Finding Our Best Response to Children’s Turbulent Emotions

Janet responds to emails from parents who describe struggling with their children’s strong emotions. One writes that her 2-year-old rejects her comfort when he has a meltdown: “It breaks my heart, and I feel like I must be doing something wrong.” Another writes that her 7-year-old says he doesn’t feel love from his mother. Another email describes how a 3-year-old’s tantrums last all afternoon and into the evening, disrupting the rest of the family’s routine, and they “all feel trapped by a 3-year-old.” And a therapist observes that her child holds in emotions in front of family and peers. Janet identifies the common thread in all these situations and offers a hopeful answer to weather the storms.

Transcript of “Finding Our Best Response to Children’s Turbulent Emotions”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today, I’m going to be talking about one of my all-time favorite topics. It’s still a challenge for me after many years, and that is responding to our children’s emotions. The reason this is so important is that our children’s emotional life is behind almost everything, every challenge that we have with them and their behavior, difficulties in our relationship. Helping our children get comfortable, which means that we have to get comfortable first with the flow of emotions that they have throughout the day, is key for them to be resilient, self-confident, emotionally agile people. This is a gift we can give children that so many of us didn’t receive or didn’t receive all the way.

Just on a practical level, when we start to get used to trusting feelings and letting them be and actually encouraging them to be, even the most uncomfortable ones, then our life becomes a lot easier as parents. There is less intensity in the emotions that our children express, less of the challenging behavior. There’s more of a sense of calm.

Throughout the many years that I’ve been a parent and working with parents, I’ve noticed that there are some common misunderstandings and confusions that get in our way. That’s what I want to talk about today. I want to share from my inbox. I won’t get a chance to share all of it, but each of these stories that I’m going to be bringing up and discussing represents a lot, a lot, a lot of other stories on these similar issues where parents are getting stuck, so I thought it would be worth sharing.

So the overall message I want to bring home in this podcast is trust. Trust the feelings. It sounds easy maybe, but it’s hard for us to do because as parents, we are so invested, we care so much. We love our children, we want them to love us back. We take things personally.  We worry about their feelings. We feel responsible — that we’re supposed to be doing something to change them, make them feel better, calm them down. Trust is very challenging when it comes to the emotions our children are sharing.

The first story I want to share… I want to call this “trust that children don’t need hugs.” I know that’s a controversial thing to say, but we can trust that if our child is feeling the wish for a hug and we’re open and receptive, they’ll initiate it, and then we can know it’s the right thing to do. But oftentimes, it isn’t, when children are expressing emotions. And one reason for that is that our wish to hug actually comes from our own discomfort and our lack of trust that it’s really okay for our child to feel what they’re feeling. It helps us to feel better, I mean, to be honest, that our child is okay, that they love us, that we love them. It feels like we can resolve something there. But with children, often feelings end unresolved in that way. They just are. They are what they are and they last for as long as they need to last and then they’re cleared and our child does feel better and calmer, but they don’t necessarily feel: Oh, and now everything’s great again and I love you and I want to be affectionate. It’s really important to try to allow that to be okay.

Here’s a note I received:

My two-year-old is having lots of strong emotions related to her new baby sister who arrived just a couple of months ago. I have followed your recommendations on accepting all emotions, but not all behavior, and helping her name and understand her feelings. Setting clear and consistent boundaries has also been important for us.

The part I’m struggling with is when she has a meltdown she doesn’t want my comfort and hugs after. It breaks my heart and I feel like I must be doing something wrong. Otherwise, she’s a very strongly attached child and we have a wonderful relationship.

What happens in a meltdown is that I get down to her level, show empathy, gently constrain any dangerous behavior, for example, hitting or throwing things, and when she’s done crying, I help talk to her about what might have made her frustrated and how she can always get help with feelings from Mom or Dad. Then I ask her if she wants a hug or a cuddle and she consistently says, ‘No.’ It feels like she’s rejecting me, but I’m probably being too sensitive or not understanding what’s going on for her.

Yes, I think it’s not really about being too sensitive because obviously, we want to be sensitive to our children, but it is understanding what’s going on with them, which again, is that they’re so in the moment, they’re feeling what they’re feeling. They’re done, and then they can’t really snap back into a different mode of feeling. So even the other things that this parent is trying, I wouldn’t necessarily try to get her to name feelings at that moment. With a two-year-old, it’s really hard for them to know what they’re feeling when these meltdowns happen and what caused it. And to try to get them into that reasonable headspace is, again, kind of misreading what’s going on for them.

