Acknowledging Children's Emotions

Acknowledging Children’s Emotions

Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Verbalizing acceptance of your child’s emotions helps her feel understood

Mommy is pushing 11-month-old Lily on a swing. Mommy announces that it’s time to go home for dinner. As she tries to take Lily out of the swing, Lily screeches and starts flailing her arms and kicking her legs. Rather than yelling or worrying about this behavior, Mommy will have more success getting Lily home if she acknowledges the fact that she understands why Lily is angry—Lily hates leaving the park and feels like she’ll die if she has to stop swinging right now.

Verbalizing acceptance of your child’s emotions is a key to helping her feel loved and understood. Acknowledging out loud her disappointment makes her feel heard and respected, which calms her down and reduces her need to protest physically. She understands that you value her feelings and knows she has gotten her message across. Acknowledgment is also a way of inviting cooperation. It doesn’t mean she gets to stay at the park all day, but rather that you empathize with her frustration, and she doesn’t have to keep protesting by fighting you. You can say, “I know it’s hard for you to leave the park. You love it here.”

If your nine-year-old is mad because you won’t let her walk to school on her own, assure her that you respect her desire to do so, and her disappointment. You can say, “I know it’s hard for you to wait until you’re older. You like to feel all grown up. But I need to keep you safe. We’ll keep talking about it and help you to get ready.” This may not end the discussion, but it will help her feel better.

Parents often worry that acknowledging anger creates it, as if by saying, “I can see that you’re angry,” they’re introducing the concept, or legitimizing it and encouraging it. But we can tell when a child is angry, and that is the time to acknowledge it. As with other emotions, when you acknowledge and accept anger, you also communicate that you love all the parts of your child. You convey that anger is a natural part of life, and is acceptable. This fosters his self-acceptance and self-love.

Another beautiful outcome of approaching your child in this way is that it assists the child toward a better self-understanding. In essence, you are teaching her the language of emotions. Children often experience a swirl of emotions inside and do not know what is happening. When you can label his emotions and attach it to a situation, for instance, “ You are angry because I said you couldn’t go to the party, the child will feel calmer. The same is true for adults. Understanding that you are angry because of a specific comment that a coworker made and having your feelings acknowledged by someone in the environment, calms you down.

As the child grows he will internalize this way of working with emotions and handle life situations in a more effective way.