Let children feel their feelings

Six-year-old Noah was very keen to attend soccer after school. He talked about it incessantly and eventually his parents decided to enrol him. They did it with a fair share of reluctance because as a preschooler, his swimming lessons had been a bit of a disaster. He had shown such enthusiasm for going, but as soon as he got to the pool, he had refused to get in his togs and no amount of coaxing had any impact at all. His parents ended up having to pay for a set of swimming lessons that he didn’t participate in. However, a year on, they thought they’d give it another try.

His parents had done some reading around children’s feelings and giving more space and validity to them, so with this in mind, they were ready to be less of the problem-solving variety of parent and more of the accepting-the-feelings variety. They were ready for both his enthusiasm and his fear, and they felt more confident to sit with the very big feelings Noah might have, especially when it was time to join in. As they predicted, Noah talked non-stop about going to soccer and was all dressed and ready for his first practice come the day. However, he began to ask questions on the way about what he might have to do and he clung on to his mum tightly as soon as he got out of the car.

This time a lovely thing happened. His mum could guess what was going on. Noah really wanted to join in and he was also very scared of getting it wrong. She helped by naming what she guessed were his feelings – “Noah, I can see that you really want to join in and learn how to play soccer. On the other hand, I can also see that you are feeling scared about doing something new. That is just fine. I will stay here and we can just watch.”

Noah settled down right away. The tension seemed to subside simply because he had been given permission to feel both feelings at once. They weren’t wrong. He relaxed, and for that session and the next, was very happy to stand on the side line and watch. His mum felt like she was in new territory but went with the flow and was quietly very excited when Noah let go of her hand on the third practice session and joined the line of keen new soccer players.

As Noah was given permission to feel comfortable with a whole range of feelings, he became chattier and more relaxed at school. One night at bedtime, as his dad tucked him in, Noah mentioned that he liked it when he could be two things at once. When asked what he meant by that, Noah said confidently that he liked that he could be brave and scared together and that those feelings could be friends. That was delightful to hear.

Too simple? This is actually really hard to do because parents are wired to push children through their feelings to get them to act braver, kinder, more self-controlled or compliant. Letting children feel their feelings, naming them and sitting with them is not immediately natural for parents to do. Going in a new direction will feel a little unchartered at first, but it will be well worth it in the long run.