I love the way the parent put it, she might be “being too sensitive or not understanding what’s going on for her,” because that second part is exactly what I want to help parents to understand. It’s really the key to everything: understanding what’s going on for our children, understanding their perspective, how it feels to be them. So I wouldn’t push to try to name the feelings. You’re not getting that advice from me. Clear boundaries, yes, holding the boundaries.

Then she says, “When she’s done crying, I help to talk to her about what might have made her frustrated and how she can always get help with feelings from Mom or Dad.” Yeah, so that second part is a great message, but we do that better with show than tell. So if we’re saying things like, “I’m always there for you with your feelings…” Or a really common one that parents want to say is, “It’s okay to feel this, it’s okay to feel that,” while their child is feeling it… It’s a much better lesson for children if we just show them that we’re okay with the feelings and if we show them that we’re always there when they need us and that we accept them in all these different states. Those are all things that we actually have to be.

When we’re saying it, we’re often saying it because in a way we’re trying to convince ourselves: It’s okay to feel, it’s okay to feel. We’re kind of pushing it a little bit and children read discomfort in that. So it’s a subtle, subtle thing, but it is something that kind of gets us off-track.

I wouldn’t ask if she wants a hug or cuddle, because again, I think this parent is right that it’s about her. She says she’s heartbroken, feels like she’s being rejected. All of that’s understandable, but that’s not what’s going on here at all. What’s going on is just that her child can’t switch into a different mode that quickly.

What trusting means with children is we’re not in a rush to resolve it for us to feel better or for them to feel better. Children are at a much slower pace in the way that they take things in and process. And trusting their perfect time will really help us to help them in these moments.  So I wouldn’t ask what she wants, I would wait for her to show me what she wants and be available.

Here’s another one where trust is about patience, allowing the feelings to run their course:

I have lovely two-and-a-half-year-old twins and a two-month-old. When the twins were 20 months old and beginning to feel strong emotions, my husband and I would calmly say, “Big, deep breaths,” out loud. I use the phrase more to remind myself to breathe and to not get caught up in their feelings.

Much to our surprise, they began to take deep breaths when they were feeling upset. This often happened organically, but it could also happen when we’d gently ask them to. Here’s my conundrum: If I gently ask them to take deep breaths mid-tantrum, they immediately take a breath and calm down for at least a moment. If I don’t ask them, they sometimes initiate and will breathe deeply on their own. I realize that asking them to take a deep breath doesn’t solve what they’re upset about. However, it often seems to give them a chance to refocus their attention, to calmly try another way to put on a shirt or pair of pants by themselves before sometimes relaunching back into the tantrum. If all emotions are permissible and encouraged to be felt, should I back away from trying to control anything? Should I allow them to take those breaths as they feel fit without asking?

Another thing I love about all these notes is the parents are answering their own questions, which is great. Yes, what’s happening here is that the parents are using a very commonly advised method for calming their children. But I love the saying, I don’t know who said this, but it’s brilliant, “In the history of man, no one who was told to calm down ever calmed down,” or something like that.

What she’s noticing is, yes, it’s calming them maybe temporarily to take deep breaths, but the feelings are still there, and I think it’s great that the parent was doing this for herself. It would be more effective if she thought about it and just did that herself instead of talking about it. Because as she and her partner noticed, the children picked up on it very quickly.

Yes, we are such strong, profound teachers for them. They’re learning from us every second.

But the problematic thing here is that when we’re trying to calm children down or rush them when they’re having a feeling or resolve it, then the overall message they’re getting is that it’s not really safe and okay for me to feel what I’m feeling, I’m supposed to do something about it, supposed to take action to change it, and where that may help an adult, it doesn’t help a very young child. Because the message that they need in these early years is that message of trust and that: Oh, it’s safe for my day to feel for very up and happy and then down and frustrated and sad, maybe even — all the different feelings that children pass through. When I get to share that feeling flowing through me, then maybe I feel better, or maybe I feel calm, serene.

That’s how they learn, through experience, that each of these feelings has a beginning, middle, and end, and even in their most uncomfortable feeling, they sense because they’ve experienced it, that it’s going to end. That’s the message that they need. And that’s the message that will again, help us as parents, because while this may help their children seem to refocus and feel a little better, it’s going to come back and flare up again somehow. When that happens, the way it flares up is actually even more mysterious usually, like: Why is my child getting upset about this food that we offered or this very small, random thing? Well, it’s actually a carry-over from these other feelings that they didn’t express all the way.

I don’t know, call me a purist, but this is why I want to encourage every parent to just keep refocusing on trust.

