We have a joke in our family. Whenever one of us is in the middle of a crisis, our standard line is: “Uh, oh. I’m getting a feeling. Where are the brownies?”
It’s pretty common for people to be afraid of-or at least uncomfortable with-feelings in general. We often have difficulty understanding, dealing with, or even feeling our own feelings. So it’s natural that many of us have learned to be uncomfortable with other people’s feelings as well. This is especially true when we’re confronted with a child’s feelings.
Much of this goes back to when we were children. If, when we were growing up, our feelings were dismissed, attacked, denied, or simply misunderstood, we may have trouble responding positively and supportively to children’s feelings. Perhaps things are fine when the children are happy, joyous, and free, (although even those feelings can be unsettling for some adults). But what about those times when they’re angry, sad, and afraid?
For the purpose of this article, feelings may be expressed directly as feelings (“I’m happy today.”), as preferences, desires, or opinions (“I hate lima beans!” “I wish I could have a new car!”), as resentments (“How come she gets all the breaks?”), or as personal realities (“I’m so bored!” “I’m scared of clowns”).
When children-or other adults, for that matter-share their feelings with us, are we able to respond supportively? Or do we fall back on more familiar, counter-productive responses?
If the adults in our early lives were afraid of our feelings, they probably modeled behaviors that tried to get us out of our feelings, fix the problem or situation that was causing the feelings, or even make us wrong for having the feelings in the first place. These behaviors were probably well intended. I’ve often heard adults say that they unknowingly practice potentially destructive responses simply to make the child feel better.
More supportive alternatives recognize the following:
It’s OK for children to have feelings without explaining or defending them.
Feelings are not behaviors. Feelings are never right or wrong, but behaviors that hurt other people are not OK. Adults do not need to protect other people from a child’s feelings, but they may need to intervene in hurtful behaviors.
Adults and children are distinct, separate individuals. It is not necessary to own someone’s feelings or problems to show that person love.
Adults are not responsible for changing or controlling the child’s feelings. It’s more loving and supportive to communicate that a child’s feelings are heard, respected, and taken seriously than it is to “fix” the situation, rescue the child from the feelings, or try to make the feelings go away.
Children learn to deal with feelings more effectively when they don’t have to “stuff” or hide them to protect a guilt-ridden or over-reacting adult.
Responses that interfere with children’s ability to own, feel, or process their feelings can block communications and erode trust in relationships, teach children to mistrust their own feelings and perceptions, and interfere with the development of problem-solving capabilities.
Let’s look at some of the patterns we’ve learned. At first glance, they may seem innocent enough. However there’s nearly always a response that’s more supportive.
MAKE THE FEELINGS GO AWAY
The first set of responses are those that try to get the child out of his feelings or make the feelings go away. These responses may be very familiar to adults who try to protect children from their feelings or to adults who are uncomfortable with their children’s feelings. These responses communicate a lack of respect for what the children are experiencing and puts children in the position of having to defend their feelings. They reinforce self-doubt and a sense of “wrongness” about having the feelings, compounding the initial problem that never gets dealt with when we try to make the feelings go away.
Dismissing/Minimizing. This type of response might sound like “That’s nothing to be upset over,” “That doesn’t mean anything,” or “So she called you a camel. Big deal!” We may also dismiss a child’s feelings by making excuses for the other person’s behavior: “He didn’t know what he was saying,” “She must be having a bad day,” or “Well, you know; her parents are going through a divorce.”
Let’s face it. Some of our kids’ traumas may seem pretty frivolous at times, especially if we’re having a tough day or are in the middle of a trauma of our own. Children lack the perspective that allows us to see how silly this will all seem a year from now. However, whatever they’re feeling is very real to them.
And when children have been hurt or abused, and we make excuses for the people who hurt them, we convey a dangerous message that it’s OK for them to be violated.
Denying. I’ve asked dozens of groups of adults what the typical response might be to a child who says, “I hate my sister.” Without exception-and in unison-they reply, “No you don’t.” Likewise, it’s tempting to deny a child’s fear of monsters by telling him that they simply don’t exist.
We deny children’s feelings when we are afraid of the feelings or when the feelings challenge our reality (there’s no such thing as monsters) or value system (people shouldn’t hate their sisters). Responses that deny the validity or reality of a child’s feelings-for whatever reasons-are crazy-making.
