By Susan Gestal, LPC
Most of us are comfortable with our child expressing “positive” feelings such as happy, excited or thankful, but how do you feel when your child is expressing anger, fear or sadness? Ask yourself… in our home are some feelings more acceptable than others? Do you or someone you know give out a clear message that some feelings are NOT acceptable? Most everyone is more comfortable with “positive” feelings, than “negative” feelings. The truth is we all experience a range of emotions from ecstatic to rage. Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are, and they indicate what is going on inside of us. I equate feelings with the warning signals on my car dashboard; they alert me to what is going on inside ‘my motor.’ I can ignore the warning signal but that doesn’t mean a problem isn’t there.
As I write this I am reminded of sending our oldest off to college. Often when I told friends how sad I was they would try to talk me out of my sadness, or convince me it was a good that my child was independent and off at college, and more stuff like this. All of this was true, but what I really wanted was someone to hear me and say, “This is really hard for you, you miss your child.” Then I would have felt heard and understood.
I have grown to understand that our children appreciate being heard and validated as well.
Your child will be healthier emotionally, relationally and physically if they are able to express all of their feelings in appropriate ways and have their feelings validated. Feelings not expressed will show up in some other way in their life: perhaps through a burst of anger, temper tantrum, depression, stomachache or social withdrawal.
As a parent it is helpful when you try to understand your child’s feelings, name the feeling and validate them (just acknowledge that they exist). If your child says, “I hate my brother” instead of scolding them for mean talk, or trying to talk your child out of their feeling or denying their feeling try responding like this, “wow- you seem really angry that your brother smashed your Lego creation.”
Or if your child is afraid of going to bed at night, try “I know you’re scared, I was scared when I was your age. I’ll come and read you a story and sit with you for a few minutes.” (You acknowledge that your child’s fear is real- you let them know you used to have a similar fear and survived- we all had/have fears). If faith is an important part of your family’s life this is a great time to pray with your child as well.
When your child is crying because her pet goldfish died, it is easy to respond, Honey it’s just a goldfish and we can get you a new one.” A more validating approach would be something like this, “You seem sad, you really liked your goldfish- you will miss it!”
Remember that feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. We all experience a range of feelings. You and your child will be healthier when you are able to express your feelings in a safe place and have them validated. With some practice it will become a natural part of your communication