Things I’ve learned from my four-year-old: Acknowledging feelings

Yesterday we went to the beach for a swim. As I walked out of the water in front of my four-year-old, I noticed that the low tide had carved out a dip in the sand so that we had to take a step up to exit the water. Lucy was a few steps behind me and she decided to skip out of the ocean. She fell flat on her face in the last two centimetres of water. I burst out laughing – she wasn’t hurt, and trust me, it was funny.

As she picked herself up, she directed the full wrath of her shock at me while I stood laughing uncontrollably a few steps away. She screwed up her forehead and shouted, “IT’S NOT FUNNY!” She repeated herself until I got myself under control and reverted to the caring, nurturing mother that I am. I knelt down next to her and said “oh, that must have given you a fright” while gently brushing off the sand.

You’ve never laughed at your child’s expense before, right?

The lesson behind the laughter

As humorous as that moment was, it highlighted a lesson that Lucy often teaches me – feelings matter. Whether she’s upset, excited, devastated, hurt, angry, frustrated, overjoyed, or annoyed, life with her is better when I acknowledge her feelings.

I’ve learnt that instead of telling her to brush herself off when she falls off her scooter, saying “that looks like it really hurt” is much more effective. Telling her that I recognise she’s disappointed that we ran out of time to go to the playground works much better than an impatient “tough luck, not today.” Instead of hurrying her, giving my adult perspective, or saying impatiently, “because I say so, alright?” I’ve learnt to show empathy and give her time, validation, and acknowledgment.

Playing the long game

When we acknowledge our emotions, the heat of them usually lasts for only a few minutes. If we ignore them, they stick around a whole lot longer. I used to use my stern voice and try to shut down the unpleasantness as quickly as possible. I’d get impatient with my kids’ big feelings really easily. The problem with dealing only with the behaviour, is that the emotion that sparked it doesn’t magically go away. They may be quiet in their room, distracted by the TV, or happy with the lollipop I used them to bribe them, but the underlying reason for their outburst remains inside of them.

Not just for kids

It’s the same for adults. There are plenty of times when I prefer to eat my way through a bag of chips or numb myself for a whole evening in front of Netflix to avoid my feelings. Knowing what I know now, I’m trying to take the approach I use with my kids, with myself.

A skill for their future

I want to pass this skill on to my children. When I name their emotions, I’m giving them what they need to describe their wobbling tummy or their hot head. I’m teaching my kids how to listen to themselves and fix their own problems. One day, I hope I’m redundant and they can do it for themselves.

Sounds too soft

“Just send them to their room and they’ll soon learn their lesson. They need to understand that I’m the parent and they need to do what I say.”

If this sounds familiar, I’ve been there too, and there were a couple of things that helped me to get past it. In Diane Levy’s book ‘They look so lovely when they’re asleep’, she explains that there are two types of tantrums, tantrums of despair and tantrums of control. These require different responses. If a tantrum eases with a hug, it’s a tantrum of despair. Empathy helps in these situations. If a hug doesn’t help, it’s a tantrum of control, and a more distant approach like leaving the child alone or sending them to a thinking spot is called for.

Acknowledging feelings doesn’t mean letting kids off the hook. The other day as we were leaving the library, Lucy threw a tantrum because she wasn’t allowed to get out a puzzle. I let her know I understood that she was sad and angry that we didn’t get the puzzle. I also let her know we weren’t going back to get it.

What helps – for children

It would be quicker and easier to disregard what I’ve learnt from my four-year-old. Acknowledging her emotions takes consistent effort. It takes consistent effort to respond to them in a measured and empathetic way, but it’s worth it in the long run. I’m pretty sure if you talk to Lucy in ten years time, she’ll say the same thing.

What helps – for adults

  • Journalling
  • Feelings & needs cards
  • Though it feels awkward and corny, actually speaking out loud how I’m feeling