Distracting. We distract children from their feelings by focusing on something else: “But you’re so good in your other subjects.” “Things could be worse.” “You’re lucky you have a brother.” “You think you’ve got problems?” “But his parents are so nice.”
This is the technique we rely on when we’re too impatient with-or surprised by-children’s feelings, when we can’t relate to what they’re feeling and experiencing, or when we’re too wrapped up in our own issues and feelings to be supportive. Distracting is also crazy-making (as are most of these techniques) and extremely confusing to the child.
Medicating. Adults, who would never think of pouring their kids a shot of whiskey to help ease the pain of not having a date for the prom, often think nothing of going out for ice cream to accomplish the same thing. Medicating responses use some type of substance (usually food) or activity (schoolwork, TV, chores, shopping) to distract children from their feelings.
When we attempt to medicate kids, we communicate that it’s not only not OK to have the feelings, but also that when feelings come up, the natural and correct response is to take something or do something to make the feelings go away. No one would deliberately create this set-up for addiction. Yet this response may be fairly automatic, particularly for those of us who have a history of deliberately responding to our own feelings in just this way.
MAKE THE CHILD WRONG
The next set of responses are those that somehow make the child wrong for having the feeling. These responses are often expressed in anger, impatience, and frustration, and often occur when a child expresses feelings that somehow trigger a sense of shame, anger, inadequacy, or frustration in us: “If I were doing a better job as a parent (or teacher), my kid wouldn’t feel this way.”
Attacking/Shaming. Does it make you crazy when kids experience certain feeling that could have been prevented if only they’d listened? Have you ever been tempted to respond with something like, “I told you this would happen!” or “Well, what did you expect!”?
Any time you respond to a child’s communication with judgment and criticism, you’re shaming and attacking. It may sound like, “Don’t be a sissy!” “You’re so ungrateful!” “Nice boys don’t hate their sisters!” or “You’re just too sensitive!”
Shaming or attacking responses may occur when a child has expressed feelings like fear, anger, sadness, or neediness, but may also occur when a child is feeling joyful, smug, or confident: “You think you know everything!” “Wipe that smile off your face!”
Even non-verbal shows of impatience, frustration, disappointment, or anger are attacking. These responses make a child wrong for having the feelings. They reinforce inadequacy, can provoke defensiveness, demolish self-esteem, and are a sure-fire way to shut-down communications.
Blaming. A close relative to shaming and attacking, these responses suggest that the child deserves the discomfort he’s feeling. This response might sound like: “What did you do to her?” “Well, if you had just studied!” “Of course it died! You never change the water in the fishbowl!” “That’s what happens when you overeat.” “You never listen.”
I realize that these hurtful kinds of responses can easily pop out of our mouths when we see a child in pain that probably could have been avoided. Yet blaming, like so many other non-supportive responses, simply compounds the problem. (The time for instruction and guidance is not when the child is hurting, but in some neutral, non-conflict time.)
Challenging. Asking children why they’re feeling a certain way is also asking them to defend their feelings and their rights to have their feelings. We may challenge children because we want more information; however there are more effective ways of inviting further communication. (See guidelines that follow.)
Challenging children communicates that it’s only OK to have the feelings as long as they can make the problem big enough or bad enough. It also communicates that your acceptance of them-and their feelings-is conditional, based on their ability to convince you in some way that their feelings are, indeed, acceptable.
Enmeshing. This is a strange type of attacking response that somehow focuses the feelings or the problem back on the adult’s experience. It may sound like, “Well I never had a problem with Math” (which has nothing to do with the child’s reality) or “So now you know how I feel” (which uses the child’s experience to somehow vindicate the adult).
This response may be especially tempting if you are a parent. Your child’s feelings may be hard to understand because of differences in your preferences, abilities, and experiences and they will certainly bring up your own issues at times. (I once had a mother tell me that she responded to her daughter’s complaints of a headache by taking two aspirin herself!) Yet responses that confuse your feelings and experiences with those of your child are extremely confusing and can be downright mean-spirited. The better able you are to see your child as separate, the more supportive and understanding you’ll be able to be.
