A parent understands and supports Janet’s advice about accepting and holding space for her kids’ feelings, but she struggles to put it into practice. She describes herself as a highly verbal person and finds herself uncomfortable remaining silent in these moments. And often, when she does acknowledge her 5-year-old’s feelings, her child just gets more upset. This mom is seeking “some concrete examples of what acknowledging and allowing feelings actually looks like when my kids are expressing big feelings.”
Transcript of “Our Biggest Challenge as Parents”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I have an email that I’m going to be responding to. It’s from a mother who has some specific questions around handling her children’s emotional outbursts and moods, and what she brings up has been, in my experience professionally and personally, the biggest challenge that we face with young children.
Okay, here’s the note I received:
“Hello, Janet. I’m so thankful to have found you and your wisdom this year through your podcast. I feel like it’s exactly what I’ve been searching for, support, advice, and a dialogue around how to handle children’s emotional development. The question I have is quite specific. The advice you give around the energy and space to provide children when they are expressing their needs resonates deep in my soul. I’m all in. My problem is on the behavioral level. I’ve listened to the words you use and understand you don’t mean you would actually be saying it all verbally, but rather expressing it through your behavior or lack thereof in our efforts to not react to their feelings.
However, I find it hard to really put this in practice. As a highly verbal person, I’m not sure what I should actually be doing if I’m not speaking in these moments. I was validating and acknowledging feelings without any emotional tone, but my five-year-old would only get more upset and scream at me, ‘I don’t like that voice.’ Do I touch her and console her? Is that allowing the feeling or is it communicating in a small way that we’re trying to stop it or make it go away? I would love some concrete examples of what acknowledging and allowing feelings actually looks like in terms of physical behavior when my kids are expressing big feelings, five-year-old meltdowns or seven-year-old moods. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Okay, so I love where this mother is on this journey and how she expresses beautifully this huge challenge that we all face. Letting feelings be. Letting these other people in our lives, especially in this case, our children, express their feelings all the way. Giving them those messages that it’s safe to feel whatever you feel. I accept what you feel. Normalizing this experience for them so that they can go through life with these tools of resilience, the experience that they’ve ridden these waves to the end and when they do, they feel better. They don’t have to avoid their feelings. They don’t have to distract themselves from them or stuff them because other people can’t handle them or tell them that they’re wrong for having them.
This is an enormous gift that we can give children. As my mentor, Magda Gerber said, and this was one of the aspects of her approach that resonated deeply with me. She said, “If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live.” It’s easy for all of us when we’re feeling good and things are going well, but the people that are deeply happy are the ones who know that they can handle all the feelings they’re going to experience in life, that it’s safe for them to have emotional pain and discomfort. That it passes. This can’t be taught with words or in a class or through books. It’s something that children need to learn experientially. And we’re the main teachers of this for them through the way that we respond when feelings come up.
And feelings come up a lot for young children, so we get a lot of practice. That’s the good news. We don’t have to be perfect at this, but ideally, we will want to work on getting on track and staying on track.
So this parent already understands all of that. She just has one more hurdle to jump in this approach: Trusting it. The challenge we all face is that most of us want, as this mother expresses, to do something. Just give me something to do. I need to be active in helping my child feel better. How can I just let my child express this when everything in us and still in me after practicing this for 25 years, still wants to make you feel better? Still feels like my world is not as safe when you’re not happy.
I don’t know if anyone ever gets free of this or if we ever get to the point where it’s easy. For me, it’s still very, very challenging.
When this mother says that she was validating and acknowledging feelings without any emotional tone, but her five-year-old “would only get more upset and scream at me, ‘I don’t like that voice.'” When she’s acknowledging her child with an un-emotional tone it feels false to a child as it probably does to this parent, as well. It doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like there’s a shred of empathy there. It’s as if I came to my friend and said that I was really upset about something and my friend says, “That’s upsetting. You’re upset,” instead of connecting with me there. “Oh, that’s upsetting. Ay-ay-ay.”
And we can do that for children without saying those words. One of my default thoughts, the first word on my mind that helps me get in the right frame of mind to accept my child’s feelings is, “Wow.” It opens me. It allows me to show my child I’m accepting, I’m not pushing back. I’m just interested and I’m not threatened, I’m not taking it personally. That word helps me do all of those things.
And I also love the expression, “I feel you.” I wouldn’t necessarily myself say that to a child in those moments, but that’s the attitude.
