Don't Fear Your Child's Feelings

Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong”, and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. 

Four-year-old, Trevor, had become very oppositional after his baby brother, Joseph, was born; he was also very negative about Joseph, saying “mean” things about him and asking over and over when Joseph would be going back to the hospital.  Initially, Trevor’s parents reacted punitively, telling Trevor he was not being a good big brother, and putting him repeatedly in time-outs. Trevor’s anger towards his brother and his overall defiance only increased. Further, Trevor started refusing to drink from a cup, insisting on a bottle, which really worked his parents’ last nerve. Annoyed, they told Trevor he was a big boy, not a baby, and they would not give him the bottle; a power struggle ensued, only escalating Trevor’s negativity and refusal to use “big boy” utensils. 

It is the most natural reaction to feel distressed when our children express negative feelings, whether it is anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness or fear (especially when it is directed toward a sibling). These emotions make us uncomfortable, so we either overreact, or minimize them.  But these feelings are a natural part of being human that everyone experiences. So don’t fear the feelings; they aren’t “good” or “bad”—they just are. When adults ignore or try to talk children out of their difficult feelings (“But you love your baby brother—he is looking up to you!”), we are sending the message that their feelings are not acceptable. This doesn’t make the feelings go away, they just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for the child…and the parent. This rarely makes anyone particularly happy.

When you acknowledge and accept your child’s feelings, it opens the door to helping them learn to cope with them in healthy ways which will serve them well in all aspects of their life as they grow.  Your job as a parent is not to protect your child from difficult emotions—that doesn’t lead to happiness in the long run. Learning to value and give voice to the full range of human emotions we all feel in does.

In the case of Trevor, since nothing was working, and things were only getting worse, Trevor’s parents knew a course correction was in order. They took a step back and looked at the situation from Trevor’s perspective; they acknowledged what a big change it was to have a new baby in the family and validated Trevor’s feelings of jealousy at having to share attention with Joseph. They stopped insisting that Trevor love the new baby, and gave him a bottle (which Trevor gave up within 2 days once it was no longer a hot-button issue). His parents continued to set appropriate limits but did so without shaming Trevor, or making him feel bad about his feelings. They focused on Trevor’s behavior—what was and was not acceptable—and imposed natural consequences (we don’t hit people–people have feelings; you can hit this object). Within a few weeks there was a clear reduction in Trevor’s acting-out behavior; he even became more loving toward his new brother.

For more on this topic, go to: First Feelings- https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/294-first-feelings-the-foundation-of-healthy-development-starting-from-birth