My path to understanding how to acknowledge my children’s emotions has been a long one. I don’t know why something so simple was SO hard for me to incorporate into my parenting practices.
Acknowledging children’s emotions as I learned in my RIE 1 class felt uncomfortable and unresolved. I felt like I wasn’t helping. When Mike first heard me “acknowledging” Greysen’s feelings by sportscasting, he questioned the technique. I don’t remember what he said exactly but it went something like, “Doesn’t she know what just happened? Why are you saying it again?” Valid point. Why was I?
The answer to his question is something that I did not yet understand.
Responding to High Emotions
I rarely take the girls to the grocery store anymore. With some planning, I am able to go a couple of times a week on my own. However, last week I tried to bake a cake a Frankenstein cake, which crumbled when I tried to take it out of the pan. So to the store we went for three ingredients. With just three ingredients to get it seemed like it would be an easy trip.
We walked along, picking up our things and went to the self checkout registers. From her preferred position of the grocery cart seat, Greysen had a view of everything I was doing.
Greysen: Can I do that? (Referring to the scanner)
Me: No, this machine is for adults to use.
Greysen: Mom, can I push the button?
Me: No, I need to pick the right numbers.
Greysen: Mom, look at that. (She points to a lollipop display on the counter) Mom, can I have one?
Me: No, we are not buying candy today. (Not surprising, as I never do.)
Greysen: NO!!!!! BUY ME THAT NOW!
My cheeks burned red with the attention that her screams surely raked my way. Frustrated with what selfishly felt like an unfair situation, I start an autopilot calm voice response, “Stop screaming, take a breath.”
This helps me do the same. I breathe. I remember, I can do this . . . and I believe it. I need to start again.
I lean down, breathe and say, “You want a lollipop.” I wait. She clenches her teeth and throws her neck back, grimacing and groaning. I kindly continue, “I said, no.”
She cries and kicks. I lean close, no longer afraid of letting these emotions be, “Do you want a hug?” She falls into me.
Before prioritizing acknowledgement as suggested here, my strategy would have been to start with, “Stop screaming and talk to me in a regular voice.” Truthfully, I wouldn’t have stopped there. I would have said more. I would have tried to work through her upset feelings rather than taking the time to accept her emotion first.
I have been working on establishing acknowledgement as part of my every response to upset feelings since I was at a recent lecture by Janet Lansbury. I came to shift my practice by coming to a new understanding of acknowledgement.
How I Started To Acknowledge My Child’s Feelings
1. Acknowledge the situation the child is in.
State the circumstances/facts. This is a factual statement about the challenge your child is experiencing. “You wanted candy and I said no.”
2. Before saying more . . . stop right there.
Take a breath and wait for your child to respond before saying more – if you decide there is more to say. It is really hard to stop at number one. When I stop at that statement, my daughters usually respond to that statement alone. More often than not, it’s a nod or cry and a motion for a hug. It ends there.
- Consider why I wanted to say more. We so often want to say more. We spend so much of our time as parents of young children explaining the world that it seems only natural that this circumstance would be no different. I spend a part of each day answering “why” questions about minutia, so doesn’t something as significant as a display of intense emotions deserve some conversation? Perhaps, but in my experience, this is not the time. I still have a very strong urge to explain the “why” of what is happening. ” I’m not buying candy because . . . “
- Hold off on presuming an emotion. I naturally want my children to know that I understand them. I want them to know that I can see that they are sad, hurt, disappointed, or angry as a means of accepting those feelings. “I can see that you are upset about not having a lollipop right now.”
- Don’t immediately look for a solution. When we focus our efforts on allowing our children to have their feelings rather than on moving through those feelings, our efforts become less about a solution and more about acceptance. This still astounds me. There are likely many solutions around that would make my daughter feel better, but were I to start working towards a solution this critical step of acceptance might be missed.
In her lecture, Janet shared story after story about children expressing their feelings. These tales centered around the expressions of upset infants and toddlers. Janet did not offer explicit instructions on how to resolve a conflict between toddlers or guide an infant through sad emotions, although she taught me to do exactly that.
The examples of acknowledgment revolved around acceptance – allowing expressions of sadness or frustration to be expressed, and accepting those feelings so that our relationship emerges deepened by the connection of our shared experience. I needed to hear several stories about emotions and not about solutions to understand that I needed to redefine what acknowledgment of someone’s feelings means in practice.
I didn’t always believe that we would get through these instances without tears (mine or my Greysen’s). Her intense reactions still often trigger feelings of anxiety and fear, but they are fleeting. I am beginning to understand how to accept my daughter’s emotions as a pivotal point in responding to feelings that used to very easily overwhelm me.