So at this point for this family, I would understand that their child has learned these things, to take deep breaths, and that’s okay. There’s nothing harmful going on here, but I wouldn’t keep pushing it. I would, as this parent said, back away from that, trust more, let them explore the feeling. If you see them start to take deep breaths, I would just notice, “It looks like you’re taking deep breaths,” not encourage it or discourage it, just notice it. But your perception will ideally be: They’re safe to feel this. You actually want them to feel it all the way, that if they go longer feeling something, then they’ve shared even more of it, cleared it even more.

It’s inside of them. No strategy that we have can make the feelings go away. That’s just impossible for any of us as humans. We can mask them, we can discourage them, we can put them on hold sometimes, but they don’t go away. That’s why trust is always the best strategy. It’s not a strategy, it’s a way of being, it’s a way of believing, it’s a way of life that we’ll need to remind ourselves of zillions of times throughout the years, no matter what. No matter how practiced we are, we’ll need to keep reminding ourselves, Oh, yeah. I’ve just got to trust this too. Darn, right? I want to make this better!

This idea of a calm-down strategy is common and a lot of people recommend it. There’s a place for these strategies, but not in the early years, in my opinion, especially with a neuro-typical child. There’s something there that as parents, we want to latch onto. If someone tells us this might be a good way to do things, then suddenly that part of us that really wants to fix the feeling so much is going to grab onto that. Yay. Okay. Here’s something. I’m going to try this. It’s very, very tempting. I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want to stop their child from feeling something uncomfortable or something angry. It’s just human nature. And it’s the way most of us were raised that we shouldn’t feel those feelings, and it hasn’t done us all a very great service.

Okay, so here’s another one that has a similar theme of the child modeling themselves after the parent, perhaps, and the parent being challenged to trust the feelings as they come. This parent says:

Within the last year or so, my daughter will try to save face or hold back her tears when she gets hurt. She bangs her head by accident pretty hard or when she gets pushed by another toddler at the playground, I’ve noticed that when she’s with me or my husband, she will freely cry, but if we are around extended family or peers, she will hold it in and either say, “I’m fine. I’m okay,” or do this fake laughing thing. It’s almost like she wants to be happy so bad and doesn’t want to ruin the moment. I’ve been telling her and showing her with my calm, confident, demeanor, 75% of the time her whole little life, to let it out, reminding her that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel any and all feelings while I set boundaries for unsafe behaviors should they arise.

I’m a therapist and I pride myself in giving my all in connecting with my daughter, acknowledging all of her feelings, and creating safe spaces for her to work through any emotion that comes up for her while holding space for her in that process. As I’m writing this, I’m realizing that maybe she has seen me trying to hold my tears back or saying, “I’m okay,” when I’m really not, because I always want to be okay in front of her. Ugh. Any advice will be appreciated.

It’s not exactly clear why this little girl is holding back when she’s not alone with her parents. It could be that she noticed her mother doing this. That was very insightful of this parent to think of that as she’s writing.  So at this point, because this is this parent’s line of work to allow feelings and encourage feelings, I really feel for her because now she’s getting worried, right? She’s getting worried that her daughter is going to hold back feelings and that that isn’t going to be healthy for her.

So here I would trust. Trust your child’s process. It’s okay if she passes through different stages with this. It’s only going to make it harder if we project that we’re worried or not comfortable with whatever she’s doing when she’s upset. Worry and trust can’t really go to together. Wherever she is in her process, it’s really okay. She will get the overall message from us if we keep trying.

Again, we don’t have to be perfect with anything. That’s not what it’s about. It’s just the way that we keep trying the direction that we head in, imperfectly, as we will, that’s what helps our child. So I would worry less, even though it’s very, very hard for this parent being a therapist, I totally understand.

I would consider this insight she has about herself and why she has these feelings around her daughter. There are always things for us to explore when things are making us uncomfortable. It’s very important to do that. But lead with trust, let your child pass through whatever stage they’re going through.

Here’s another one on that note:

I need your advice because my seven-year-old complains about everything. He’s never satisfied with anything, even if he gets whatever he wants or even if he is in a happy place. Also, he’s always complaining about not feeling the love from me and saying he doesn’t love me as he loves his dad, which I know is normal. But yesterday, I had the idea of looking at pictures of him together when he was a baby to connect with him and he told me he didn’t know how he was feeling. At some point, he said he did not know if he wanted to hug me or hit me. This scared me because I didn’t know how to interpret this feeling. Is he that disconnected from me? Thank you for reading. I feel very sad.

