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Listening to children: the importance of respecting emotional process

Submitted by Heather on Wed, 10/12/2016 - 18:15

Often when a child is hugely upset about something that seems small, like not getting a certain colored cup at lunch time, or having to have a certain ball that someone else is using, this can be an indication of bigger feelings underneath that may need to come out. The eruption may have been just waiting for an opportunity to let loose.

Our attempts to squelch these feelings or change them into happy ones might only end us up with many more little eruptions. Allowing a safe space where we are there for our child without saying things like “you're okay” or “calm down” can be a great gift to them. Try instead saying,“You're sad (disappointed/ frustrated/angry...)” and just sitting with them as they cry. These moments allow them to feel safe to cry it out, and there is an inherent message in our trust in this process that they will internalize. They are also learning valuable information about emotions and this helps them with empathy for others as they age.

Children are masters of subtext, so when we try to calm them down quickly we are teaching them that emotions aren't good or are somehow dangerous.

Depending on how our parents or early caregivers reacted to our own emotions in childhood, we may have a variety of initial gut responses to these feelings when they show up in our children. And this isn't the only influence. The dominant culture we live in is filled with messages about children's emotions being bad/annoying/unwanted/or just an inconvenience.

Sometimes, being emotionally present and empathetic to our child's plight is enough to release the big tears, not because you caused your child to cry, but because you were a safe place for your child to feel and release the stress they are holding onto.

Expecting a child to listen to reason when they are flooded with emotion isn't realistic. This is true for not only children, but for many of us. And yet, these are the times we often want to reason the most. We think that we can help them understand in the moment of upset, and it's really better to listen to their feelings and wait until they are regulated to discuss some solutions or offer up an opportunity for them to problem solve. The upset may in fact, be the solution, and allowing a loving space for the tears to flow is really often the only solution needed for young children. We have witnessed this time and time again, children emerging from being upset much more regulated and happy.

Tears aren't a bad thing, they are actually a way for our physiological system to release stress and regulate.  Research has found that the stress hormone cortisol is actually present in tears. Think back to a time when you had a big cry, and how much better you felt after it was over.

For more in-depth information about problem-solving for your child and your family, we recommend a book by Thomas Gordon: Parent Effectiveness Training. For more in-depth information about how to listen to your child's upsets, we highly recommend the book Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges by Patty Wipfler and Tosha Schore.