We are nearing the end of the school year. Yesterday we celebrated our last birthday of the year. Turning five is a huge milestone in a child’s life. It’s the first big change in their young lives. Turning five means going to kindergarten. Often the children tell me they will be leaving my class and moving up to kindergarten the very next day! They often don’t believe me when I explain the actual way children progress into kindergarten. When this is the case I just let them learn by experience instead of starting an argument. And I generally have a good chuckle to myself. It really is quite endearing.

We celebrate birthdays in a very special way and the children look forward to their day with great anticipation. Our birthday girl was super excited to have her mom come to class for the celebration. Unfortunately, is was very difficult for her when her mother had to leave to go back to work. I fully anticipated this great sorrow and did my best to comfort the sobbing child. 

This experience reminded me that I wanted to share with you what I consider to be a key parenting technique at which I often failed when my children were young. It seems so simple but is often very hard: acknowledging feelings. 

Young children are still learning about their feelings and often feel very strongly about things that we do not think matter very much (like having to wait to play with toy). They also may not understand their emotions (being angry when they are actually jealous, etc.). Often we think that by dismissing our child’s emotion (there’s no reason to fuss, it’s just a little paint on your hands) we are helping them cope. In fact, this often has the opposite effect. Think about how you feel when someone denies your feelings or tries to explain them away.

There’s no reason for you to be angry with your boss for taking away your vacation. After all, you are a new worker. You can go on vacation next year. You’ll be fine.

Of course, we would be furious if someone treated us like this. We don’t want to demean our children or deny their feelings just because we may have different feelings. So what can we do?

These suggestions come from the book How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber & Julie King. If you can only read one parenting book I highly recommend you read this one. Here’s what the authors suggest:

  • Acknowledge feelings with words. Name your child’s emotion and put it in a sentence. ‘Oh my, you are so sad that Sally said she isn’t your best friend today.’ ‘I see you are angry because you want to eat your Halloween candy for breakfast and we are having eggs.’ ‘It looks like you are feeling jealous because your sister got to sleep over at Grandma’s house and you have to stay home because you are sick.’ An important thing to remember when your child is dealing with negative feelings is that we want to help her learn to identify and express these feelings in acceptable ways. We must remember to acknowledge all feelings but to limit unacceptable behaviorsSo we can help our child know ‘I see you are very angry that Bobby took your ball. You may not hit him to get it back (while you are removing your son from Bobby)’ Sometimes the idea that acknowledging your child’s feelings will help her get on with her day seems unbelievable. I have to say, that I’ve seen it work time and time again.
  • Acknowledge feelings with writing. Remember my birthday girl? She sobbed at recess (and I continued to acknowledge her feelings. ‘I can see how much you miss your mom. It makes you sad that she had to go back to work.’) and then through our book during circle time and as she was getting ready for lunch. So I decided to try another tactic – writing. First I want you to understand that this is a child who does not know how to read. It doesn’t matter. What did I do? I grabbed my handy pack of post-it notes. I told her, ‘we are going to write a note.’ She (and several of her friends) were intrigued. As I wrote I told her what I was writing. I really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY MISS MY MOM!!!!! I tore off the note and told her it was just for her. She put it to her chest and went to get in line. I don’t go down to lunch with the students but saw her after lunch when she happily skipped up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Bitts, I put my note in my lunch box!’ We can also use notes in other ways. If you have a child who has a hard time at the store because he wants you to buy him something, start a list. ‘We are at the grocery store for food but I can see you really would like me to buy that toy. Let’s start a list so grandma knows what you want for Christmas. We can keep it on the refrigerator at home.’ 
  • Acknowledge feelings with art. This is similar to putting feelings into writing. You can chose to draw a picture of how your child feels or let your child draw out her feelings. My eldest son is diagnosed with autism. School was often very difficult for him, especially when he was young. When I would notice he was in a bad place after school, we would get out the paper and markers and he would start drawing. He knew how to draw shapes and he gave them faces – happy, sad, angry, etc. After spending time drawing he would again be in a calm mood and we could have a positive evening at home. We didn’t necessarily have to talk about what was upsetting him. He didn’t always know, just that school was hard and gave him a lot of anxiety. Drawing helped him lose the negativity of school and remember that home was a happy, safe place.
  • Give in fantasy what you cannot give in reality. This can be a fun one! I have to admit I don’t always remember to use it though. One day one of my students wanted to play with our Light Brite but another child was busy using it. The child became very angry that he couldn’t play with it right away (this child has a lot of anger issues related to some early trauma). I acknowledged his feelings and then said, ‘Do you know what I wish? I wish I had enough Light Brite’s for the whole class to use at once.’ Well, he got a new look in his eye and ran with it. He responded, ‘I wish we had enough to fill up this whole classroom!’ We continued our wishes back and forth and got quite silly. After our conversation he went about finding something to do instead of flinging himself on the ground or physically acting out.
  • Acknowledge feelings with (almost) silent attention. Sometimes children just want you to listen to them without saying much. Oh? Hmmm. I see. All of these little words let your child know you are listening attentively to her. You aren’t trying to solve her problem or to ask a lot of questions to find out more. You can do that later when she is calm. Just listening is often enough to get a child through the difficult emotion.

The last think I want you to remember is that none of this is a magic pill that will keep your child from negative feelings. We all have negative feelings. What we hope to achieve are young people who understand their feelings and learn productive ways to handle them. As parents it is so horrible to see our children suffering. We all want to make it better. By trying to solve our children’s problems or by denying their negative feelings we are stealing valuable learning from them! When children are able to work through their feelings and ultimately their problems we are providing them with tools that will help them be successful throughout their lives, not just in the moment. 

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