Sami Bradley is the mother of five kids. She’s also an early childhood professional dedicated her work to supporting the social-emotional well-being of children.
As our Assistant Vice President of Early Childhood Mental Health, we’re excited to host Sami as our resident expert, who will share her personal experience and professional tips to assist parents in their management of children’s emotions.
Validation Is Key: Sami’s Story of Success
When children are born, they naturally feel and express hundreds of emotions. Over time, some are taught that some emotions are okay to feel and express while others are not. For example, many children are taught that they shouldn’t cry; crying is a sign of weakness. This way of thinking has the potential to harm our children. Emotions are neither good or bad, they just are.
When children are not given the opportunity to experience their emotions, they are deprived of the opportunity to learn healthy ways to express and manage the feelings they have.
“Feeling heard and understood allows children to release the feelings, let go and move on.”
– Janet Lansbury, bestselling author of Elevating Childcare and Parent Educational Expert
I remember when I would drop off my first child at childcare, she would be crying and hanging on my leg when I went to leave. I would tell her, “Don’t be sad, you love it here. Don’t cry, I’ll be right back.”
I had the best of intentions, and while it may not seem like I was discounting her emotions, I really was. She WAS sad that I was leaving her, and the truth was I was sad, too. I was trying to talk her out of being sad, because it made me uncomfortable. When I had my next children, my language had shifted.
“I know you’re sad mommy is leaving, I will miss you, too. I will pick you up when I get done with work.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but drop-offs were so much easier after a few days of using a phrase like that! It is normal for our children to be sad, upset, angry, worried, or disappointed when we leave, acknowledging the feeling takes away some of the power it has!
When you are upset about something, and somebody tells you, “Don’t be mad” or “Don’t be upset, it could have been worse.” Does that make you feel better? Does it help you get over it faster? Not usually.
There is a misconception that acknowledging the feelings will actually intensify the emotions.
Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuroscience expert, explains, “Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.” (Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation)
3 Ways Parents Can Help Children with Feelings
As caregivers we have a unique opportunity to model a healthy relationship with emotions for our children. Here are three ways Siegel tells us parents can help:
1. Be mindful of your own emotions. Notice what emotions in you arise when you’re in the presence of your child’s emotions. Sometimes emotions felt and expressed by your child can cause you to want to avoid or shut down your child’s feelings. But, the reality is all emotions are safe. It is how we respond to the emotions that matters.
2. Acknowledge, reflect, and validate. When children are experiencing difficult emotions, instead of trying to talk your child out of feeling those feelings, try validating the feeling. Instead of saying, “Don’t be angry, she didn’t mean to break your toy,” try, “I know you’re upset that your toy got broke, it meant a lot to you.” Telling a child not to feel something doesn’t make the emotion go away. By acknowledging the feeling with empathy, you actually reduce the charge of the emotion.
3. Set a healthy example. Name your own emotions aloud allowing your child to witness how you manage your feelings. For example, you might say “I am feeling really frustrated right now, I’m going to go for a quick walk to help myself feel calmer.” This will help your child develop their own emotional literacy and you are modeling for them effective coping strategies.
It’s important for parents to realize that they can shape a child’s behavior in a positive and healthy direction while still acknowledging and validating the child’s feelings. Dr. Daniel Siegel in his book, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind writes, “Say yes to the feelings, even as you say no to the behavior.”