gamut, from whining, “I’m bored,” to physical lashing out and major meltdowns. Hope you’ll join us next Thursday, June 28th at 12:00 PM PST! You can find out more and register HERE

17 Comments

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

  1. Thanks so much, Janet! This is one of my favorite posts you’ve written — and I love so many of them. It’s helpful to me personally on such a larger scale than parenting. I think it perfectly demonstrates the power of RIE and self-responsibility for all of our interactions. Amazing, thank you!

    1. My pleasure, Kara! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

  2. avatar Justyna Borzucka says:

    Thank you for this post! It’s so relevant for me because I’ve recently discovered that I should deal this way with my Mum. She’s a very good and lovely person, I love her very much, but she’s also very emotional and she gets angry very easily. And when she’s angry, she can’t control her feelings at all. She never had to spank me when I was a child. It was enough when she shouted and I was always so afraid that I instantly cried and changed my bad behaviour. Unfortunately, I have problems with that until today. It happens rarely, but when I visit her and she gets angry and starts to be impolite and shout, I cry… I try to talk to her, ask her to calm down but it the end I always feel so hurt that I cry. Although I’m almost 30 – I hate that in myself. And for the last few months I’ve been trying to acknowledge her feeelings and not to comment, argue, not to think that it’s personal. It makes no sense to talk with her at these moments. After all, she behaves like a child in tantrum so hopefully I will manage this with this attitude. It’s still work in progress, but I could see that it works great with her dissapointment. She is trying now to pass the driving licence exam and has already failed few times. Every time she cried, was angry, didn’t want to listen to us. I discovered that it’s better to say just “I’m sorry you didn’t pass the exam, I know you really wanted it and I can see you’re upset. If you don’t wanna talk about this, we don’t have to. I can call tomorrow”. And I noticed it works much better for her than any other comfort words or logical arguments 🙂

    1. Wow, Justyna, that sounds incredibly challenging. Kudos to you for even attempting this with your mother, who has unfortunately affected you deeply with her lack of emotional self-control. I hope you won’t sacrifice too much of yourself to make things better for her. Please excuse me for saying so, but this should not be your responsibility. Take care of you!

  3. I love this! Thank you for sharing both your story and Nicole’s. What a great reminder that simply acknowledging works for all of us. I’ll try to remember this at home with my husband. Or better yet, give this article to him and say “in this story, the older gentleman is me after the dishes haven’t been done,” 🙂 I do get confused about something though. There’s so much use of the words authentic and genuine. And while you, Janet, seemed to have unlocked zen levels of peace and calm in your life, the same simply isn’t true for a lot of us. Me for sure! It’s always a work in progress and of course I’d love to be at peace and fully confident when dealing with my toddler and his feelings. But sometimes I’m just not. I am tired or grumpy or frustrated. That’s genuinely where I am. What do to then? If we are to be authentic, surely that must include the negative as well as the positive. Sometimes it feels as if your advice is “ be your most authentic self when parenting but only if that self is fully present, peaceful, confident and grounded.” That’s just not a switch that can be flipped easily for a lot of us. And our children are the biggest phony detectors out there, no? Any thoughts on how to stay authentic when parenting even if it isn’t the most delightful, strong and compassionate versions of our self? Thanks!

    1. Thank you, Jane, but I am as human as you are. I don’t succeed every time in being able to just acknowledge, particularly with my husband, and sometimes with my children as well. The younger the person and the less personal investment I have in them, the easier this is for me, because I can see them more clearly. For me, the key is perspective… What am I seeing when I am getting triggered? What am I fearing? How am I threatened? As I mention in this post, giving the other person’s feelings free rein to exist feels risky, even in the best of scenarios. So, rather than trying to control ourselves and feel differently than we do in a situation, which is quite impossible, I would work on seeing differently. Seeing more clearly what is going on with the other person. THEY are having a tantrum. THEY are anxious, afraid, angry, stressed, tired, too hungry. None of this is really about us.

      Then we have this wonderful tool and practice called “repair.” Children, especially, will gladly give us another chance. We can mend hearts (our own and our child’s) by apologizing… and sharing our process, “I got angry because you weren’t getting in the car and it didn’t seem fair after I’d given you time and let you know ahead of time, etc.,” But now I understand that you were stuck and needed that extra helping hand from me… and I think you may have needed to yell at me, too. Our lives have been so busy lately and I’m sure you feel that. It’s stressful.” There’s no type of modeling that is more powerful and the authenticity of it feels marvelous. Every time we do these things we are more firmly on course (though never perfect “Zen”!).

      1. Thank you both for the comment and reply! Seeing differently….that makes sense.

    2. I am working so hard on forgiving myself for not being grounded. Thanks for bringing up our not perfect days.

      A day or two after I yell, my daughter is unruly—no surprise. I now say, when she is yelling at me, Wow, I was like that to you. It must have been scary. I am sorry I acted that way to you. I made a mistake and will do better.

      I am owning how she will copy everything I do and the mirror can be really really hard to look at. But, I am undoing my own mother and becoming more authentic.

