You don’t need to be around small children very long to notice that they have strong emotions – lots of them, all the time! That is how God made them, and it’s good. Or is it?

For many parents, dealing with children’s emotions presents considerable challenges. Here are a few suggestions to help you deal with your child’s emotions in a positive way.

Realize that a child who is "acting out" is often expressing their feelings

Babies express their needs by crying, a signal that something is wrong. As children grow, they are increasingly able to state what the problem is. However, this ability to know what is needed and to ask to have that need met is a skill that must be learned through practice and nurturing. When a child acts out frustration, anger, hurt or fear in ways that hurt themselves or others, you, the parent, need to step in and help the child learn this important skill.

First, name the behaviour: Tell your child, "I hear that you are yelling and calling your brother names."

Next, name the feeling you suspect resulted in this behaviour and check that you are right: "I wonder if you are frustrated because he took your truck?"

Validate his feeling: "I understand that you feel mad/upset that he did that . . ."

Set a boundary on unacceptable behaviour ". . . but yelling and name calling are not okay."

Give him a positive way to express his feelings: "You can tell him that you are upset and ask him not to take your truck without asking."

Many parents simply scold their children for acting out instead of recognizing that their behaviours are often illegitimate responses to legitimate feelings. Teaching your child how to express their feelings in acceptable ways in an enormous gift to your child. Many adults lack this necessary life skill!

Recognize that your child’s feelings can trigger feelings in you

Parents often fail to give their children permission to express their feelings because this triggers unpleasant feelings in the parent. Our child’s inability to manage their feelings may embarrass us, annoy us, or make us fear that we aren’t very good parents. When our child is hurt by others, the experience may remind us of times when we were hurt by others. And children who grieve losses – such as the death of a parent or grandparent, divorce, a move or loss of friendship – may make a parent’s attempts to move beyond the loss harder or make them feel guilty that they were unable to shelter their child from the loss.

It is vital that we allow our children to feel what they feel, while also acknowledging how this makes us feel. Don’t tell your child she cannot be sad because it makes you feel bad. Be honest about how you feel, too, and find healthy ways to express your equally legitimate emotions (talking to a friend or counsellor, journalling, praying).

Teach your child how to manage their feelings

Most feelings will be expressed one way or the other. If a child has no tools to express their feelings in healthy ways, they will express them in destructive ways. Here are some healthy ways you can encourage your child to express their feelings:

Encourage the development of feeling language. For instance, when your child tells you about events at school or with friends, ask them how they felt about these activities. Use a chart that shows faces with various expressions; look at these with your child and see how many emotional expressions they can identify. This helps them learn a much wider range of emotions than just sad, mad or happy.

Encourage your child to talk with God about how they feel during prayer times. At mealtimes, ask each member of the family to describe one happy thing that happened that day and one sad thing (or another emotion). Tell stories about how you learned to talk about a feeling instead of just being upset about it. Give your child a journal and encourage them to write about how they feel.

Get help if you are overwhelmed by the intensity of your child’s feelings

When children are having an especially hard time with difficult feelings, it can be very draining for a parent. If your child has been traumatized in some way (by abuse, abandonment, natural disaster, etc.), they may require specialized assistance in dealing with their feelings. You may also need to learn special coping skills. If your child’s reactions seem to be out of proportion to the situation (even if it is an unusually difficult situation), don’t be afraid to seek out the assistance of someone who has special expertise and training in dealing with children’s feelings. Seek out a Christian counsellor, if at all possible, since the spiritual dynamic will be important in bringing healing and positive change. 

Recognize that some children are very out of touch with their feelings

Some children can appear "shut down" with respect to their feelings. They may show little facial expression (what counsellors call "affect"), and may seem unresponsive, distant, withdrawn, unable to identify what they feel or unwilling to talk about what is going on. These children need patience, time and acceptance first.

Try naming what you think they might be feeling. ("I would guess that someone in your shoes might be feeling ____ – is that what you feel?") Try telling stories about how someone in a similar situation might handle their feelings. ("I heard of a child once who experienced ____ and it made them feel _____ and they handled that by doing _____.") Pay attention to their play, as they will often reveal clues about their feelings, which you can talk about later. Do get help if this continues.

Whether a child has normal, everyday feelings, or is emotionally traumatized by deep hurts, parents can play a vital role in helping them identify and manage what they feel. This is an important part of the call to parents to "train up a child in the way he should go . . ." (Proverbs 22:6); the role of parents is to nurture their children in emotional as well as physical and spiritual health.

Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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