Okay, and this parent started out saying that she has two other sons, 3.8, and six weeks old, so that explains a lot of the feelings to me. This boy is now dealing with another baby in the house, another painful transition, which this is for a child. And he’s really expressing quite well his mixed feelings. When children say things like, “I don’t love you as I love my dad,” they’re not expressing facts, they’re just sharing a painful feeling that they have. It could be of betrayal or hurt, jealousy. These aren’t facts, they’re feelings, and it’s so normal to have mixed feelings. To say he doesn’t know if he wants to hug her or hit her… Wow, that’s such a feeling of passion and hurt that he’s expressing there, actually quite well. But for us, if our child is feeling anything but contentment with us and love for us, and that they’re explicitly showing that, it’s scary. It’s really hard to trust the process that these children have with new siblings and the pain that it causes them.

But it’s those people that we love the most that we also want to hurt sometimes because we feel so vulnerable to them, right? So I would try to see this as just so healthy and beautiful that he’s sharing this way. I know it’s hard. And, again, to trust and work towards getting to the place where you can feel so at peace with his emotions yourself, knowing that it’s not personal, that he wouldn’t be saying this if he didn’t actually love you, that when he says something like, “I don’t love you as I do my dad,” you could even acknowledge that’s hurtful. Not coming from a place of hurt, because we don’t want children to feel responsible for our feelings, responsible to make us feel better, but just saying a fact: “That’s hurtful, those are hurtful words to hear, but that’s okay with me that you feel that way right now.”

Here’s another one:

I’m afraid I’ve ruined my relationship with my four-year-old. A year ago, we had our second daughter. It has been a difficult year with the adjustment of the new baby and my postpartum mood swings and the pandemic. My four-year-old often says, “You don’t like me.” In response, I say, “Yes, I do. I love you.” But lately, she seems distant. Last night for the first time ever, she woke up in the middle of the night and went to her dad instead of me. Honestly, I usually complain of about not sleeping, but this crushed me. I wonder if I’m no longer a go-to parent for her. I just started listening to your podcast and realized she is most likely needing validation. How do I repair what is broken?

I’ve written a lot and shared a lot of podcasts about this adjustment to a new sibling and details about how to repair it. I won’t get into all of it here, but quite simply with what this parent’s given me in this note, all she has to do is trust and be curious instead of pushing back and trying to comfort or change or calm the feeling. When her child says, “You don’t like me,” that’s interesting, right? Why is my child getting that impression? She says the normal thing, which most of us would do, “In response, I say, ‘Yes, I do. I love you.'” Don’t get that impression. I’m telling you the other thing right now. Instead, trust that your child is expressing a feeling, not a fact, a feeling that her mother doesn’t like her. Maybe the four-year-old’s been showing some difficult behavior stemming from the hurt with this new sibling and the jealousy around that and the parent’s been a little shorter-tempered.

If my four-year-old said, “You don’t like me,” I would try to say, “Wow, you feel like I don’t like you. What makes you feel that way? Oh, that’s not a good feeling, right? if you feel like I don’t like you.”

Then maybe my child will say something there, or maybe I will say more, not in a rush, again, allowing these feelings to have a life, not trying to crush them and change them and turn them around. “Wow, maybe it seems like I don’t like you when I ask you to do something you don’t want to do. I know I’ve been so tired lately and my mood swings, and yeah, I can see how you get that impression, for sure. That doesn’t feel good, does it?”

This right here will repair so much because our child will feel safe to share with us, our child will feel that we want to know how they feel, not just if it pleases us, but how they actually feel, what’s actually going on in their world, in their heart. That’s how you repair, you connect.

Then, of course, if I feel I need to, at some point, I will say that, “Absolutely, I love you, but here’s why I think you’re getting this impression, and your feelings are valid.” As this parent said, again answering her own question, “She’s needing validation.” Yeah. Lots of repair can happen very simply with turning this around and seeing it, not from a place of fear, but a place of trust.

Here’s one more I want to share because it’s a very common misconception. I always get questions about this when I’m talking about accepting feelings, allowing feelings, encouraging feelings, and then parents say, “Well, wait a second. I don’t have time. How can I stop and sit with these feelings?” It’s a little bit of a misunderstanding as to what I’m suggesting, which is an attitude of acceptance: I’m not afraid of it. I’m not intimidated by it. It’s normal. It’s part of life. Sometimes we feel crummy or angry or frustrated or bored and it’s all okay in this house.

This parent says:

I have four children, currently age seven, six, three, and two. My question’s about how to navigate my third child’s tantrums. What my husband and I can’t figure out is what to do when our third child, age three years, eight months, is set off into a tantrum and that tantrum negatively disrupts the rest of the family’s routine.

