Do you act different when your child is throwing a fit than when he is happy and excited? Avoid the mistake of judging emotions and learn to meet the emotional needs of children.
I thought I did. After all, I love my kids regardless of the choices they’ll make. I celebrate who they are, in spite of differences and similarities with me. And I say this not lightly, but truthfully: I would give my life for them.
Isn’t that unconditional love?
I thought so. But then I realized my kids may not see it that way.
And it all started with the movie Frozen…
How we’re not meeting the emotional needs of children
Like any silly parent who thought her kid wouldn’t fall for Frozen-mania, I told my four-year-old, “Here’s the DVD of Frozen. Let’s watch it!”
And we did. But in my house, we enforce a limit on screen time. For my kids, that’s 30 minutes a day max. And so before Elsa could belt “Let It Go,” I pressed stop and smiled at my son. “Did you like it?”
“I want to watch more!”
“We can’t. We already watched 30 minutes of it. We’ll watch some more tomorrow.”
And the conversation kept bouncing between those two lines of “I want to watch more!” and “No, you can’t” before culminating in a tantrum—his and mine.
I felt furious.
Didn’t I prep him about the 30-minute rule? Didn’t I give him a heads up, both at 10 minutes and at 5 minutes? Why does he take something fun—and ruin it? Why can’t he just appreciate that he even got to watch a movie at all?
In a fit of rage, I carried him, plopped him in his room and closed the door on him. Twice.
I ignored him, all his cries and everything. I then tried distracting him which worked for six seconds before he roared up again.
And you know what calmed him down? Himself. I wasn’t even there for him, but the little guy managed to pull up a stool next to me in the kitchen and began cooking with me.
My heart crumbled. Because all that yelling and putting him in “time out” and ignoring him? The message I gave was: I withhold my love when you act that way.
It seemed reasonable to me at the time. I didn’t want to “reward” bad behavior with hugs and kisses, I thought.
But emotions don’t always feel good. And the ones that don’t can be scary and overwhelming to a kid. They don’t like feeling bad. They can’t process these emotions, so they sometimes believe they’re bad because of it.
And the huge parenting mistake we might be making (without even knowing it)?
We’re judging his emotions.
We tell our kids all is fine when they feel happy, but when the minute they feel terrible, then game over. Our kids think, “Mom smothers me with kisses when I feel happy or excited. But then yells or ignores me when I feel sad or scared.”
We have to give our love unconditionally through all emotions—happy or sad, silly or angry.
This isn’t to say poor behavior is okay. If you have a 30-minute screen time rule, then your kid has to abide by the rule, tantrum or not. They still need boundaries.
But more than anything, they need us to reconnect. They need us. The times we least feel like loving our kids is when they need us the most.
As Dr. Laura Markham writes in her stellar book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting:
…[A]ll parents need to repeatedly reconnect with their children, just to repair the daily erosion created by life’s normal separations and distractions. Effective parenting is almost impossible until the positive connection with your child has been re-established, so think of this as preventive maintenance, before there’s a problem.
How about the times when our kids are sad? Do we ignore them until they snap out of it? Wish their sadness away? Or how about when they’re clingy and attached? Do we roll our eyes or get frustrated?
We can address their emotions without giving in or rewarding poor behavior. All while connecting with our kids, through all their emotions.
How to address misbehavior without judging:
- Don’t get upset during difficult emotions. Don’t withhold your love when they’re upset or sad and pay them attention only when they’re happy. Emotions simply are—some feel good while others don’t, but they don’t define who we are. They’re a state of being. Let your kids know you’re on their side through all their emotions.
- Show empathy with their emotions. Relate what they must be feeling: “Looks like you’re upset because you want to watch more of the movie. Maybe you’re not sure whether you’ll get to watch the rest the next day.”
- Hold fast to your rules, and redirect. Honor the impulse and redirect them to a similar but more appropriate activity. Or explain why they can’t do what they want to do.
- Discuss emotions. Down the line, once they’re out of their slump or meltdown, discuss the emotions they felt. Explain that it happens to us all, and that they come and go. Just as we have good days, we also have bad ones. Describe emotions as behaviors or states of being, not their character (e.g. He feels bad; he isn’t a bad boy).
- Don’t cheer them up just yet. Tickling and cheering may not always be appropriate when kids are feeling down. Don’t distract them either. Doing so diminishes their feelings and makes it seem like they should avoid them.
- Allow them to transition. Not cheering them up doesn’t mean you’re stuck with a miserable kid. But do allow them to transition out of their slump in due time. The best way to ease them out is being present.
- Give them your full attention. I learned that a few minutes of 100% devoted attention (hugging, listening, comforting) can make up for an hour’s worth of meltdowns.
- Let them cry. I used to assume my job was to stop my kids from shedding tears and to cheer them up as soon as possible. Instead, I now treat crying as a therapeutic act. Crying—just like laughing—is one of the best ways to release overwhelming feelings. Don’t shush or tell them to “stop crying already.” Hold and comfort them.
How do we know when our kids need you the most? Meltdowns, ignoring us, feeling like they’re in a slump are cues that something is off. See those moments as opportunities, not hassles, to connecting with your child.
We need to be there for our kids and stand in their corner—even when they’re throwing a fit about Frozen.
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? I’d love to share with you one effective word I’ve found to get kids to listen in this FREE printable handout. Learn about the word, why it works and how to use it (comes with a worksheet, too!).
Get more parenting tips:
- “He Needs You”: How to Help Your Angry Child
- Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Child to Stop Crying
- 23 Children’s Books about Feelings
- 4 Things to Remember When You Get Angry at Your Child
- Why You Shouldn’t Say “It’s Okay” when It’s Not
Tell me in the comments: How do you react when your kids are sad, upset, withdrawn, etc.? What ways are you judging your child and his emotions?
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