To care about another person means to care about how they feel. Our empathy for them leads us to feel bad when they feel bad and rarely is our empathy any stronger than it is for our own children. Feeling our children’s pain, perhaps even more strongly than they do, can lead us to try to prevent them from ever experiencing negative emotions. Often, parents want to protect their children from all anxiety, disappointment, guilt, or frustration. But even if they could, it would be a parenting mistake.
The Role of Feelings
We have to ask ourselves why we have feelings. What role do they have? Why haven’t we evolved into Vulcans who operate solely on logic? Feelings (or emotions) are the states-of-mind that drive or encourage behavioral action which, in turn, can affect our feelings about ourselves. For example, if I am lonely, that feeling encourages me to go out and be with others. If I am angry, it encourages me to fix the problem that generates my anger. If I am anxious, it encourages me to be extra careful. Those are positive benefits from negative emotions. And should we manage those situations well, they become an opportunity for us to develop pride in our efficacy and personal strength.
Thus, negative emotions serve a purpose. Anxiety keeps us safe, loneliness keeps us connected to others, anger helps us solve problems, and even guilt or shame teaches us to be careful about the impact of our choices on others. So, the parents who continuously shield their children from such emotional experiences are preventing those children from reaping the benefits.
Resisting the Desire to Shield Children from Negative Emotion
Parents have said to me, “But I don’t want my child to feel frustration (or anger, shame, or anxiety),” to which I reply, “Yes, you do. Without some experience of frustration, how can they learn perseverance? Perseverance is a continued effort in the face of frustration, so children need some exposure to frustration in order to learn perseverance. Shame may be a word with a negative connotation, but mild shame is really just personal regret for a poor choice. Without some exposure to personal regret, it will be hard for them to develop sensitivity to others.”
Finding a Balance
Of course, we also understand that overwhelming emotional responses can be dysfunctional or maladaptive. Extreme rage can lead to impulsive or aggressive responses. Extreme anxiety can lead a person to freeze when fleeing or fixing is a better option. And trauma is a possibility when very extreme emotions threaten us. So, I have to emphasize that we need to make sure the intensity of the negative emotion is developmentally and personally appropriate for that child. While some children may be temperamentally advantaged to handle negative emotions better than others, the more they practice managing emotions, the better they become at the task. Learning to cope with negativity, then, can be viewed as a skill to be honed over time. Even in early childhood, learning to work through fairly light but still negative emotions begins the process of developing a strong set of coping skills for the teen and adult years.
Validate, Normalize, and Encourage
While even infants have some ability to self-soothe, with the onset of language skills children acquire their most important tool for managing their emotional states: words. So, if children need to be able to use their words to accept and manage their emotional experiences, then we need to teach them a vocabulary that describes feelings. They also need to learn that the emotions they are labeling are normal and manageable life experiences. The method I recommend for this I call VNE, which stands for validate, normalize, and encourage.
When we see our child having a strong negative emotion, the natural response is to ask, “What’s wrong?” We may get a clear reply such as, “I am angry at my friend,” to which we say, “Oh, I understand. Do you want to talk about it?” That response validates the feeling of anger and implies acceptance of the fact that the child feels angry. Many are tempted to say, “Don’t be angry--she’s your friend,” which implies the feeling is somehow inappropriate or unacceptable. But it is just as likely that the response to “What’s wrong?” is, “Nothing,” as children often don’t know how to label their feelings, or aren’t willing to share them. In that situation, I recommend giving the child a label to try on. “Well, I think you might be sad because your sister didn’t want to play with you.” That statement also validates the feeling by giving it a name and, if delivered without condemnation, implies that it is okay to feel that way. That first step validates the feeling.
The second step is to normalize the feeling, which is to deliver the message that such a feeling is a normal, common experience we all frequently have in life. “It’s okay to be nervous. Everyone experiences that at times.” Or, “We all feel sad at times, it’s a common reaction for all of us.”
The third step is to encourage the child, which usually takes the form of suggesting that while a feeling may be unpleasant and fairly common it is still manageable because it doesn’t last forever. “You usually feel better after an hour or two.” Or, “You’ll feel better in the morning. We get over this kind of disappointment pretty quickly.”
Putting it All Together
So, when we put the V, N, and E together, we create messages such as the following:
“You are angry right now. It’s okay to be angry--all of us feel angry at times. But you’ll feel better in a few hours. It takes time to calm down.”
“I know you are disappointed you didn’t make the team. We all experience those disappointments, but as we pursue other goals and other activities we get over those old disappointments. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Yes, you are very sad that Grandpa died. We all are. That’s how we feel when we lose a person we love. But we will get through our grief. It will take a while but we will get through it together. That’s what family does--family helps us through our worst times.”
When Emotions Lead to Misbehaving
The above examples are for situations in which the child is experiencing a strong feeling but is not misbehaving. If the child is misbehaving we can still validate, normalize, and encourage the feeling, but we will need to make the distinction between the feeling that is acceptable and the behavior that is not. We then introduce some alternative behaviors that are acceptable options, and if need be, we conclude with a consequence for continued poor choices. “It’s okay for you to be angry with me. Everyone gets angry with their mother at times. But it is not okay for you to shout at me. If you can talk calmly, we can talk. If you’d rather talk later, then that’s fine too. But if you continue to shout at me there will be a logical consequence.”
Teach Constructive Action
Children are more likely to feel overwhelmed by negative emotional experiences when it engenders a sense of helplessness--we all react that way. Feeling terrible while also feeling powerless to do anything about it encourages the desperation and panic that is the most maladaptive reaction to negative emotional experiences. Therefore, teaching behavioral responses that help in such situations can increase the sense of manageability of the experience. If we have something we can do when we feel bad that might help, then we are not powerless in the situation. We have hope that our plan can help.
A child has hurt someone’s feelings and is experiencing some guilt. We can VNE the feeling. Then we can say, “What do you think you can do about this?” The child may make a great suggestion and we can accept it, or they may not have a good idea so we can provide one. “Yes, you hurt her feelings. It may help you both if you apologize and make amends.” “Do your deep breathing exercises. That often helps you when you are nervous.” “Yes, apologizing to mom may help, but I think cleaning up the mess you made first and then apologizing makes more sense.”
Helping Your Child Navigate Next Steps
Parents can also work as a team, but that doesn’t mean that they have to always mirror the other’s reaction. Often when one parent is angry the other parent feels they should be angry, too. “Present a united front” is the phrase I often hear. But piling on negative emotion doesn’t add much in my estimation. I prefer, when one parent is upset, that the other takes the role of guidance counselor so the child can develop a strong skill set for such situations. “What you said to your father was hurtful. What do you think you can do to make amends?” “You have upset your mother. I think an apology to her is in order--don’t you?”
Equipping Your Child with Good Emotional Management Skills
As we teach skills and strategies for managing negative emotional experiences, the children are naturally focused more on their plan for responding and less upon their helpless victimization. They begin to think about what they can do to help themselves rather than how terrible it is to be them in their situation. Thus, the intensity of the negativity is inevitably mitigated. It’s like firefighters who have a healthy fear of the fire which keeps them safe, while their training and skills allow them to cope constructively with a dangerous situation. They understand the inherent dangers in the situation but the experience is not as intense as it would be for the untrained in such a situation. Likewise, as our children face life’s emotional challenges we want them to be trained and experienced in their management. Our ultimate goal for our children is for them to develop resilience, competence, and confidence--three vital traits for managing the exciting yet challenging world that awaits them.
About the Author
Director of Student Services