Allowing our children to vent their feelings, encouraging and even welcoming them however they are expressed (and not taking it personally!), it is not easy at first. It is a practice that requires taking our head and then our heart into a place where we can calm ourselves enough to genuinely listen, and accept with compassion rather than judgment. In this episode, Janet shares several notes from parents who describe how making the effort to practice this perspective has paid off in major breakthroughs in their relationships with their children. One parent writes: “I have tears in my eyes as I write this because I just didn’t know that this type of connection with anyone, let alone the most important person in my world, was even possible.”
Her best-selling books No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without Shame and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting are available in all formats at Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and free at Audible (https://adbl.co/2OBVztZ) with a trial subscription.
Transcript of “It Works! Parents Report Powerful Benefits From Allowing Kids’ Feelings”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
So, recently I shared a podcast that I called “What to Do (and Not Do) When Kids Have Meltdowns, Tantrums, Strong Emotions.” It seemed to resonate with a lot of people, it was popular. And it got me thinking that, while I talk a lot about this topic of letting feelings be, how to do it, I don’t talk as much about all the benefits. How this practice—and it is a practice, this is counterintuitive for most of us: to encourage our children to feel whatever they feel when it’s an uncomfortable, unpleasant feeling. Even just attempting this practice, it’s challenging, right? So I hope that this episode gives you even more encouragement and also gives you more examples of what it looks like, what it feels like. And I’m sharing this in my most favorite way, which is through you, through the stories that you’re sharing with me, the insights that you’ve had about your experiences that you’ve been so kind to share with me.
Okay, so I’m going to be highlighting three different categories of relationship benefits for us and our child from allowing and accepting their feelings. Empathy, trust, and intimacy. That’s one category. Emotional intelligence, that’s the second. And respectful boundaries, that’s the third.
So, first: empathy, trust, intimacy. When we encourage our children to feel as they feel in the moment, this is a natural process to them feeling more empathy, trust, and intimacy with us. And at the same time, we will learn to feel more empathy, trust, and intimacy with our children. It works both ways. So here’s one of the notes I’ve received:
Although we are still learning through practice each and every tantrum and new situation, we can both testify we are closer to the kind, loving humans, parents that we dream to be. To not get angry/high-tempered, but practice empathy, sincere, genuine care and understanding, and genuinely model it to our kids from the depths of our hearts. As Christians, it’s helping us fulfill even our faith practice.
There are days I feel like a hero. My son, who’s two years old, may be expressing and yelling, but I don’t react with emotion. I just let him get it out. And I’ve come to recognize it’s so healthy for him to express all of this to us because he trusts us. And we try to treat him with empathy and understanding, knowing he might be feeling a lot of emotions due to: a transition after grandparents moved out of his room; preschool might be overwhelming; he might be overwhelmed by the stress of potty learning; understanding he might feel jealousy that I hugged his little brother.
And when I treat him with understanding and compassion, he calms down much faster. It seems he’s feeling reassured that, Mom doesn’t love little brother more than me. Mom is on my side and loves me unconditionally. Mom still loves me, even though I can’t control my impulses and strong feelings. I feel all of this through my little son when he calms down and gives me a hug. It’s like all these feelings came from a place of fear of losing his valuable position in the family after his younger brother was born. So reassuring him that he is still mama’s beloved boy almost every day is so important to him.
Your work has allowed me not only to treat my children with empathy and compassion, but also heal my own heart of harsh, self-judgmental tendencies. And also treat my husband, friends, coworkers with greater understanding and compassion. I am closer to who I dream of becoming.
I wanted to also say, having compassion and understanding of our toddlers rather than judging the powerful or angry emotions they feel is so empowering as parents. I feel we keep the parental power intact because we didn’t lose our calm. Near the end of a big meltdown, all I need to do is tell my three-year-old son, It’s been a long day, hasn’t it? We’re all tired. I understand. And I can feel he’s so relieved to hear that. Like, Mom really gets me. He cools down so fast after that.
