Teaching a Child to Control His Feelings

A parent writes that her toddler is very aware of his emotions and even has several strategies to cope with the negative ones. One of these strategies is going to his room by himself. While this mom is “happy that he is aware of his emotions and (usually) redirects them before causing harm or throwing a full-blown tantrum,” she struggles with how long to let him isolate. She worries she may be encouraging him to mope or empowering his sour attitude. “I wonder if we should be more assertive in having him try alternative strategies.” Janet offers her perspective and advice.

Transcript of “Teaching a Child to Control His Feelings”

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m responding to questions about a child developing emotional self-control and parents that are concerned that they might be encouraging their child to mope or have a sour attitude. Here’s the note I received:

“Hi, Janet. I’m a huge fan of the podcast. It is one of the first things we recommend to new parents nowadays. I’m writing with a question about our soon to be three-year-old. He has great awareness of his own emotions and freely describes them to us, both the positive and the negative. We often talk with him about how to express and work through his negative emotions, and he chimes in with all kinds of strategies of his own, counting to 10, stomping his feet, shaking a mindfulness jar, spending time alone. While he describes all of his emotions and talks freely about strategies to cope with them, isolating himself is the only approach he really embraces in moments of anger or sadness. He’ll go to his room and quietly, quote, read to himself or lay quietly with his comfort blanket.

I’m so happy that he is aware of his emotions and usually redirects them before causing harm or throwing a full blown tantrum. I struggle with how long to let him isolate though. It often runs more than a half hour before he declares, ‘I’m ready,’ and comes to rejoin the family, and often he’s still a bit fussy. Should we be concerned that we are encouraging him to mope or empowering his sour attitude? I don’t really see what our other options are, as we obviously can’t force someone of any age to feel something they don’t. I just wonder if we should be more assertive in having him try alternative strategies. Thanks again for the work you do.”

Okay. So, wow. This little boy sounds amazing, that he’s so aware of his emotions and freely describes them, that he is using any kind of strategy to calm himself and then come out when he’s ready. That’s quite unusual for a child this young. I also love this family’s focus on awareness of emotions, because that’s really the key to everything. However, I want to caution these parents and other parents that are trying to help their child in this way to not rush this process, to not harness ideas onto their child too early, because it is a slowly developing process. This idea of emotional regulation, self-regulation, starts with co-regulation. It starts with us being there to support our child in their emotions. Then that develops eventually into self-regulation.

It sounds like this child is already trying to fix his feelings himself, and therefore he may be suppressing some of his feelings. The way to encourage emotional awareness and self-regulation is to hold space for those feelings. It’s not as active a process as we might want it to be. As with almost all kinds of learning that young children do, our role is much more passive than might be believed. Our role is to support, to trust, to allow children to do what they’re able to do, to be that safe presence.

I think these parents have gotten caught up in too much teaching, too much working with the feelings, rather than letting go, and letting them be, and trusting them. So, it seems that they might be harnessing ideas on this boy that he is far from being able to incorporate yet.

I’m going to say that I do have a pet peeve around a lot of the early childhood education that’s happening, where we’re trying to teach young children mindfulness, and even these products like the mindfulness jar, and calm down corner, and getting children to pull it together way before they’re ready to, and when the feelings aren’t expressed yet. That’s why this parent may notice that his moods are going on for a longer time.

And when he does say I’m ready and comes to rejoin, “he’s often still a bit fussy,” in their words. That is also a sign he’s not really moving through the feelings. He’s trying to pull it together to please his parents, because they’ve been working with him on all these ideas of how he can calm himself down, the counting to 10, the stomping his feet, the shaking a jar, spending time alone, which is what he’s choosing, because it sounds like he doesn’t feel comfortable with the fact that his parents don’t want to see him expressing uncomfortable emotions. They’re a little too impatient, and I’m guessing it’s because there’s all this education out there around and products that kids are supposed to start working on this really, really young, also that these parents want to do a great job, and they feel like part of their job is to teach this.

I would like to encourage them to take that off their plate and trust a whole lot more, as with other kinds of learning that I talk about in the podcast: Be Careful What You Teach (It Might Interfere with What They Are Learning). Because in this situation it seems that he’s learning that his parents are not pleased with him unless he pulls it together, and the only way that he can do that is to leave and isolate. I would encourage the parents to totally reframe emotional development, how it works and their role in it. I wouldn’t encourage him to isolate. In fact, if he tries to go away, I would go with him.

Once you have embraced this perspective that it needs to look messy for a soon to be three-year-old, and for a four-year-old, and a five and six-year-old, and beyond, when children are expressing a feeling, that’s the perfect thing for them to be doing right there, that’s what they need to do, it’s not behavior that we need to control or fix… Yes. We do need to contain him and stop him from the unsafe ways of expressing his behavior, but ideally it will be completely fine for him to scream, and fall on the floor, and want to throw things, want to hit, and want to get it out of his body the way that young children do. He can’t put it away.

So, turning this around to that all emotions are healthy, us seeing it that way and then delivering that message to him through our actions, which is the way that children get our messages. This isn’t about helping him work something or you doing any work around it. It’s not work. It’s a natural process.

So, at this point, if what I’m saying makes sense to these parents, and it might not, but if it does and they wanted to shift the situation now, I would not be concerned that they’re encouraging him to mope or empowering his sour attitude. I would be concerned that he feels rejected for having a sour attitude or moping. Those are things we all feel like we need to do sometimes, and especially a toddler. They have a lot of reasons to mope and have a bad attitude, and it’s healthy for them to do those things.

