Acknowledge your child's emotions. (Source: Getty Images)
Recently, my nine-year-old son was upset as he had dropped paint all over an artwork that he had been working on in his art class for three weeks. My heart broke as I knew how much effort he had put into it. Immediately, I told him it doesn't matter. These things happen all the time. Next time, be careful with the paint. How much of the painting was ruined? Could we salvage it? What did his art teacher say?
What I didn't do, was pause to acknowledge his emotions. In my well-meaning efforts to make him feel better by moving into 'fix-it' mode, I hadn't made space for him to express himself. I looked at his face and realised that what he needed was not advice or sympathy. He just needed a safe space to express how he felt. I stopped and gave him a hug. I asked him if he was very upset about his painting being ruined. He nodded his head. I leaned in and held him closer. We sat like that in silence for a few minutes. Eventually, he got up, said "Thanks mama, I'm better now." And ran off to play with his brother.
As adults, we instinctively react to a situation. We tend to either distract, dismiss or downplay their emotions. "Don't cry." " Stop crying. I'll get you an ice cream after lunch." "Why are you crying over such a small thing? These are not important things." As a result of our vast life experience, we know that this too shall pass. He will not be angry about this tomorrow. These are small incidents in the larger scheme of things. If I distract him now, he'll have forgotten about this in 10 minutes. But, we forget to acknowledge the emotion they are experiencing. If we stop to acknowledge their emotions, we validate how they feel. We show them that we understand what they are going through. It doesn't matter whether what they are angry, upset or sad about is irrelevant or irrational, we need to show them that their feelings are legitimate and valid.
With young children, acknowledging their emotions can help avert temper tantrums. "I understand that you're angry with me for not allowing you to eat that yummy snack before dinner. But, I'm concerned that it will fill up your stomach and you won't have space to eat your dinner." "You loved playing in B's house with all his toys. And you're upset that we have to leave. I understand that it's frustrating for you. Maybe we can make a plan for another day when we have a bit more time to play." If we show that we understand what they're feeling and empathise with their emotions, they feel accepted.
Acknowledging their emotions doesn't mean condoning behaviour or agreeing with everything they do. Accepting that they are angry doesn't legitimise throwing a wooden block at their brother. "I understand that you are angry with your brother. But, it isn't okay to throw a wooden block at him. He could have been badly hurt." Teach them that it's okay to be angry. It's an acceptable emotion. It's how you display that anger that needs to be worked on.
Make space for their emotions without passing judgment. "Don't be scared. You're a big boy now. Only small babies feel scared." Instead, say "I understand that you're scared." Accept their emotion, without passing any judgment or need to fix it. Ask them what they think would make them feel better or less scared. Sometimes, you'll find that they have the answers to their own problems if we only give them the space to find them.
Instead of immediately praising or criticising their work, pause to acknowledge their efforts and how they feel about it. "I can see how hard you've been working on this project." "I understand how frustrating it can be when things take too long to get done." Acknowledging their efforts encourages them to be self motivated and not rely on external praise. It reduces the pressure that they might put on themselves to avoid disappointing or letting us down.
By talking about feelings, we are also helping build their emotional vocabulary. They learn to pause and correctly identify what they are feeling. It develops their emotional intelligence. "Are you upset that you missed the field trip because you weren't well enough to go to school?" Talk about your emotions too. It allows them to understand and empathise with another's point of view. " I know you want to play right now, but I'm feeling tired and need to rest for a bit."
So, the next time you are tempted to rush in to fix a problem that your child is having or make him feel better, pause for a moment. Ask yourself if you have given him the space to express how he feels. Have you acknowledged his emotions without judgment? By creating a safe space for your child to express his emotions, you are teaching him to introspect, identify and communicate his emotions in a healthy manner. An essential life skill that will enable him to navigate all situations and circumstances in life.