Dealing with Children’s Feelings

February 24th, 2010 by Dionna | 26 Comments
Posted in Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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I have been reading “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk.” The very first chapter gave me a lot of “aha” moments, and I wanted to share one today.

Denial: A Common Response

The book begins with the following very simple premise:

There is a direct connection between how kids feel and how they behave.

Logical, yes? I thought so. The first chapter asks parents to examine how they help children deal with their feelings. Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?


child in snowy hat screamingParent: (As your 6 year old heads back out the door to play again) “It’s cold outside, put your coat on please.”
Child: “I am hot from playing chase.”
Parent: “You can’t be hot, it’s 40 degrees. Wear a coat.”


Child: “Mom, I’m hungry.”
Parent: “We just ate 30 minutes ago, you can’t be hungry!”


Parent: “What are you doing lying down?”
Child: “I’m sleepy!”
Parent: “You can’t be sleepy, you took a nap today.”


Child: “I don’t want to play at Peter’s house.”
Parent: “Don’t be silly, Peter is your friend. Of course you want to play with him!”


Child: “I’m so mad, I was two minutes late for class and the teacher made me sit in the hall.”
Parent: “You have no right to be mad, it wasn’t your teacher’s fault you were late.”


In every one of these instances, the parent denied the child’s feelings. The signal that sends to kids is that they should not trust their own feelings or perceptions. The consequence? Arguments, in the short term. Children who are unsure of themselves in the long term. Children who rely on others to tell them how to think, how to act, how to live.

It may seem like we know best, or at least know more, than our children. But what good does it do us to deny our children’s experiences? And does denying a child’s feelings tell them that we love and respect him as a person? Probably not.

Think of it in another way: You and your husband get in a terrible argument. Harsh words are spoken, tears are shed, pictures are thrown, the word “divorce” is uttered more than once. You escape and call your best friend. She invites you over, and you arrive expecting to be able to unload on a sympathetic ear. But instead of listening and empathizing, your best friend says, “you really aren’t that mad at him, are you? You guys have been together forever. Maybe you shouldn’t have yelled at him for coming home late. Does it really matter that he stays out late so often?”

Denial undermines our feelings and experiences. It tells us “whatever you are feeling is wrong. You should not feel that way. There is something wrong with you.”

Other Unhelpful Responses

The authors give another scenario to help us understand how some of our go-to responses may undermine our children’s feelings.

Imagine: Your boss asked you to complete a project by the end of the work day. An hour later, a coworker came to you with a crisis that concerned your biggest account. Frantic, you and your coworker spent hours trying to smooth out the problems. At 5:00 your boss approached you (in front of your coworkers) and asked for the completed project. You tried to explain the crisis, but your boss interrupted angrily. “What the hell am I paying you for? Save your excuses. Don’t leave until the work is done.” Hours later, you are exhausted, humiliated, and still seething from the lashing you got in front of your coworkers. You tell your spouse the story.

How would each of the following responses make you feel? Think about your reactions to each of them.

Denial of Feelings: “There’s no need to be that upset, you’re probably blowing what happened way out of proportion.”

The Philosophical Response: “Well, life is like that sometimes. You just need to take it in stride and do better next time.”

Advice: “You should probably go to your boss and apologize tomorrow morning, but be sure he understands what happened.”

Questions: “What emergency was so important that made you forget your other project? Why didn’t you follow your boss and try to explain?”

Defense of the Other Person: “I can understand your boss’s perspective. He’s probably under a lot of pressure from his superiors.”

Pity: “Oh you poor thing! I feel horrible for you!”

Amateur Psychoanalysis: “Maybe the real reason you are upset is because your boss represents your father figure, and you are reliving clashes with your dad from your teenage years.”

An Empathic Response: “That sounds rough! It would have been hard to take an attack like that in front of other people.”

So how would you have reacted to some of these responses? Personally, the response that would have made me feel the best is the last one. It tells me that my feelings were valid, and that my spouse understands what I am going through.

The same is true of our children. Too often, adults feel the need to advise, problem solve, let kids know that “life is tough,” fire questions at the child, or help the child see the situation from the other person’s viewpoint. But is that always necessary?

To Help with Feelings

The authors of the book go on to talk about the fact that our children can often work things out on their own if parents would only provide a listening, empathetic ear. Here are steps parents can take instead of automatically denying a child’s feelings or giving another unhelpful response to a situation or problem.

1. Listen with full attention.

Put down the newspaper (or close the laptop). Turn off the TV. Look at your child. You can do it!

2. Acknowledge their feelings with a word: “Oh”; “Hmm…”; “I see.”

Restrain yourself from launching into a long response. Just let your child talk it out.