MAKE IT BETTER
The last set of responses are those that attempt to fix it or make it better. These are the responses you’ll pull out when you want to comfort a child or change the situation that’s creating the feelings. These are the responses that are triggered by the little voice in our heads that frantically yells, “DO SOMETHING!” whenever we see someone in some type of emotional distress, that hears an expression of feelings as a call to rescue or help. These responses invariably interfere with the child’s ability to process feelings and solve problems because it takes the responsibility for both out of his hands.
Advising. Many adults see their role in their relationships with children as one of advising. After all, we have experience, knowledge, and perspective that puts us in a position of advising. But is that the response that called for? There’s a difference between “Daddy, can you show me how to tie my shoes?” and “I’m scared about that Biology test tomorrow!”
When you sit down to teach the child how to tie her shoes, you’re responding to a request for instruction and information. When you respond to the child’s test anxiety with advice to “Just get upstairs and study!” you not only are disregarding her feelings, but you’re also communicating an assumption that she’s too stupid to figure out what to do.
If the child is upset that he can’t get a date for the prom, can you hear his disappointment, anger, frustration, or sadness without telling him to get his hair cut, lose five pounds, or try calling his cousin Lucy again?
Rescuing. Rescuing involves solving children’s problems for them in order to relieve them of their feelings: “How ’bout if I call my friends and see if any of their daughters are free on prom night?” “That’s OK, son. I’ll pay the increase in those insurance premiums.” “Here. Let me see those math problems.”
Rescuing communicates that somehow the child’s feelings and problems are also your feelings and problems and, like advising, suggests that the child is incapable of dealing with either of these on her own.
Commiserating. Saying something like “Ain’t it awful,” “He’s a jerk,” or “Well, you don’t need her anyway” may sound supportive, but commiserating tends to reinforce victim behavior and self-righteousness. In certain cases it may even backfire by inviting the child to defend the “jerk’s” behavior. Commiserating takes responsibility away from the child because it suggests that the feelings and problems are someone else’s fault.
BEING A SUPPORTIVE LISTENER
Is it possible that everything we’ve learned is harmful? Considering the fact that few of us have had healthy models of supportiveness in our lives, this doesn’t seem all that surprising. In fact, people are often dismayed-and even feel abandoned-when someone they share feelings with doesn’t react with the above responses. So then, what are more supportive alternatives?
For one thing, being supportive means allowing the other person to have his feelings.
It means listening.
It means resisting the temptation to “fix” the person, the feelings, or the problem. It means accepting him unconditionally even if we’re uncomfortable with the feelings, even if we don’t understand his feelings, or even if we’d react to the same situation with entirely different feelings.
While these old patterns may be difficult to break, adopting more supportive response habits can benefit everyone involved. For example, supportiveness builds trust in one’s feelings and confidence in one’s problem solving capabilities. It keeps open channels of communication and enhances relationships. Supportiveness allows us to avoid responses that can confuse children or teach them to suppress their feelings. It encourages children to feel-and deal with-their feelings, and helps them learn how to express feelings without hurting other people.
Here are some guidelines for supporting your children-or anyone for that matter-when they’re in the middle of their feelings:
Get clear on your role. Be prepared to listen, accept, affirm, validate, and reflect. These supportive behaviors will help you avoid the temptation to judge, own, dismiss, or “fix” their feelings or the urge to tell them what to do.
Open the door. An invitation to share one’s feelings suggests that you’re available and open to listening. It might sound like: “Do you want to talk?” “Is everything OK?” If the answer is no, allow them to work things out in private, and come back later: “I’m here if you want to talk about it.” or “Let me know if you change your mind?”
Validate and accept. Children may not be looking for answers nearly as much as they’re seeking acknowledgment and understanding. Let them know you hear them and respect what they’re saying. “I see,” “I understand,” and “I know what you mean” are appropriate and valuable responses that invite children to elaborate if they feel the need. Likewise, “Tell me more,” “Sounds like you’re having a hard time with this” or “How do you feel about that?” demonstrate your interest and the fact that you take them seriously.
