Young children, even if they are really smart and talkative, don’t have the same vocabulary that adults do. They struggle to communicate with words and the result are often communication through behaviors.
What do I mean?
I mean that when your 4 year old wrecks the partially completed puzzle on the floor and throws the remaining pieces, he may be communicating his frustration over not being able to make his little fingers work to fit the pieces together. Especially when he sees how easy it is for his mom or older brother.
Tolerating strong emotions can be difficult, especially when they come from our children. We want our children to be happy. We want to be able to fix things when they go wrong. Sometimes we just want them to stop being so angry or worried, and sometimes we just aren’t in the mood to deal.
Handling strong emotions takes practice.
But when we are able to accomplish this feat, the rewards are worth the struggle. When we are able to sit with our kids in their emotions without trying to fix them, we demonstrate that we can handle it. That they are safe with us. That we will be with them when they are working through difficult times. That we see their strengths and believe they are capable of overcoming.
THIS is a MUST have in our parenting/caregiving/coaching/teaching/communicatingwithkidsing tool box.
So what do we call it? What is this thing that helps us connect to our children on a deeper level?
In my field we call it Reflecting Feelings. Some people call it empathy. Some call it validating. Regardless of the name, it’s a skill that takes dedication and practice and being easy on ourselves when we don’t get it right.
What Reflecting Feelings is:
- Letting your child know you get it
- Showing your child you are listening
- A genuine curiosity for how your child is feeling
- Looking beyond the behavior and tuning in to your child’s deep emotions
- Slowing down before you react
What Reflecting Feelings is not:
- Telling your child how to feel
- Telling your child not to feel
- Shaming your child for their emotions
- Not holding your child accountable
Why does it work?
- When children begin to understand emotions, the feelings they have inside begin to make sense
- When children learn words for the bodily sensations they have they begin to use those words
- When children feel understood, validated, they are less likely to show their emotions through negative behavior
- When children feel accepted, they gain the courage to work on changing undesired behaviors
- When children feel connected to the important adults in their lives, they begin to see that they are lovable and in turn begin to act as such
How to do it:
Reflecting feelings should be done as often as possible in communicating with your child. It’s not something to be saved for when your child is displaying negative behavior, but rather as a way to point out any emotions you observe them expressing. The more you practice, the better you become.
- Pay attention, start to develop a genuine curiosity for what the behavior your child is expressing means. Remember, you are the expert on your child. Tune in.
- Get down to your child’s eye level and look into their eyes, when possible
- Keep a close proximity
- Say what you see
- State to your child what you think they are feeling based on your observation.
“You look _____________(happy, angry, sad…)”
“That was scary to you.”
“That makes you feel nervous.
- Help your child to separate the feeling they are experiencing from the action or behavior
“Sam, you’re angry, but you can’t hit me. You can hit this pillow.”
“Sarah, your feeling annoyed because you don’t want to watch a movie with the rest of us. One thing you can’t do is stand in front of the TV. You can get your crayons and draw next to me while we watch the movie.”
- Try reframing how you may normally respond:
Your child trips and falls and starts crying:
Former response: “You’re ok. That didn’t hurt you’re a big girl”
Reframe: “Ouch. Falling hurts.”
You’re child draws a picture and runs to you to show you
Former response: “That’s so pretty.”
Reframe: “Wow. Look at all of that bright blue you used! You are so proud of your hard work!”
Your child tells you another child made fun of him at school
Former response: “Don’t let him bother you.”
Reframe: “What he said really hurt your feelings.”
Your child is afraid to go into the doctor’s office
Former response: “Don’t be scared. There is nothing to worry about.”
Reframe: “Even adults get scared. This is scary for you”
- Once you have done these things you can show empathy for your child by stating what you have observed and heard from them. They have given you important information that you can now use to connect with them, to show you get it, and to help them manage these strong emotions.
“Not being able to go with grandma made you feel so sad. But we have to go into the grocery store now and that is not a place for crying. If you need to keep crying I will sit with you until you are ready.”
- Normalize by letting the child know you have felt that way to and what you did to help you deal with that feeling.
“You are so angry right now! Sometimes I get that way too. And when that happens I just need to take some deep breaths. Let’s try.”
- Adding the extra step of asking the child where they feel that emotion in their body will help them recognize the fact that emotions often present as sensation in the human body so they can eventually start to regulate those emotions before they have an outburst.
- Manage your own emotions first
- Take deep breaths
- Role model self-regulation for your child whenever you can, children learn by observation of you
- If your child is tantruming, as long as he/she is safe, keep a close proximity. This shows them you are there with them in these strong emotions. If the place is not ideal (the grocery store), you may need to remove yourselves from the environment. Even if this means leaving your half full cart. You can always go back.
- Be patient, allow your child to respond.
- Listen, let them tell you how they are feeling. Even if they are not using words they are communicating. You may find that what they appear to be expressing is totally different from what they are feeling, and even if you don’t agree try to see the situation from your child’s perspective
Children can learn to manage their own emotions. Once the situation has calmed down, it can be a great opportunity to discuss with your child what happened and how things can be done differently in the future.
If all of this is just too difficult for you, be easy on yourself. It takes practice to learn to communicate in a different way.
Ask yourself how you cope with your own emotions. Start working there.
The ultimate goal is to teach kids about emotions and how to express them in a healthy way. To show them that emotions aren’t bad but sometimes the behavior that comes along with them is not ok or gets them in trouble or isn’t appropriate for the current environment.
The technique is the same for a 4 year old as it is for a 14 year old, though the words you use may vary depending on age and development.
The more you show children you get it when they are young, the more they trust they can come to you when they get older and things get really tough.
Was this helpful? Email me your thoughts and experiences trying this technique at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you feeling like the daily struggle is just too much? Are you worried your child may have needs that extend beyond what you are currently able to offer them? Do you live in Central New York? If you are interested in learning more about psychotherapy and play therapy for your child I can be reached at 315-737-3094 or email@example.com.
Jennie Mazza Jones, LCSW, CCPT has a private practice located in Clinton NY, where she specializes in providing psychotherapy to children and their caregivers utilizing Play Therapy. Jennie helps kids who long to feel accepted, want to do well, and wish they could control their worries, anger, and behaviors, but struggle because they communicate in a way that many adults don’t understand. She also helps parents/caregivers who want to help the important children in their lives reach their truest potential, but are afraid to make the wrong move, fear the worst, or are just unsure of what to do next. Jennie can be reached 315-737-3094, firstname.lastname@example.org and www.jenniemazzajones.com