Raising a child is not a small feat, and most parents would agree that a big part of parenting is knowing how to handle a child when he or she is expressing a desire that is contrary to what the parent wants at that time. Even seemingly minor interactions can escalate into something much bigger when a power struggle emerges. For instance, the parent says that the child may have a cookie after dinner. When the child reaches into the package, she grabs two cookies while saying, “I want two.” The parent might reiterate that the child is allowed just one cookie, but the child then starts to scream and cry, “But I want two cookies!” No matter what the parent says at that point, and no matter how the situation is handled from a disciplinary perspective, the child may continue to cry and repeat her desire, “But I want two! I want two!”
Why do children respond in this way so frequently? The answer is quite simple: they do not feel heard. The limit may be clearly established and not negotiable (that the child may, as in the above example, choose between not getting a cookie or getting one cookie), but the child wants her desire to be heard and understood, even if—and this is huge!—she doesn’t ultimately get her way.
How can parents best communicate to their children that they hear, understand and care about their child’s desires and emotions? Perhaps surprisingly, this goal can be accomplished quite easily by getting into the consistent habit of acknowledging and reflecting the child’s emotional world which includes feelings, desires, and motivations. This practice is especially valuable when a limit is being communicated. The parent in the above example might say something like, “I know you would love to have two cookies, but you get to choose between no cookie or one cookie.” The inclusion of the phrase “I know you would love to have two cookies” may seem trivial or even irrelevant, but it makes a huge difference from the child’s perspective.
The benefits of reflecting a child’s emotions go well beyond de-escalating disciplinary scenarios. When children do not feel heard or understand by their parents, not only can problem behaviors begin, but the parent/child relationship can also break down. This is a relevant consideration, because close, bonded parent/child relationships are strongly correlated with increased family harmony, less child defiance, and the like.
Consider a little boy who gets into his mother’s car after school. He has a deeply sad look on his face, is visibly upset, and says something like, “I don’t have any friends.” The natural responses of most parents would be to:
a) Ask questions to better understand what is going on (“What happened at school? Did someone hurt your feelings? Were you left out or something?”)
b) Think of ways to address or “fix” any problems that are revealed (“Maybe we should have a play date for you and someone from class! We can do that soon!”)
c) Explain to the child an opposing point of view (“You do have friends! Remember Jimmy who came over to our house last month?”)
The problem is the parental responses described above have the predictable consequence of the child shutting down and not wanting to discuss the issue at all. Why does this happen? In short, the child is expressing an emotion, and the child’s desire—above all else—is for that emotion to be heard, understood and cared about.
So, when the little boy gets into the car, to stick with that example, and sadly expresses that he has no friends, what would be a more ideal response that demonstrates that you—as his parent—hear, understand, and care? The solution is for parents to back away from their intellectual impulse to find answers and solutions, pause, and reflect on the child’s body language, facial expression, and what little is said, if anything is said at all. After taking in all this emotional information, the parent simply reflects the emotion back to the child by saying something like, “You feel hurt,” or “You’re sad because you think you have no friends.” Then, the hardest part for some parents is the next step: you stop talking. You reflect the emotion, and you leave it at that—with no added questions, solutions, or alternative perspectives.
Although I would not advise validating emotions with the secret goal of getting more information, it’s an ironic reality that children are much less likely to shut down and are more likely to share further after their emotions are acknowledged and validated. Children need to know that it will likewise be wholly acceptable for them to say nothing else and just sit in that emotional space for a little while. Parents grant this freedom by reflecting the child’s emotion, implicitly expressing to the child, “I am here, I see and understand how you feel, and I care about you and what you feel.”
When feelings are consistently reflected by parents, children learn to better make the distinction between their emotions- which are always valid- and how they choose to respond behaviorally (which may or may not be acceptable). Instead of coming to the incorrect conclusion that it’s not okay to get angry (after being reprimanded for an anger outburst, for instance), children learn that the emotion of anger, like all emotions, is understandable and valid, but not all behavioral responses are advisable. A clear distinction begins to be made between the emotion and the behavior that follows it. As children become more in tune to themselves and their emotions, they are then able to pause- even briefly- when experiencing an emotion before choosing how to respond to that emotion. When children lack this sort of intrapersonal, emotional awareness, they are much more inclined to react to their feelings without thought or insight.
Children who have their emotions reflected back to them in a consistent way become more emotionally self-aware. They also learn to connect what they are feeling (and corresponding somatic responses, such as that butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling that may come along with anxiety or worry) with emotional language that can be used to express their feelings. Enhanced emotional self-awareness is the essential first, foundational step toward emotional regulation, self-control, a positive sense of self-worth, and overall life satisfaction for children.