This understanding has brought our relationship so much closer, too. Your work helps me to genuinely love my toddlers and even still find them cute after ugly meltdowns.
And then she put a smile. Yes, so this empathy and intimacy that we’re feeling through these practices, the way that we’re seeing what’s actually going on with our child— which is that they’re hurting, they’re uncomfortable, they’re stuck in that uncomfortable cycle of impulse. That’s something we can empathize with, right? I mean, we won’t feel like this all the time, but when we can. I mean, I love that she even said “ugly meltdowns” because yeah, I mean, we’ve got to be honest, we’re seeing a really unpleasant side of our child. It could be kind of awful. They might even seem evil to us, or just mean. And the extent of that is a direct reflection of how scared or uncomfortable they’re feeling inside.
But yes, it takes practice and really belief in this, I guess, to be able to get to a place where we’re more consistently seeing our child as the vulnerable, struggling person that they are. And that awareness of what’s behind this ugliness that we see in our child, it’s everything. Far more important than how we intervene, what we say when we’re intervening, what we choose to do, how fast we get there. What’s most important is what we’re seeing, because that’s deciding what we’re feeling. And that’s going to decide what our child will feel in response, the messages that they’ll get from these experiences. And I love how this parent said it’s given her more empathy for herself to see this in her child. It’s healing her “own heart of harsh, self-judgmental tendencies.” I totally relate to that.
Okay, here’s another note from a parent. And obviously I’m editing these down just to what I believe is most helpful to share. This parent says:
During my toddler’s nap recently, I came across your episode, “Healing a Child’s Anger (a Powerful Success Story).” Just wow, my eyes swelled up as I listened to this mother’s note about her five-year-old son. Since the arrival of our twins, I’ve been struggling with my toddler telling me to “Go away!” or “I don’t like you!” and “I’m going to shoot you!” Both when we are alone or in the company of others. It is humiliating and I feel completely stripped down. Aren’t I, the mother, supposed to be loved most and always adored by her son? I say that with some tongue-in-cheek.
Okay, and now I, Janet, I’m going to stop there to talk a little about that podcast “Healing a Child’s Anger (a Powerful Success Story)” because I’m sure not everybody listened to it that’s listening here to this one. So this parent in that podcast said, “I had a conflict yesterday with my son that we didn’t quite resolve,” and she felt still disconnected from him the next morning. And she said, “After I had done some self-care, a workout and felt well-resourced, I saw that he was drawing by himself and I went over and sat next to him. My closeness started bringing up the feelings. ‘I want space. Go away.’ I felt the doubt slip in. He’s asking for space. Shouldn’t I just give him space?“
And that parent went on to say that that was one of the messages she’d given him generally, that whenever you want space, just ask for space. “But then I remembered that he was pushing me away when deep down he probably wanted to be close so I stayed there quietly and just looked at him with love. His feelings started escalating, which unexpectedly made me more confident.” And he said, “Leave me alone. You’re so mean.” He screamed for dad to come. She says she let him scream.
And she noted—which is very, very typical—she said he knows just the words to say to knock her confidence. So yes, in the middle of those strong emotions or meltdowns, children, it’s like they need to check out, Can you really be there for me? Can you really help me contain this in a loving way? Or are you going to get thrown and not be able to lead me when I say things that get to you, that I know are your vulnerable spots? Obviously this isn’t a conscious process on the child’s part.
And then he said, “I only love Dada and not you. I want to kill you. I’m going to tell Dada to chop your head off with an ax. I hate you.” So some huge rage coming out there, right? And the parent struggled. Tears came to her eyes, but she said, “I trusted all of it and just let it flow.” She said she hadn’t been saying much, but then she said, “I’m going to stay close to you. I’m going to keep our bodies safe. I’m right here. I love you.” And she added, “I know this is so uncomfortable. I’m so proud of you.”
And what happened in the end was that they did come together. He felt relieved that she stuck with him through this really, really hard, long process. A lot of doubt this parent felt the whole way, but she stuck with it and saw immediately that that was the right thing to do. That he was able to clear the feelings safely, to land them with her.