Even if children say something hurtful to you, you can still validate and accept their feelings without getting hooked by what they say. It may be hard to not take “I hate you” rather personally, but the fewer buttons such a statement pushes for you, the less likely the child will be to attempt to continue to use it to hurt or manipulate you. You can acknowledge the child’s feelings without shaming, getting defensive, or hurting back (“You’re really angry with me right now.”), to help him feel and work through his anger. If you find yourself getting a little hot under the collar, express and disengage (“I don’t like hearing that. Let’s talk about this a little later.”), and give the child-and yourself-some emotional space.
Encourage them to find solutions where necessary. Sometimes, all your children need will be the reassurance that their feelings are OK to have. There will be times, however, that their feelings suggest problems that require action. Resist the temptation to advise them. Instead, guide them to look at their options and decide what they need to do: “What do you want to happen?” “What do you wish you could do?” “What do you need right now?” “What do you plan to do about that?” “What options do you have?” “What can you do about that?” “What do you think will happen if you do that?” “How do you think you’ll feel after that?”
Distinguish between feelings and behaviors. Even if we grew up in with supportive adults, we may still get a little nervous with feelings because we often confuse feelings with actions. For example, “I hate Alice” is a feeling, and since feelings are never right or wrong, it’s also exempt from judgment. On the other hand, punching Alice in the nose, or even telling Alice that you hate her, is an action-an attack that violates Alice’s rights and self-esteem. We not only need to teach children how to distinguish between feelings (which are OK) and actions (which sometimes are not), we also need to help them learn how to express feelings without violating anyone else.
If the child becomes hurtful or abusive, suggest that you continue the discussion when he can do so without attacking, and then walk away. Leave the door open for him to come back and attack the problem-without attacking you!
Maintain your boundaries. It’s OK to ask “How can I help you?” or “What would you like from me?” as long as you stay clear on your role. Be assured that children may, especially at first, see these questions as invitations to ask you to call the school to get them out of the test, write their thank you notes for them, or move to a new house that doesn’t have monsters in the closet. Invite their suggestions even if you frequently need to respond with “No, that wouldn’t work for me,” “I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that,” or “It isn’t my place to do that.” Encourage them to make other suggestions that you can, in-deed, live with-perhaps, for example, check their answers on study papers provide them with stationery or loan them your pen, or put a chair in front of the closet door.
Model and teach conflict management. If you can model ways of depersonalizing conflicts (“You can turn on the TV when you two agree on a channel” rather than “It makes me so sad to hear you two fight all the time”) and attacking problems instead of people (“This room is a mess” rather than “You’re such a slob”), you can help your children learn those skills. Likewise, taking responsibility for your feelings (“I’m really angry!” rather than “You make me so mad!”) and expressing your feelings honestly (“I’m a little upset right now and I’m not ready to talk about it” rather than “I’m FINE!”) can help your children do the same.
Talk to your children, preferably in a non-conflict time, about ways in which they can express feelings-especially anger-without violating or hurting anyone else. For example, it’s always less hurtful to say “I hate it when…” than “I hate you.”
Ask them to suggest things they can do when they’re feeling angry that don’t hurt other people and make clear that there are options that you support (such as punching pillows, yelling and throwing a tantrum on the bed, writing a letter to the person they’re angry with and then tearing it into 100 pieces, drawing a picture of how they’re feeling or what they wish they could do, throwing pebbles into a pond or at a tree in a field, or journaling). When your children know that it’s OK to feel and express anger-or any feeling-in non-hurtful ways, they may not have to violate anyone, including themselves, whenever angry feelings come up.
When the dust settles, you can also ask your child some problem-solving questions, such as “How did that situation work out?” “How do you feel about what happened?” “How do you think you’ll handle this next time?” (Or “What will you do differently the next time it happens?”) Or “What can you do to avoid this problem in the future?”
Remember that we all have feelings. Children need a safe, supportive emotional environment in order to learn to feel and express their feelings in healthy ways. Hopefully, increasing numbers of adults are learning to live with, appreciate, and even enjoy their feelings. As we adopt behaviors that support the children in our lives, we teach them to reach for understanding and validation-instead of the brownies.
A dynamic and entertaining speaker, Dr. Bluestein has worked with thousands of educators, counselors, administrators, health-care providers, criminal justice personnel and parents. Her down-to earth speaking style, practicality, sense of humor, and numerous examples make her ideas clear and accessible to her audiences.