"I love your posts, but my husband is afraid that if we allow our kids to get upset as you suggest, they'll never learn to control their emotions. Don't we need to just say No sometimes?" - Rachel
All of us worry about our kids
learning to control their emotions. After all, it's emotions that so often get us off track and into trouble. And of course we need to just say
No sometimes. Kids can't run into the street, throw their food at each other, or pee on their baby brother. But setting limits on children's behavior
doesn't mean we need to set limits on what they feel.
In fact, you can't actually keep your child from getting upset, whether you "allow" it or not. Telling your child not to cry won't keep him from being
upset; it will just give him the message that there's something scary or shameful about his emotions, so he'd better try to stuff them. Unfortunately,
when humans repress emotion, those emotions are no longer under conscious control. So they pop out un-regulated, when your child lashes out or acts
It's that dysregulation that scares us, when our child seems completely out of control. But kids don't get dysregulated because we "allow" their emotions.
They get dysregulated when they need to express an emotion but feel they "can't." So, instead, they "act (it) out."
So denying emotion or making ourselves wrong for having emotions doesn't help us control them. Here's how a child actually learns to control his emotions:
1. We model healthy emotional self-management by resisting our own little "tantrums" such as yelling. Instead, we take a parent time-out
to calm ourselves down. If our child is too young for us to leave the room, we do as much processing at other times as we can, so we can stay more
calm while we're with our kids. After all, children learn from us. When we yell, they learn to yell. When we speak respectfully, they learn
to speak respectfully. Every time you model in front of your child how to stop yourself from acting when you're angry, your child is learning emotional
regulation. (Most of us are still working on this!)
2. We prioritize a deep nurturing connection. Babies learn to soothe their upsets by being soothed by their parents. But even older
children need to feel connected to us or they can't regulate themselves emotionally. When we notice our child getting dysregulated, the most
important thing we can do is try to reconnect. When kids feel that we're delighted with them, they WANT to cooperate -- so that happy, fun connection
eliminates most "misbehavior."
3. We accept our child's feelings, even when they're inconvenient (as feelings often are). ("Oh, Sweetie, I know that's disappointing....I'm so sorry things didn't work out the way you wanted.)
When empathy becomes our "go to" response, our child learns that emotions may not feel good, but they're not dangerous, so she accepts
and processes them as they come up, instead of stuffing them, where they get uglier. She knows someone understands, which makes her feel just
a bit better, so she's more likely to cooperate. She doesn't have to yell to be heard. And when our support helps her learn that she can live through
bad feelings and the sun comes out the next day, she begins to develop resilience.
4. We guide behavior but resist the urge to punish. Spankings, time outs, consequences, and shaming don't give
kids the help they need with their emotions. In fact, the message kids get is that the emotions that drove them to "misbehave" are bad. So kids try
to repress those emotions, and their emotional backpack gets even more full. That's one of the reasons that punishment actually leads to more misbehavior
-- those feelings keep bubbling up out of the emotional backpack looking for healing, and your child lashes out because the emotions feel so scary.
Instead of punishing, help your child stay on track with positive guidance, help processing emotion, and scaffolding (which just means that we help them to learn the skills until they
can do it themselves.)
5. We help our child feel safe enough to feel his emotions, even while we limit his actions ("You can be as mad as you want, but I won't let you hit.")
Your angry child is not a bad person, but a hurting, very young human. When kids aren't controlling their emotions, it's because they can't, at that
moment. If you can stay compassionate, your child will feel safe enough to surface, feel and express the tears and fears that are driving his anger
and acting out. If you can help him cry, those feelings will evaporate -- and the anger and acting out will vanish, too.
6. We act like the grown-up. When kids worry that we aren't really able to meet their needs, they start working hard to take charge themselves.
That's why they get needy, bossy, and demanding. That's difficult for us to live with. But what's even worse for their development, they stop
coming to us with their tears and fears. They don't trust us with their vulnerability. They have to keep their defenses up. And that means they can't
relax and tackle things that scare them (otherwise known as age-appropriate developmental tasks), like learning to work out conflicts with peers and
taking the risk of trying new things.
Is it important to teach kids words for their emotions? Sure. But don't insist that your child talk about feelings, which takes her out of heart and into
her head and makes it harder to work through the feelings. Instead, focus on simply accepting your child's emotions and offering love, even if you
need to limit your child's actions. That will teach her that:
- Emotions aren't bad, they're just part of the richness of being human.
- We don't usually have a choice about what we feel, but we always have a choice about how we choose to act.
- When you're comfortable with your feelings, you feel them deeply, and then they dissipate. That gives you more control over your behavior.
Kids who are parented this way learn to "control" their emotions because they have a healthy emotional life, not because they've been told not to feel,
or punished or shamed for their feelings.
Sound hard? It is! But if you're still working on "controlling" your own "tantrums," you'll be glad to hear that your kids will almost certainly be
better at managing their emotions than you are. Why? You're doing the hard work now to help them learn how. And the work is on yourself!