So anyway, now we have another parent who listened to that and she’s hearing her five-year-old son say, “Go away. I don’t like you. I’m going to shoot you.” And she said:
After the podcast ended, I couldn’t wait for him to wake up from his nap. I went upstairs completely anticipating a “go away!” moment. And sure enough, he turned from me and asked me to leave. And in response, I assured him how much I loved him and that I would stay close. Completely vulnerable. After several minutes of being told to leave and countering his wish, he turned toward me, pulled me close, and wrapped my arms around him. I will never forget that moment. So instead of writing a question, which I still may do one day, I just wanted to reach out with a success and say thank you.
And I just want to comment there that I know that this idea of staying when a child says go away is controversial, because many of you have questioned that and believe that is the wrong thing to do. And I hear you and I totally understand that view. And I’m not saying this is the only way or the only positive way. But I would consider what children or any of us say in the heat of passion, in the heat of fear and anger and rage and hurt, and if we would hope, even as adults, that people could see beyond that to not taking us so literally. If we might say things we don’t mean when we’re in an emotional storm, imagine how easy that would be for a child to do, to say all kinds of things that they don’t really mean.
I love that this parent said, “Aren’t I, the mother, supposed to be loved most and always adored by her son?” He’s telling her, “Go away!”, “I don’t like you,” and “I’m going to shoot you!”, even in front of other people. And she said she says that with some tongue-in-cheek. But you know, it’s so interesting that we naturally will take what a child says. It’s hard to see past that, to see that he’s actually saying this because of how much he deeply loves and adores his parent. That’s where these feelings come from. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have such strong and scary things to say about her. The amount we love someone is the amount that they can hurt us. So it’s not the truth, what a child is saying in those moments. It’s not something we need to take personally as constructive criticism or an actual, literal desire that our child has.
Children, when they prefer one parent, it doesn’t mean that they’re not deeply in love with that other parent. Sometimes it means that they are, and they feel betrayed by a situation of a new baby coming. And that’s why they lash out in this hurtful way that they’ve sensed the first time they tried it, really, really hurt their parent. It was effective when they said, No, I only want to be with my dad, not you, or the other way around. Children don’t feel passionately about these things unless they have strong feelings for both people involved. But yes, it certainly is confusing, right? When we see our child as so capable in a lot of ways and then we forget, Oh, they’re also really immature and young. And we can’t expect them to take responsibility for their actions and their statements. Instead, we can help them by understanding why they’re doing that or saying that, where that’s coming from. And allowing them to express it and, with our safe response, heal that hurt. And that healing is what’s going on in all of these examples.
And as children are healing they’re also learning, through our example, about their intimacy with us, that level of acceptance that we feel is the level to which our child can trust us to share. That’s intimacy. And at the same time, we’re also helping children learn about feelings through our safe responses in these interactions. They’re learning emotional fluency, emotional intelligence.
Another parent wrote to me a long note, but this is the part I want to share:
My daughter often catches me off-guard with the emotionally mature and aware things she says, often behaving in a more mature way than her parents. It’s just mind-blowing how powerful parenting techniques are. We are literally forming a whole human being and in those early years, we’re cementing that person’s entire character.
And I so much relate to this. All of my children —well definitely as adults now, they’re all young adults— they are much more emotionally mature and perceptive about their feelings and the feelings of others than I still am, I feel. And when they were children, same as what this parent’s saying, I’d be caught off-guard with how wise they were and the healthy way that they expressed, and still do, and therefore move through and beyond their feelings. Clearing them, rather than holding onto them or stuffing them. Because they’d had a different experience than I’d had as a child. They’d had an experience where emotions were safe, their parents were curious about them, not intimidated by them. We knew there was always a reason and we wanted to understand, not put that away or just judge it as wrong or be personally offended by it.
And believe me, I was and still am a work-in-progress. I was by no means perfect at this, at any stage, or even anything even close, but it matters that you’re trying. This is one area of life we can really get a lot of credit and make a lot of progress just by trying. And repairing and being vulnerable when it didn’t go the way that we hoped for us, sharing that with our child so that they understand every step in our process and therefore learn about their own. We get to be the models for all of this. We can see it as a big problem or a big responsibility or a big honor, maybe depending on our mood.