The big challenge for these parents will be to shift their perception. Once they’ve done that, the way this could look is that they actually look for any moment when their child is feeling less than perfect, and they see that as a golden opportunity to give them a different kind of message, a healthy message, a connected message that: we’re on your side and, yeah, this is what this feels like. And it feels uncomfortable, but it does pass.

That’s a message children learn experientially, so they learn it by passing through it, not by fixing it or trying to fix it. Fixing it doesn’t really work.

And they can’t just express it through words. As amazing as this child is and how articulate he is, he can’t express all the stuff he’s feeling in words and feel satisfied that he’s expressed it. That’s not the way it goes for children this age. They express it full on with their whole bodies, and minds, and hearts.

One of the things I love about working with young children is that they do everything with their whole being. That’s how children learn about emotions, by letting the emotions wash over them until they’re done, trusting those waves, that they need to pass on their own and not be dammed up by us.

So, any time this child is vulnerable, I would remind yourselves that this is something we want him to share, that feelings are safe and healthy for him to have, not something he needs to run away from, or avoid, or hide from us, that we accept him. We want him to feel safe.

This parent says she’s happy he’s aware of his emotions and usually redirects them before causing harm or throwing a full blown tantrum. So the full blown tantrums are not disappearing. They’re still inside him. And children his age need to have full blown tantrums and meltdowns, they really do, to be able to feel comfortable again and to learn that feelings do pass.

So, whatever he’s feeling, instead of talking to him about how to work through the emotions and do something with them, I wouldn’t talk. I would just breathe. Let your shoulders drop. Trust. Allow the space. Don’t push back on whatever he’s saying at all. In fact, agree with his right to feel what he feels.

So, maybe he’s just screaming. “Wow. It feels terrible. You’re screaming.” Not that he’s going to hear that, but this is to tell ourselves this is safe, this is good. This is how he learns all the things that we want him to learn, that these parents have been working very hard at helping him learn, but the way to achieve that looks a lot different and is actually a lot less work for us as parents, too.

Our job is just to reflect and trust. “Yeah. Oops. I can’t let you do this, but, yeah, you want to throw things. You want to hurt me. You want to hit me. I’m going to stop your hands. Yeah. You seem really, really angry.” Empathizing, encouraging, trusting that he will develop the skills in time through our modeling of our own emotional regulation and through his brain developing, his prefrontal cortex developing, which isn’t complete until age 25, and some of us still struggle sometimes with emotions getting the better of us.

So let go of the strategies. Replace them with trust and belief in your child, trusting mostly that whatever we’re feeling, any of us, we need to be able to go there all the way for it to pass completely. Ideally, especially as a child, we need to be able to share it with a loved one that validates for us that it’s healthy, that it’s not something to change or fix, that we’re safe.

I hope some of that helps.

For more, please check out my books, which are available in paperback at Amazon, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio at audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

3 Comments

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

  1. We taught our kid (age four) that taking deep slow breaths or counting to three can help with calming down, but they can’t even get to the point of doing that until they’ve gotten through the initial round of passionate feelings, and that takes however long it takes. To breathe slowly or count requires a degree of conscious presence that simply isn’t possible when one is in the grip of strong emotion.

    Sometimes we’ll think they’re ready and we’ll take a deep breath and let it out to model it, and they’ll cry “No big breaths!” to tell us we need to stay in that affirming, open mode that makes room for all the feelings no matter how big they are. Other times, if our child doesn’t want to be in that uncomfortable upset space, they’ll try to do deep breaths or counting, but they’ll do it fast and impatiently (“ONE TWO THREE ONE TWO THREE!”), and then it’s up to us to encourage them to feel their feelings and not try to rush through it. We know anything that gets shoved down or pushed aside will just come back later. And we need to model acceptance and safe expression of feelings as much as we need to model ways of calming down, because it’s so easy to fall into the habits of emotional repression for the sake of other people’s comfort.

  2. The thing is most of us, adults, don’t know how to self-regulate and express emotions in healthy ways and that’s why we are so desperate for our children to control their feelings, so we don’t have to face it, because once we are triggered it easily gets out of control..Ask me how I know that 😉
    Thank you, Janet, for your work!

  3. Thank You Janet. Full-blown tantrums are SOOO important and healing, as are crying with a carer/parent close by and raging in children & in babies. Connection and laughter/play are also important more helping babies and children release feelings and big emotions. It makes me actually a bit sad that children are learning techniques like counting to 10 or going off on their own to work through big emotions. Our world does not need more control. Our world needs emotions to be heard and for children to be heard and relaxed after a big release. If emotions are not expressed, our bodies will resort to suppression (which can be detrimental and result in chronic pain, inability to concentrate, disrupted sleep) or aggression (hitting, bumping head against the wall, harsh language). Please parents, stay close to your babies and kids when they are going through big emotions, even if they say “go away.” They will come out the other end calmer, gentler, more peaceful and wanting to cooperate. All “challenging” behaviour will disappear if parents could stay connected and support children through big emotions. I’m sending all of you so much love! It isn’t ease. And I hope that parents are also getting listened to through their big emotions and that chance to cry or laugh with a close friend or partner. xo

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