Actually one of the most impressive experiences I had observing a parent recently was this dad and his toddler son, their older child was on my son’s club team for soccer. Of course, we had to travel long distances and go to games and invariably it’s boiling hot and games are quite long. Here was this little three-year-old having a terrible time getting comfortable, bored out of his mind, I can imagine, having to sit there on the field. And often you see, understandably, parents saying, “Come on now,” trying to keep their child occupied or getting angry with their child even for whining and being uncomfortable. And this dad said, “I feel you,” to this little boy and it was so perfect. What I noticed was this little boy, he was having all the feelings of discomfort and annoyance and boredom, but there was a whole aura of calm around it for him because he felt safe having those feelings. He was understood, he was accepted. So the feelings didn’t get so intense and edgy and explosive as they sometimes can. He could be comfortable in his discomfort because of his parents’ attitude.
So when we respond, an unemotional tone isn’t what I recommend, but it helps if we’re not reactive, meaning taking it personally, and I understand that too. So many times I had the fantasy that if I could just have my children feel sorry for me, that they could stop feeling what they’re feeling. “Come on, get it together. I don’t want to deal with this.” They can’t.
And that classic quote: “Your child isn’t giving you a hard time. They’re having a hard time.” That gives us this crystal clear way to understand feelings. So understanding that feelings are healthy and the best thing our child could be expressing will help us to not take it personally. Will help us to have that “wow” attitude of openness and curiosity and acceptance.
But we’re human and we’re still going to get touched off and tapped into. That’s a lifelong process for us as well. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have any emotional tone because then again, we’re like the person that seems robotic and distanced and strange when we’re saying, “You’re very upset. That’s very upsetting.” It’s so disconnected. It doesn’t feel good to children. It doesn’t feel like we really, really want them to share with us what they’re feeling, that they’re really safe. It feels like we’re saying words, we’re impatient, we’re just trying to have the right response rather than a connected response.
So in terms of being a highly verbal person that wants to say something, I would say, “Wow.” I would think in terms of, “I feel you. I accept you.”
And this mom says, “Do I touch her and console her? Is that allowing the feeling or is it communicating in a small way that we’re trying to stop it or make it go away?” I love these questions.
So I would say that yes, there is sometimes a place for touching and consoling. The best consoling is to be that safe presence, that safe, connected presence, I’m not abandoning you. I might physically need to be over here if there’s something going on that I’m not able to stop everything and be with you, but I still feel you. I can feel you from across the room when I’m taking care of the baby, I look over and I nod my head and I make eye contact with you and I feel you.
Whatever we do, whatever we say, we’re going to communicate our predominant feeling. So if our predominant feeling is that we want to stop it or make it go away, which, of course, is understandable and the way most of us feel, that’s what we’re going to communicate. We could say the most perfect words or not say anything, but that’s what our child will pick up.
I’m also often asked, “Well, how can I have this approach if I have more than one child and I can’t be there for all of them?” We don’t have to be there because we’re not doing a job to try to calm somebody down. Our job is acceptance and connecting and I feel you. We can do that with multiple children. We can do that across the room.
I was having a discussion with some preschool teachers as a kind of training session and we were talking about the tough separation that children have in the morning saying goodbye to their mom and dad, coming into preschool, and somebody said, “Well, yeah then this one cries and that gets that one crying.” Well, that’s okay. That’s that child having empathy and that’s that child having a cathartic moment, venting their own feelings of separation. This first child that started crying helped this other child to feel it too. And if a bunch of children are feeling it or more than one child, or this is a parent at home with a bunch of upset children, you can accept all of them. You can say, “Wow, this is a rough time for our family,” or at school, “Let’s have a little crying corner over here. Ah, it’s so hard to say goodbye to these people we love.”
It’s okay, it’s safe. But only if we can get over that hump to understanding that these feelings that might be cropping up for us around, Yikes, I’m not doing my job if people are unhappy or children are crying. Oh, that’s going to get another child crying.
It’s a huge challenge in the way that we perceive emotions. and then it becomes about this key word for parents and professionals working with children: Intention. What is our intention? So when this mother says, “Validating the feelings without emotional tone,” what is her intention there? Is her intention: Okay, I’m supposed to validate feelings so I’m going to? Or is her intention: I want to let you feel what you feel and I want you to share this with me. Children know the difference, and it will have a completely different effect. Maybe not so much in the moment, but overall.
