Andrea Loewen Nair: Connect-Four Parenting


How to Handle Your Child's BIG Emotions

Don't Lose Your Cool. Here's what to do instead.


One of the hardest things for a parent to bear is the sound their angry or sad child makes. Our hearts can feel ripped open when our children experience intense emotions. A comment I often hear from well-meaning parents is, “I want my child to be happy so I do whatever I can to prevent him from being upset.”

Good intentions not withstanding, parents may actually be creating an environment of increased anger and aggressiveness in their children with this mindset. Particularly if parents are giving into their child’s demands in order to reduce or prevent frustration.

Frustration is actually a great teacher! According to Susan Stiffelman, MFT, author of Parenting With Presence, it's crucial:

“In order for children to develop the internal resources to accept life on its terms, they must be allowed to move through the stages of denial, anger, and bargaining when they can’t have what they want so that they can them move through their disappointment to acceptance.”

A parent’s desire to keep their children from experiencing feelings associated with disappointment can actually keep them stuck in the first three stages above: denial, anger, and bargaining. It isn’t surprising that a child stuck in these stages, and spared from the weight of “no means no,” would come to believe that if a parent isn’t going to give in to his demands, he needs to have a bigger, louder reaction.

These two dynamics, being stuck in an anger phase and learning to yell more until requests are met, do the opposite of what parents are hoping. The happy, content child they are eager to raise inadvertently becomes one who angers easily.

There is a great deal of value in letting our children be sad or disappointed and to tolerate our child’s unhappiness. In allowing our children to feel all the different human emotions, we facilitate the growth of acceptance and problem solving skills. The process of struggling through not getting what we want to a position of acceptance also creates something incredibly valuable: an inner belief that we are capable.

Rather than caving to our child’s demands, jumping at each request, fixing our child’s problems or talking them out of our upset, parents help their children most by supporting them as they move through loss.

How do we do this? By setting fair limits (that we stick to) and helping our children handle their big feelings.

In Parenting With Presence, Stiffleman walks readers through a case study of a couple who was afraid to stand firm with their son. In the book, the mother is quoted as saying, “I hate to admit it, but I’m a pushover. I can’t imagine standing up to Charlie when he starts heading into one of his tirades. It’s like trying to stay upright in the middle of a hurricane!” Many of us can certainly empathize with this parents’ feeling!

Stiffleman’s suggestions were to dive in to what past events might be affecting our parenting today in combination with learning how to support the boy through his “tirades.” The father in this case scenario was afraid of saying “no” to his child because in part of how powerless he felt as a child. He mentioned that his parents ruled the house with an, “It was their way or the highway” attitude. This dad vowed not to raise his kids that way.

It is great to raise children with respect and to give them power, but it is not helpful to allow the strictness of our parents in our upbringing to cause us to be so unstructured with our own children that it actually hurts them. This is a dynamic I see often in parenting counseling sessions. As parents, we need to do two important things for our children. The first is to empower them to speak up and follow their heart, and the second is to provide them with limits and boundaries to help guide them.

Here are four suggestions to consider:

Remind yourself that feelings are okay.

Instead of trying to fix your child’s problems or reduce upset, stand confidently in your decision to draw lines you know are helpful. Start by telling yourself that it is okay for your child to feel angry, sad or scared. It is not your job to make those feelings go away.

Reduce your discomfort with your child’s frustration.

When parents take an air of acceptance that being frustrated and upset is perfectly normal, they can focus on what to do when their child experiences intense emotions. Consider what internal messages might be triggering the “reptilian brain” (the fight-or-flight response) to kick in. Address those messages before they get you worked up.

Make a plan for handling upset.

Play around with different techniques to calming the unease felt when the children start to rev up. When I sense a big tantrum in one of my children coming, I start breathing deeply and say this to myself, “See him. Support him.” I found repeating this helped me stay calm and consider what was wrong in his world.

Communicate with empathy and clever words.

Show your child you understand his or her upset while at the same time holding your boundary. An example Stiffelman used it this:

“…learn how to communicate in ways that leave the child feeling understood, even if he couldn’t have what he wanted. Instead of, ‘No, you can’t have cookies for dinner’ (no being a very triggering word for most children), I showed them how to respond in a less confrontational way… ‘Cookies for dinner! Wouldn’t that be fun! Should we try that for your next birthday?’”

I have created two lists of supportive phrases to use with young children. This one is for children ages one and two and this one for those who are three and four-years-old.

It is okay for our children to be upset and even to be upset with us! We aren’t crushing their spirits or hampering their individuality by guiding them with clear limits. When our children learn that blowing up isn’t a strategy that works to get what they need, and are shown how to manage their big emotions, any stuck anger has a chance to process and clear out. We actually help our children be happier by not shielding them from painful experiences and being fully present as they feel their sadness and disappointment.

If you’d like more information, I recommend reading Parenting With Presence and I also invite you over to my Facebook page where I continually post free parenting information.

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