Then she gives a bunch of examples:

Earlier yesterday, my daughter had a tantrum as soon as we got home from picking up the older kids from school. I walked halfway down the stairs when she decided she wanted to be the first one downstairs. She started demanding that I come back up. At this point, I stood in the middle of the stairs and knew that going back up or continue continuing down would both result in the same outcome, a tantrum, so I continued down and the meltdown started. It lasted 45 minutes, during which time I needed to attend to my other three children. I tried calmly sitting with her on the steps for a while, but I excused myself to help her little brother. She will follow us around during the meltdown so that everyone feels held captive to her. I feel like I’d lost touch with my older kids during this time. They had just finished school, and this is a time when we would normally have a snack, I’d go through their backpacks and find out about their day. None of that happened.

Then she talks about:

She was upset and screaming and crying loudly until 9:30 PM. She follows me around and carries on wherever I go, making it difficult to accomplish other tasks. During her tantrum, she will say things like, “I wanted to be the first one down the stairs. Go back up. No, not like that. Stand here. No, not like that. I don’t want to touch the floor. I want Mommy. I want Daddy. I don’t like my room. I want a new room. I don’t want to touch my bed. I don’t want you to sit on my bed. Stand up. Go over there. Go out.”

Yeah, that’s it, right? That’s how it feels to be in the middle of a tantrum. Nothing feels right. Nothing fixes it. We’re mad at everybody and everything if we’re this strong type of personality like this girl. I mean, not every child does it this way, but this kind of child does. Again, trusting her to go through all of this, that it’s not something we have to fix.

The reason that we feel captive is that we’re allowing her and allowing ourselves to get stuck there instead of normalizing it: “Yeah, you can follow me around” And “Ah, yeah, it’s so hard. Something really set you off.” Or maybe we know what it is.

We don’t have to say much, just that attitude of, “Yeah, you can follow me around and yell, and oh, it’s so hard, isn’t it?” I want you to share. I want you to let it out and I’m going to go around and do the things I have to do and let you do this. I’m not captive to you. I’ve just got a loud person next to me. But they’re okay, they’re safe, they’re going through a healthy process here. I’m not doing anything wrong to take care of the other children. In fact, that’s helping my child to feel that I see her feelings as safe and normal and not an emergency that stops everybody and makes us have to attend to her.

I love that this parent said that no matter what she did on the stairs, the tantrum is going to happen. Exactly, exactly. Right there, we can see clearly: I’m not supposed to fix this. This isn’t about something I’m doing right or wrong. This about an inevitable feeling that has an inevitable beginning, middle, and end, if I can allow it. What do I want to do? I want to allow it. I want to give her full permission to go for it. I’ll have empathy, but I’m not going to attend to this like it’s a crisis.

This is the way some children roll and it’s really okay. They are usually quite effective out in the world with these intense personalities, but this is another side of it.

At the end, this parent says: “How do we handle our daughter’s tantrums when her behavior is affecting the rest of the family?”

The way to do this is normalize it, not to see it as the responsibility of the rest of the family or something that should affect you. I know children can keep other children awake and wake up the baby by yelling, but the difficult thing is that actually encouraging that yell to happen full force is what makes it stop happening. Leaning into it with our attitude of acceptance and encouragement. “Ah, you really want to yell, ‘this makes you so mad.'”

It’s a scary thing to do, and it will not feel intuitive to most of us, but that’s the fix right there is to trust and go the whole other direction with it: “Wow. Keep telling us how mad you are!” Not sarcastic. I don’t feel sorry for you, I’m encouraging you to be in your healthy self right now, getting this out of your body, whatever it is.

It’s when we get into fix-it mode when we’re not trusting, when we’re: Oh, I’ve got to do this and it’s my job and I got to calm her down and I’ve got to make her okay so I can do this, that’s where we can prolong the feelings. That’s where we can postpone the feelings. At the same time, we’re using up all this energy, aggravation for ourselves, worry, feeling inept because we can’t fix it a lot of the time, with a child like this especially. There’s nothing we can do to change it, so let it roll. Let the feelings be. Trust, trust, trust.

All right, I really hope some of that helps.

Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. There are many of them, and they’re all indexed by subject and category so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books 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. Actually, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.

Thank you so much for listening and all your kind support. We can do this.

2 Comments

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

  1. Janet, this article is perfect. The part about hugging to serve our uncomfortable feelings around children’s emotions is eye opening.

  2. I appreciate this article and the recommendations . I do not see why a parent couldn’t acknowledge /validate a child who is having a long and loud tantrum…to say”I won’t let you disrupt what the rest of us are doing so you will need to go to another room to have your feelings.”

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