And then the next two stories I want to share are both on this theme of, what is respectful discipline? What does it feel like and look like to give a boundary respectfully, and how this goes hand-in-hand, it’s really tied to our ability to accept our child’s feelings. Because what makes giving a child a direction or stopping them from a behavior respectful is our ability to not only say it respectfully and politely if possible, but understand that they have a right to feel whatever they feel about that boundary. It’s not our right to judge how they should accept or not want to accept or complain about or be appalled by, seemingly, a boundary. They get to own those feelings. We’re going to help them not act on them in ways that are destructive or damaging or hurtful, but if we can actually welcome those feelings, go all the way in the opposite direction of the way that maybe most of us would naturally feel, which is: You get to be as mad at me as you need to be while I make these decisions as the person that was given the honor of being your leader. I don’t expect you to comply easily and obey me without a word, and I want to hear all of that. And I expect that as part of my job, because I know that this is the way that children do often end up expressing feelings, by pushing us to those limits so that we can hopefully hold the limits for them and they can vent. That’s the dynamic of respectful discipline. And it works, because it will end up healing the feelings that are causing the behaviors in the first place.
Alright, so here are a couple notes about that:
For someone who was never taught healthy boundary-setting and struggled early into adulthood with this skill, your encouragement and education has changed my life. My husband and I have found healing, enlightenment, and freedom through the way we are parenting our daughter.
Tonight we had such an amazing moment. I was cooking and my daughter saw me use the sink, so she wanted to wash her hands. She’s 21 months, by the way. I told her, “I hear that you would like me to wash your hands. I can’t do that right now because I’m cooking. I will wash your hands when I’m finished here.” She was upset at the boundary and I repeated, “I know you’re upset. I can’t wash your hands right now. As soon as I’m done here, we can do that.” She stood there for a moment and then came over to hug my leg, and then kissed me. My heart could have exploded.
Okay, so here’s another one:
Tonight was definitely about boundaries, and my daughter had so many feelings she was just looking to release. She was making kites at the table, which involved scissors, and typically this is fine, as she is almost five years old. I was just happily watching her create and she started cutting really close to her fingers, so I reminded her to leave some room and not get too close. A few moments later, she started cutting really fast and out of control and looked at me. I calmly took the scissors and said I was putting them away. She completely melted down, tried hitting me and screaming that I was mean. I got down on the floor with her and blocked her hands and just stayed as still and calm as possible. This continued for about 10 minutes of her crying and screaming at me, and she then stormed off to her room. I tried to go in, but she yelled for me to go away and said she needed space, which lately I’ve been trying to give her when she requests since she’s getting older. So I told her I would be right in my bedroom and still listening.
About 15 seconds later, she emerged and ran to me and crawled into my lap, crying a few minutes more. Then she stopped and noticed something in my room, at which point I knew the storm had passed. She turned around and said, “I love you, mommy,” and wrapped her arms around my neck. Then she said, “Can I help you make dinner now?” And we held hands as we walked to the kitchen. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because I just didn’t even know that this type of connection with anyone, let alone the most important person in my world, was even possible. It took me a lot of work to get here, but your articles and podcasts made it possible and was like this light that I kept just working toward. Today I embodied that light and I can’t express how grateful I am.
Thank you so much to these parents for sharing with me. I’ve always felt this is one of the most helpful, powerful tools, the stories that you all share, so please keep them coming. And congratulate yourselves. As this mother says, “it took me a lot of work to get here.” It takes a lot of work. These are generational cycles we’re changing around our attitude towards feelings and the way they’re expressed. And there are probably a lot of people listening saying, Oh, you shouldn’t let children do these kinds of things. I get that. Yes, this is an unusual path. It’s probably still the one less-traveled, but it’s definitely worth it for so many reasons that I think these stories I’ve expressed better than I could. So thank you again.
We can do this.