Four-year-old Matthew was being led to the time out chair by his teacher. He yelled at her, “I hate you! I hate your guts! I would like to take a scissors and cut you in pieces and flush you down the toilet!” Many adults would be shocked by this verbal outburst of feelings. But actually this was a step forward for Matthew. Six months ago he would have kicked the teacher. Now he is using his words to express his strong feelings.
Common responses from an adult might be…
- “You don’t hate me.”
- “You can’t talk to me that way.”
- “That’s very naughty to talk that way.”
What’s missing from those responses is an acknowledgment that Matthew is stating his true feeling, which is anger. Children need to have their feelings validated. A better response would be, “I know you are angry with me. But I care about you too much to let you hit your friends.”
Acknowledge and Define Feelings
Adults should find ways to accept children’s strong feelings. In some situations, simply acknowledging a child’s feelings is enough, such as saying, “You look scared. Sometimes I’m scared, too.”
If Matthew had been twelve years old, his statement would not have been acceptable. He will still feel angry, but we will expect him to state his feelings in a way that shows understanding of the feelings of others.
Children need to learn the names of feelings, both negative and positive.
- “Your face looks angry.”
- “You look like you are frustrated.”
- “You look like you are proud of that.”
- “That big smile on your face makes me think you are happy.”
Adults should model their own feelings, as well.
- “I really get angry when that happens.”
- “That makes me sad when someone is bitten.”
- “I’m proud of myself.”
Adults can also demonstrate ways to deal with strong feelings.
- “I am so angry, I need to take a few deep breaths.”
- “I am going to go in the other room for five minutes until I can calm down.”
- “I feel so happy, I want to sing!”
Learning Feelings by Experimenting
Children may experiment with ways to get you to react with strong feelings, so they can learn about them. Your child might say, “No! I don’t want a good night kiss!” to see how you will react. They may even ask, “Are you sad or are you nervous?”
Three-year-old Abby and her mom were bringing in groceries on a very cold winter day. Mom said, “Abby, you stand inside and open the door for me when I bring the groceries.” When mom got there, Abby had the storm door locked! First, mom tried to nicely remind her to open the door, but Abby just stood there smiling. Mom resorted to yelling, “Abby, open the door right now!” Finally, Abby opened the door. Then she asked, “Mom, are you mad or are you sad?” She wasn’t being naughty, she was just trying to predict how her behavior affected mom’s feelings!
Adults can also help children by calling attention to the feelings of others. This teaches empathy.
- “Look at your friend’s face. She is really sad because you hit her.”
- “Your brother is smiling. See how happy he is that you shared your toy?”
Safe Ways to Handle Strong Feelings
Sometimes children need help dealing with strong feelings.
- Use Play-Doh or a similar product that can be squeezed and pounded.
- Play with a Sensory Box – A large, plastic box about six inches deep that can be filled with a safe material, such as dry oatmeal. Provide cups or scoops to sift through the oatmeal.
- Play in the water. Let the child stand at the sink and play in warm water. (Supervise children to eliminate risk of burns from hot water.)
We all feel what we feel. Learning to control how we express our feelings takes time. It took lots of practice to go from rolling, to crawling, to standing and walking, and there were some bumps and bruises along the way. Learning about feelings and how to express them appropriately will take plenty of practice, too! Be patient as your child works on this skill.
(Names and scenarios mentioned were created by us for the purpose of this blog.)