Read an Excerpt
Helping Children Deal with Their Feelings
I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.
Living with real children can be humbling. Every morning I would tell myself, "Today is going to be different," and every morning was a variation of the one before. "You gave her more than me!" . . . "That's the pink cup. I want the blue cup." . . . "This oatmeal looks like 'throw-up.'" . . . "He punched me." . . . "I never touched him!" "I won't go to my room. You're not the boss over me!"
They finally wore me down. And though it was the last thing I ever dreamed I'd be doing, I joined a parent group. The group met at a local child guidance center and was led by a young psychologist, Dr. Haim Ginott.
The meeting was intriguing. The subject was "children's feelings," and the two hours sped by. I came home with a head spinning with new thoughts and a notebook full of undigested ideas:
Direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.
When kids feel right, they'll behave right.
How do we help them to feel right?
By accepting their feelings!
ProblemParents don't usually accept their children's feelings; for example: "You don't really feel that way." "You're just saying that because you're tired." "There's no reason to be so upset."
Steady denial of feelings can confuse and enrage kids. Also teaches them not to know what their feelings arenot to trust them.
After the session Iremember thinking, "Maybe other parents do that. I don't." Then I started listening to myself. Here are some sample conversations from my homejust from a single day.
CHILD: Mommy, I'm tired.
ME: You couldn't be tired. You just napped.
CHILD: (louder) But I'm tired.
ME: You're not tired. You're just a little sleepy. Let's get dressed.
CHILD: (wailing) No, I'm tired!
CHILD: Mommy, it's hot in here.
ME: It's cold. Keep your sweater on.
CHILD: No, I'm hot.
ME: I said, "Keep your sweater on!"
CHILD: No, I'm hot.
CHILD: That TV show was boring.
ME: No it wasn't. It was very interesting.
CHILD: It was stupid.
ME: It was educational.
CHILD: It stunk.
ME: Don't talk that way!
Can you see what was happening? Not only were all our conversations turning into arguments, I was also telling my children over and over again not to trust their own perceptions, but to rely upon mine instead.
Once I was aware of what I was doing. I was determined to change. But I wasn't sure of how to go about it. What finally helped me most was actually putting myself in my children's shoes. I asked myself, "Suppose I were a child who was tired, or hot or bored? And suppose I wanted that all-important grown-up in my life to know what I was feeling . . . ?"
Over the next weeks I tried to tune in to what I felt my children might be experiencing; and when I did, my words seemed to follow naturally. I wasn't just using a technique. I really meant it when I said, "So you're still feeling tiredeven though you just napped." Or "I'm cold, but for you it's hot in here." Or "I can see you didn't care much for that show." After all we were two separate people, capable of having two different sets of feelings. Neither of us was right or wrong. We each felt what we felt.
For a while my new skill was a big help. There was a noticeable reduction in the number of arguments between the children and me. Then one day my daughter announced, "I hate Grandma," and it was my mother she was talking about. I never hesitated for a second. "That is a terrible thing to say," I snapped. "You know you don't mean it. I don't ever want to hear that coming out of your mouth again."
That little exchange taught me something else about myself. I could be very accepting about most of the feelings the children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I'd instantly revert to my old way.
I've since learned that my reaction was not that unusual. On the following page you'll find examples of other statements children make that often lead to an automatic denial from their parents. Please read each statement and jot down what you think a parent might say if he were denying his child's feelings.
Did you find yourself writing things like:
"That's not so. I know in your heart you really love the baby."
"What are you talking about? You had a wonderful partyice cream, birthday cake, balloons. Well, that's the last party you'll ever have!"
"Your bite-plate can't hurt that much. After all the money we've invested in your mouth, you'll wear that thing whether you like it or not!"
"You have no right to be mad at the teacher. It's your fault. You should have been on time."
Somehow this kind of talk comes easily to many of us. But how do children feel when they hear it? In order to get a sense of what it's like to have one's feelings disregarded, try the following exercise:
Imagine that you're at work. Your employer asks you to do an extra job for him. He wants it ready by the end of the day.
You mean to take care of it immediately, but because of a series of emergencies that come up, you completely forget. Things are so hectic, you barely have time for your own lunch.