It’s OK to Let Your Kids Feel Bad: 6 Tips for Managing Uncomfortable Emotions

Parents often feel pressure to keep their kids happy.  They want to protect them from life’s difficulties and pain.  This is all borne from a place of caring deeply and wanting to be the best parent.  However, many parents don’t realize their efforts to protect their children from uncomfortable emotions are actually doing their children a great disservice.

I’ll never forget holding my 7 year-old, quivering and sobbing with fear, in anticipation of her first piano recital.  As her little arms clung around my neck, begging not to go, the mother in me was so moved by her distress that all I wanted to do was to let her skip the recital and spare her this pain.  But the psychologist in me also knew that giving into this fear would only make it grow bigger and create more difficulties down the road.  So I steeled myself as I offered her understanding, comfort and encouragement that her fear is real AND she could do this.  She nervously played and hit a couple wrong notes, but her face was calm with relief afterward and the next recital went off without a tear.  She learned that she could feel scared and do it anyway.

Children learn every new skill through observation and practice.  We would never sit a 5 year-old on a bicycle and expect him to zoom away on his first try.  Children learn to walk, talk, play baseball, and make new friends through observing adults modeling these behaviors and trying it themselves.  Practicing any new skill includes a little struggle, and sometimes failure, as they figure it out.

In the same way, children can learn how to tolerate and manage their feelings when given opportunity and practice.  Parents often want to dismiss or minimize children’s feelings when they themselves are feeling uncomfortable, just as I felt at the sight of my daughter’s tear-streaked face before her recital.  It’s tough to see your precious child in distress, and the urge to rescue is natural.  If I had told my daughter, “This isn’t scary, it’s fun!” I would’ve denied and dismissed her feelings entirely, sending the message that what she was feeling was wrong.  If I had rescued her by letting her skip the recital, I would’ve fed into her fear, sending the message that she couldn’t handle it.  While it’s perfectly normal for parents to feel uncomfortable when their children are distressed, denying her feelings only teaches the child to ignore and distrust her own emotional experience.

Allowing your child to experience difficult emotions is a key to teaching them to cope with those feelings.  Simply tolerating their feelings without trying to fix them is a powerful example.  This can be especially difficult to do when your child is mad at you as a parent or another sibling.  Most parents want to jump to their own defense, but this type of response misses the opportunity for connecting with your child.

When your child is feeling an uncomfortable emotion, here are some tips for dealing with them:

  1. Take a deep breath to settle your own discomfort. This is a great opportunity to model for your child ways to manage uncomfortable feelings. With a younger child, you could even say aloud, “I’m taking a deep breath to feel calmer because I’m upset.”  Showing your child that you can sit with your own strong emotions as well as theirs is an essential teaching tool.
  2. Validate your child’s feelings.  The best way to connect with your child is to simply let her know you understand her feeling.  When she says she’s frustrated with school work or mad at a friend, simply acknowledge those feelings.  Let your child know you understand why she would feel frustrated or mad.  You’ve been there too, so you can get it.  You can also empower her to feel frustrated and still finish her work.  She can feel mad and continue getting ready for school at the same time.
  3. Provide feelings vocabulary by talking about your own feelings. Giving children the language to describe their feelings is an incredibly useful tool for building emotional intelligence.  Start simple and develop a more complex language as your child grows.  Throughout the day you might start sharing your feelings, “I was really overwhelmed today,” “this was a tough morning,” “I got angry on my drive home.”  Model how you can experience these feelings and recover.
  4. Invite your child to share more about their feelings. You might ask your child about what led to these feelings or what else happened that day that may be related.  Maybe she was already feeling sad about an event on the playground.  You can learn more about what is going on in your child’s emotional world and have greater appreciation for her feelings.  But don’t be surprised if they don’t have a specific reason for their feelings.  Your job is to allow a safe environment to listen.
  5. Ask your child what he or she thinks could help with this feeling. Children may surprise you by coming up with creative ways of managing their feelings.  Listen to their ideas and be creative in allowing them to try strategies that seem safe and appropriate.  A little boy who is mad at his sister might say he wants to crush his sister’s toy.  While this may not be acceptable, you could consider other ways for him to take out his frustration, like crushing paper.
  6. Ask your child if he or she wants some ideas about ways to cope with this feeling. Once you have permission to give some advice, you might offer comfort strategies.  Consider your child’s developmental level and general style of managing stress.  It’s helpful to have a whole list of options at the ready: hugs, warm bath, bike ride, text a friend, play basketball, etc.  Try to be creative and flexible.  Your child may even teach you a new way to cope!

Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. & Victoria L. Norton, Psy.D. at Linden BP with principles from The Gottman Institute. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.  If you are interested in scheduling an appointment for adult or child individual therapy with Drs. Smith or Norton, contact LindenBP at 440-250-9880.