And then let’s say our child’s having an angry outburst. We might see our child starting to soften and we open ourselves to be ready to receive them and maybe there’s a touch that happens there. Maybe there’s a hug, maybe we’re breathing a little together to calm down, but not with that intention that feelings are this uncomfortable thing that I can’t be comfortable with you having and I’ve got to fix them instead of the most positive, important sharing moment that we can have with a child — any child –our own or the children that we care for professionally. These can be bonding moments if we’re willing to not only let the feelings be but encourage the feelings. Actually, go 180 degrees the opposite of the way most of us feel. Feeling honored that we get to be there, that we’re the trusted person.
So touching, consoling, going to a special area to calm down. All of those things can get in the way of children feeling that it’s safe and normal to have these feelings and go to these places. Or they can be part of our connecting. It’s all about the way we perceive, our attitude, and our intention.
I want to quick share a couple of personal examples. One is about my family and the other was a professional example that was challenging:
My son is my baby and he went off to college, so I’m an empty nester now. The dog’s getting a lot of attention. And I went for a visit after not having seen him for a month. I went for a one day visit, and the evening I was there, it was great. I took him and all his friends out for dinner and it was a lot of fun.
The next day we were going to fit a quick lunch in before I left, and he turned up at that lunch having had a big disappointment around his classwork. It was kind of a mistake and felt really unfair, I’m sure. And his mood was glum. And there I was on this short trip with him about to get on a plane. I wanted more than anything to be able to get on that plane feeling great about how happy my son was. That he’s feeling good, that he’s having a good college experience, feeling successful. Instead, I had this lunch where there was a lot of silence, no big smiles on his end. It was tough. It was really, really tough, but he had a right. He had a right to feel that disappointment and whatever other emotions he had around it and I wanted him to feel safe to share that with me. I wanted to be that lucky person.
And yes, there were moments when I could give a little perspective, but I was very careful not to have that be my thrust. That was what my instinct was telling me. Just tell him how you shouldn’t feel bad about this and it’s going to be okay and all of that life perspective. Which is fine, again, with the right intention to give a little of that, but not if that’s going to be my m.o. with him.
It was challenging, but I did it, and I had to get on the plane sadly, but also feeling like I’d done my job and that we got a step closer even through that.
So then a professional example… I was working on a consultation, an in-person consultation with a family, and I was demonstrating setting limits with this child. And the child went into a rage with me, a tantrum where he was spitting and trying to wail on me with his fists, and he’s about 3-1/2. I was holding him firmly towards the ground. I was helping him so he would be safe. And he stayed there and he kind of rolled around, but he would try to lunge at me and spit at me, and then one point he ripped my glasses off.
At that point, and it usually doesn’t happen for me with other people’s children, I felt myself getting stirred, like a little anger. I noticed that and I said, “Oh, that’s interesting,” to myself, but I let it go, and I worked on seeing what was behind this. Just allow him to have the feelings, keep him safe, be the safe person and see beyond this scary mean guy he’s being right now to… Wow! the intense fear behind that, the intense sadness, all those intense, scary things that this little boy obviously had to be feeling to be behaving that way. And that helped me stay in the right place.
I don’t think I said much of anything, but then finally… and it seemed kind of endless, to be honest… Finally, he calmed down. His mother was there feeding his little brother. She put the baby down so he could sit with her and then he got up and he went to some stuffed animals and he actually ended up doing this amazing play therapy where he said about this one bear, this animal. He said, “He’s scared,” and it was quite profound for me and the parent to see that play out. But yes, it’s challenging, no doubt.
And when this mother says “the five-year-old meltdowns or the seven-year-old moods,” the moods can even be harder than the meltdowns. Even the little moments where children just say things that we want to talk them out of or tell them, “No, look, it’s fine. You have this already and you don’t need that one that she has,” or whatever it is. I woke up in a grumpy mood, these can all be just as challenging and sometimes even more challenging than the more striking examples like the child who’s very sad, a child who’s in a rage.
These smaller ones can be harder because we won’t even realize that we’re pushing back on them. I would start to get your antenna up and see everything that your child shares with you as safe and valid for them to feel instead of talking them out of it, instead of feeling angry at the inconvenience of it for us and the annoyance of it.
Allowing the feelings doesn’t mean we stop in our tracks. We keep moving on, “We got to get you in the car for school and you don’t want to go today. This is a big bummer. I get it,” but really getting it not Well, I’ve got that. I’ve got it. So now you should feel fine, but that open door. Yeah, keep sharing. Keep sharing in the car. Keep sharing when I’m saying goodbye to you, keep sharing when I pick you up if you need to. It’s all good, which is, by the way, another modern expression that I like. “It’s all good,” because it really is. All the feelings are good.
So I hope some of that’s helpful.
Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.
Thanks for listening. We can do this.