Acknowledging Emotions

There are many ways to encourage positive psychological development in the children we care for. Often, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to figure out how to best deal with a situation. When a child is having an emotional outburst, does it seem to work to ignore them, reason with them, dismiss their actions? What might best support the child in the long term and give them the tools to overcome their problems in the future?

Children may get emotional if they feel powerless, criticized, frustrated, sad, sensitive, unable to express themselves, or tired and hungry. Should we allow the child to lash out with these feelings? Dr. Gabor Mate writes in his book When the Body Says No, that unexpressed emotions can lead to physical illness later in life. But we don’t want to teach children that it’s okay to hit or yell mean words. How can we create a safe space for children and caregivers to express themselves and get what they need? I like to try to give a child some communication vocabulary, some tools for expression, and an emotional outlet.

When a toddler flops down on the floor, fists banging, screaming because they didn’t get what they wanted at first, it is tempting to roll our eyes, repeat what we said that triggered the child in the first place, and wait for him/her to calm down. Sometimes interrupting this with a joke or a cool distraction works to bring the child out of it. But what more can we do to support his/her emotional intelligence? There are some simple yet powerful steps we can take with the focus on observations, feelings, needs and requests. We can adapt Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication with easy to understand language for younger children.

  • At the start of a tantrum, we can actively listen to all the things that might be going on for the child while we breathe and maintain our centre. By not engaging in the opposite end of the power struggle, we can dissolve the negative spiral that the ego wants to get wrapped up in. As we keep our calm, we can first observe the situation, then help the child to identify with his/her emotion: “I can see that you are very angry and frustrated.”
  • At that point, if the child is not yet able to respond, I like to help him/her articulate the reason for their emotional outburst: “Are you angry because I told you that you mustn’t hit the dog (or your sibling)?” Often, this is enough for the child to stop screaming and say, “Yes!” as they begin calming down, comforted by the fact that someone is really hearing them. Their feeling of powerlessness is reduced because they feel understood when we listen with empathy. A person of any age can benefit from feeling heard so they are then able to transform their frustrations and behaviour. Some calm repetition can help reinforce that you are listening: “I hear that you are angry because I told you to not hit the dog,” or, “It sounds like you are scared of punishment because I saw you hit the dog.”
  • After having feelings recognized, we can go further into expressing what the child really needs, or what the trigger is. “What do you need right now? Are you feeling angry because you need some play time and space away from the dog? What else do you need (attention, snack break, run around outside)?” While getting that need met, we can begin to discuss the range of consequences: “Why should we never hit the dog? The dog could get hurt, and might have to go to the vet, the animal hospital, and that’s sad for everybody. Also, the dog might think that you’re something to fight with, and he might fight back, which is very dangerous for you.”
  • Once we have identified the feelings and needs, and the child has calmed down, we can finally move on to the request, something helpful without being demanding: “Would you be willing to find a way to be angry that doesn’t hurt anything or anyone? What do you think you could do when you’re angry?” The child may surprise you by being able to solve the problem themselves. If not, we can make further suggestions. “Would you like to hit your pillow, so you or anybody else doesn’t get hurt, or hit the air, or go into your room and scream? Your room is a safe place where you can do that. Would you be willing to take a break from the dog/toy/sibling when you hit? Do you know what I do when I am angry? I take a deep breath, try it now, and I think of breathing out all the anger, and breathing in all the good air that makes me feel relaxed. As many times as I want to.” This way, the child sees that it is okay to vent emotion, there is a safe place to do it, and if that isn’t enough, something as simple as breathing is a tool that can help to calm down, without suppressing anything.

As time goes on, we may be able to explore why the child is frustrated with the dog/sibling enough to hit (wants attention, wants to explore what hurts others, feels threatened, is afraid, wants revenge, needs physical outlet, etc).

I like to take any opportunity to listen to feelings. Toddlers, while still learning language and emotions, often need further educated guesses. It may help to give choices: “Do you say you don’t like me because I take you to school or is there any other reason?” “Just ’cause you take me to school.” “Okay, thank you for telling me. I hear that you don’t like it when I take you to school. Now why don’t you like going to school?” I hope that listening without judging and without defensiveness will help the child communicate and overcome resistance.

As a parent or nanny, your job can be emotional and you need to be heard, too. You may want to bring things up with the child at times: “When you say, ‘I hate you,’ I feel hurt/confused, and I feel sad for you because you are angry. I love you and I want to be clear about what is happening. Would you be willing to share your feelings, like saying, ‘I’m angry,’ and tell me what you don’t like?” It can be hard for a child to articulate their own feelings beyond love and hate, which is where we can help without judgement.

Compassionate communication can really slow things down in a good way, so rather than overreacting, the goal is to get everyone’s needs met. It is refreshing to see that often just being heard fulfills a need and can calm a child, and can give everyone a healthy respect for others and for feelings.

– Tara Beninger lives in Victoria and enjoys anything to do with children and nature, especially outdoor education, as well as any opportunity to travel.

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