      Because I have scared her with my emotional immaturity, I now make sure I smile more when I ask her to do something, or starting a transition. She will turn to me to check on my facial expression, I’ve noticed, so I am sure to look pleasant, pleased, calm, relaxed. I will be feeling that way, but my face will be relaxed which doesn’t look happy. (Resting b——- face : )

      I love when I see her see me and she doesn’t put up her guard. I love the changes.

      1. We all certainly have not perfect days! Both of you, please be good to yourselves!

  4. Such a great article. Your examples really make it easy to apply. I had a moment this morning when I should have acknowledged and did not! I know it will happen again this afternoon, so now I will be in a better state of mind for it.

    1. Thanks, Meghan! It’s the toughest thing! If we get it even 1/3 we’re doing well, I think.

  5. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Love this! So many people I know say that RIE has affected their relationships with their spouses and other adults. I haven’t seen that happen in my life 🙁 — but this post is motivating me to try harder to acknowledge everyone’s feelings! You’re so right, Janet, that it’s hard to remember. I have known about the importance of acknowledging feelings since I read the chapter on it in the wonderful How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk more than 30 years ago. But have I implemented it? I can remember once: My 7-year-old was riding her new bike in the park and she rode back to us and lamented, “That boy said my bike was ugly!” I caught myself and said, “That must have hurt your feelings.” She leaned over her handlebars, kissed me and rode away. That 7-year-old is now 33, I had two more kids after her, she just gave birth to our first grandchild…and I swear, I don’t know if I ever managed to do that again! How can we get ourselves to remember this vitally important behavior??

    1. I bet you’ve remembered to do this more than you remember. 🙂 The wonderful relationships you have with your children are the evidence. Congratulations on your grandbaby! I’m so looking forward to that time of my life!

  6. How do we acknowledge with a non-verbal toddler (only 12 months)? Is there risk of coddling? Mine is very sensitive when I am doing things without him and lately I try and acknowledge that he is upset and maintain the boundary – but he holds onto my legs and I’m not sure if I should just stand there and let him work through it while clinging on to me or if I should get down on his level and give him a hug, or if I detach him and let him keep crying on the floor while I finish whatever I was doing…

    Sometimes I will leave him for 5 minutes to do something and I come back to sit with him and acknowledge that he was upset about it and he cries with me for 20 minutes! It takes up a large portion of the day when this happens so frequently…

  7. Thanks Janet for sharing this experience. It is encouraging to know that even when we didn’t get it right the first time, we can go back and fix it when the opportunity arises. I admit it is so tempting to reason through the issues rather than acknowledging their feeling. I have been trying the acknowledgement from listening to your podcasts. Indeed, repeating what you said at the end of the post – the connection and understanding when we get this right is unbelievable. I also noticed trust developing.

  8. Magic. That’s what following your articles/advice feels like when it works. The other day, I walked over to my daughter at the park and gently guided her to leave with my hand on her shoulder, and then taking her hand. She then fought it and I picked her up and carried her up the hill: loving her. I was not mad. I felt her relax in my arms and give a whimper of protest with not much ballast behind it. (She’s 4)

    This evening, I touched her back and had her look at me, and said, gently, it’s time for us to go up for bath books and bed. Two more blocks and I’ll help you block the building from the dogs. Her whole body went soft, relaxed: I could feel her wanting to work with me and not against.

    Well, it’s really really good that I had mentally accepted the routine and brought us into the last leg with ease (I have been struggling with dinner bath bed, but am becoming a new person during this 2 hour period with constant study here and at Aha Parenting and Teacher Tom).

    She started going wild with jumping and I figured, well, I guess she goes wild for no reason, too. I had been with her all day and didn’t see her experience anything stressful. Well, she was up for another hour and a half because a kid at the park was crude to her and I didn’t see it because I didn’t know this boy was in the tunnel with her and her friends. I had to do some serious playacting, puppet (Elmo) conversations with her: it was hard, she was really upset and I could only do my best.

    Anyway, our children are confiding in us from the time they are born—the moment they are ready to be born is confidential until the mother tells someone. And a crying baby could look like they are acting out, just like a four-year-old who won’t stop jumping on the bed and throwing blankies in the air. But, they both need something and they are never bad. Thank you, Janet, for always guiding me toward listening and respecting and seeing the child as a person experiencing this world. And needing our help to figure out this world and, most importantly, feeling supported in this world.

    I don’t know where it started this idea that children are just out to torment parents—it’s devastatingly sad that these little people are viewed this way. Thank you for being that continuous drip of water on rock melting it away. You would LOVE to see your guidance in action in our home, and be so proud.

    Thank you.

  9. I might have an idea as to what the answer might be to my question but I’m going to ask it anyway.
    Sometimes I feel like my child uses a tantrum to tear me away or rather get my attention and while I see he may need to connect it feels like he wants ALL of me ALL the time and his emotions are his manipulative tactic- what can I do here or how can I rethink this?

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