Your Child’s “Big Feelings”
May 4, 2020
Posted by Lake Erie Nature and Science Center
Excerpt by Meghan Barlow, Ph.D.
When our kids have “big feelings,” intense emotional reactions to a situation, we as parents can end up having big feelings, too. Our kids can pull feelings and emotional reactions from us. Most of us would probably agree that responding to our kids with sensitivity and empathy is a good thing, but can that backfire?
Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of “The Blessing of a B Minus” writes about a concept she calls “respectful detachment.” She encourages parents of teenagers to allow their adolescent to feel the discomfort of problems, mistakes, frustrations and conflicts. She writes that parents often rush to provide a solution or a fix for their kids with good intentions – we don’t want our kids to hurt and we don’t want them to make a mistake that might jeopardize their future – but, if we don’t allow them to make mistakes and experience the negative emotions related to that, they will not learn how to make better decisions or that they can recover from disappointments. She argues that sheltering our teens from negative experiences can lead to raising “dangerously fragile” young adults.
The “detachment” part basically means step back and let your kids solve it/figure it out/deal with it/ignore it/avoid it/feel it and allow natural consequences to evolve. The “respectful” part allows us to be sensitive and empathetic. But remember – step back. You can be sensitive: “I’m sorry you’re having such a bad day,” or empathetic: “that must have hurt when you fell down,” but you don’t have to take away the bad day or the hurt. You don’t have to do anything to fix it. Think about when your toddler runs and falls. Sometimes, almost automatically and immediately, your child looks to you to figure out how to react – should they get up and keep running, or cry? When a parent is calm and nonchalant, that kid gets up and continues running. When a parent exclaims “oh no!” and rushes over, the kid starts crying.
Stepping back and letting your child feel a little discomfort can start early. It’s okay for your child to feel frustrated. If your child is doing a puzzle/zipping a coat/trying to climb a jungle gym and runs into a little trouble, wait. Avoid rushing in and doing for your child. When we see our young children frustrated, we may feel like we want to help so we end up doing. Or, it may be annoying to listen to their whining or frustration sounds so we help ourselves by fixing the problem thereby eliminating the whining. When we let our kids feel the frustration and we reinforce them for trying or persisting, we send the message that they are competent and capable and that the frustrated feeling is not necessarily something to be avoided. These are the kids who can learn to stick with a puzzle and then later will stick with a tricky math assignment.
Instead of doing for, wait. Your child may figure it out without help. If so, offer praise, “wow – you stuck with that tricky puzzle and you got it!” If not, a simple, “let me know if you need help” teaches a child how to ask for help, on his terms and if he needs it. If your child asks for help, offer a bit of help – just get the zipper started or turn the puzzle piece, then let your child pick it up from there. If you have a child who gets frustrated easily and has “big feelings” and “big reactions” to tricky situations, praise her when she stays calm, “That was hard, but you stayed calm and figured it out!”
Learn to Shrug
Sometimes parents try to shield their kids from feeling disappointment. They might not want to tell their kids about some upcoming plans in case they fall through. They might feel bad if their kids get their hopes up only to be let down, so they avoid the situation by waiting to tell them until they’re sure it’s happening. Not me. I don’t even think I could keep this up if I tried. I joke that with me as a mom, my kids are pretty used to disappointment. I’m also pretty good at finding the positive side of things so I remind myself that this helps them to be better problem solvers and more resilient overall. My 9 year old was allowed to invite one friend for a night at Dave and Busters and a sleepover to celebrate her birthday. Hours before, her friend got sick and had to cancel. My daughter, with countless disappointments under her belt, simply shrugged and said, “that’s okay – can we just reschedule?”
Don’t Fear the Feelings
No matter what “big feeling” your child is having, it helps to step back and identify the feeling. You might say it out loud to your child or you might just note it to yourself. Remind yourself that you have felt that way before too, and that you survived. Try to see the benefits – the other side, the lessons your child can learn – and monitor but don’t jump in. You can offer validation with a simple statement like, “I bet that really hurts” or maybe even your own anecdote, “I remember feeling kind of like that when…” If your child is accepting, you can offer a hug or show of affection. Then step back again and this time let the situation unfold. Let some time pass.
You can check in with your child, “how’s it going with the situation with Wendy?” and allow for some privacy – your child might just say, “fine.” Big feelings (and sometimes big reactions) are a part of growing up and are not necessarily the sign of something bad. If you’re not sure, or if you’re noticing a pattern of very intense reactions, it may help to meet with a therapist for you and your child to learn some tools to manage those feelings as they come.