How To Deal With Your Child’s Sadness, Anger, And Other Tough Feelings
There are lots of things I never knew about being a parent.
How much I’d struggle to get my kid to sleep, and then stay asleep, at least, without me physically holding them or being within two inches of them. How their eating could take up so much of my daily bandwidth. Seriously, who hates watermelon?
And how hard it is to see them ill, even if it’s just the sniffles from a cold. A sick child is my kryptonite. I think that’s pretty much universal for all parents.
But their feelings, well, I think that’s been the hardest of all.
At some point in their little life, you realize that you’re not parenting robots. It comes earlier for some parents than others, like when you figure out that you just can’t grab an operations manual to figure out why your 3-month old refuses to nap. Or screams through a mommy and me music class looking like they are being held against their will.
They’re humans, not droids, which is ultimately awesome, but terribly challenging when you too are human with your own set of emotions, many of which are directly tied to how your own offsprings’ emotions and yeah, that’s just a whole lot of feelings.
If you’ve lived for any time on this earth, no matter what your experience was with your own parents, you know that feelings are hard, especially the negative ones, like sadness, anger and fear. And if you never learned how to deal with those feelings yourself, well, experiencing them second hand when your kids inevitably have them just makes things extremely complicated.
I was taught to avoid most of the negative feelings because if I had them — the sadness, the anger, the fear — I was punished or yelled at. Nothing really good ever came of them, and so I just avoided them all together, never learned how to properly manage them.
I coped by not allowing myself to experience them. That meant ensuring I was never in a situation where that happened. And if I was, well, I’d just ignore them, or remove myself from them. Not surprisingly, I could fly off the handle in a pretty massive and destructive way.
And when it came to happy feelings, I was scared to let myself have them for fear that they would somehow be ruined.
So now we all have kids and we’re not just still learning to navigate our own feelings (not just me, right?) but we’re learning to navigate our kids’ feelings too, and if having our own level of anger, fear, and sadness is tough, the experience of watching our kids go through it is probably that much harder.
It’s no wonder my own parents and so many of our parents didn’t help us deal with our own. Watching your child feel sadness about losing a game, or allowing them to be angry at you for throwing away their favorite macaroni necklace creation is not easy.
And so we brush it aside and we tell them “Cheer up!” and we punish them for being pissed off because it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes even painful. Especially when they’re angry at you.
But I’m telling you right now that you’re doing your child a great disservice by not allowing them to have those feelings. By not giving them the safe place, a veritable container in which to just have them, you’re telling them that those feelings are not okay.
And you’re not giving them any help in knowing what the heck to do with them because those feelings will happen. They will be sad and angry and disappointed. Sometimes even with you.
So here’s what you can do instead:
1. Acknowledge the feelings. Give them the words that they can’t yet come up with on your own, like:
“That must have been so frustrating to lose that game by just one point!”
“I would be sad about my friend moving away too.”
This applies to if they’re mad at you too.
“I totally get that you’re mad at me right now. I probably would feel that way too.”
2. If they’re lashing out at you, tell them what’s cool and what’s not.
“Saying ‘I HATE YOU’ doesn’t help solve the problem. You can be angry at me, but you need to tell me what you’re angry about.”
“I hear that you’re really upset with me. When you’re ready to talk about it with me, come back and we’ll figure it out.”
And if they’re just lashing out in general, same rules apply.
“I know you’re really angry about having to do homework but throwing your books is not cool. Go take a breather in your room and then come talk to me when you’re ready.”
3. Admit when you’re wrong. And apologize. Model the behavior you want to see if your kids.
“I got really upset with you and I’m sorry.”
“I was having a bad day and I let it get the better of me. I apologize.”
If it was someone else that was wrong, help them process and problem solve.
“It’s a bummer when someone is mean to you at school. What can you do next time?”
You’ll be amazed at how effective just simply acknowledging the feelings and your own humanity (theirs too) can be, not just in the moment itself and a few minutes (or hours) later. But as they get older and are going to have to deal with these feelings on a regular basis.
The message for our kids needs to be that they will be sad and angry. They’ll be happy too! This wonderful life is full of lots of different feelings. And lucky them. They’ve got parents who are ready and able to listen and provide them with a safe place to experience those feelings. And to show them how to cope.
Published July 20, 2015. Last updated June 29, 2018.