3. Give their feelings a name.

Child: “I wanted to punch Beth when she took my doll.”
Parent: “You were angry that Beth took your doll without asking.”
Child: “Yeah, that really made me mad!”

4. Give them their wishes in fantasy.

Child: “I’m hungry, I want cookies.”
Parent: “You wish you could have a cookie right now.”
Child: “Yes. A chocolate chip cookie!”
Parent: “I wish I could give you a whole package of chocolate chip cookies!”
Child: “Ten packages!”
Parent: “A whole mountain of cookies!”

The book gives numerous examples and suggestions for allowing – and supporting – our children’s feelings and experiences.

Take some time this week to notice how you respond to your children. Write some of those responses down. Do you find yourself denying their feelings? Giving unsolicited advice? Asking lots of questions?

And could a different response have a better result?

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26 Responses to:
"Dealing with Children’s Feelings"

  1. Melodie   bfmom

    Nicely written. I could totally benefit from this. I say stupid things like “you’re not hungry” all the time. But I think my kids and I vie for control over food a lot too. OMG! Like RIGHT NOW as I am/was writing this, my oldest told me she needed more milk in her cereal and I told her “no you don’t,” while she cried that yes, indeed she did. There you go. Bad parenting 101 admitted right here folks!

  2. When you are finished with this book, I highly recommend ‘Parent Effectiveness Training’ by Thomas Gordon. Covers similar material and discusses HOW to actively listen to your children (and others) to help them work through negative emotions and solve their own problems. Here are a couple of links: and
    My husband and I read the book and took the class and wow, has it changed our relationship and how we communicate (for the better!)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I will check it out, ty!!

      Melodie – I totally understand. It’s hard sometimes not to argue with the silly stuff.

  3. we took a love and logic course, which teaches principles similar to this, but sometimes I feel like it is such a fine line, I don’t know what to do. Take the milk for instance. My three year old will say I don’t have enough milk even though it is to the top of her bowl. I usually say “I know you wish you could have more milk but there is no more room, your bowl is full”. Sometimes this works, other times it doesn’t. I am supposed to get her a bigger bowl so she can have more milk? 9 out of 10 times she doesn’t finish her milk and it is wasted, although I started putting it into a glass in the fridge and the next time she said she was thirsty, that’s what she gets to drink. What do you do when the correct response doesn’t quiet the storm? What I really need to do is get out my materials from class and brush up on them.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I agree – it is such a fine line.

      Hmm, well I don’t think the authors are saying the correct response is to say “oh you’re right! Let’s get on that!”

      Maybe if you just said “you want more milk” or “hmm . . .” your child would get to the point of “maybe if I eat this cereal, mom will put more milk in”? It sounds like a stretch – but I bet it takes practice for kids to go from having us tell them everything to figuring things out on their own.
      I really recommend some of the ideas found in the rest of the book – they might address some of your concerns!

  4. Jill

    Timely post…it has been a long time since I’ve read that book and I could stand to review a little :) Yesterday we were at a friend’s house and Valerie had to use the potty immediately on arriving. 5 minutes later she said she wanted to go to the potty. The bathroom was up a half flight of stairs and our friend had placed a baby gate there (unusual) to keep kids out of her kids’ rooms, and I said, “Oh, you JUST went to the potty, you just want to go play upstairs. There are toys down here.” Maybe 10 minutes later she fell asleep on my lap…and peed all over my leg. I totally deserved it and I was ashamed of myself for not validating her. Ugh. Anyway…keep writing, I get so much out of reading your blog!

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Hugs Jill, it’s totally understandable.
      I hope to write a few more posts with ideas from the book before I return it. I’m glad they are helpful!

  5. Amber   AmberStrocel

    I have read that book, but I should probably re-read it because I think I could use a brush-up. It’s sometimes very tempting to deny my 5-year-old’s feelings, especially when I know that she’s playing them up for drama. Which she does, now, quite obviously, and it irritates me. But that’s not really important – the important thing is that her feelings are real and need to be acknowledged.

    A great extension of this is Naomi Aldort’s fabulous SALVE method from “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves”. It’s a really useful and practical way of NOT discounting feelings.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Love that book Amber.
      And I wish I had more money that was available for spending on books – I would love to re-read several books at regular intervals. One in particular that I think would be helpful right now is Cohen’s Playful Parenting. So good!

  6. Monty

    I am giving short responses as so not to get long winded. Not saying that you all are doing the wrong thing at all, and I dont want to be taken out of context.

    In today’s society Doctors and television are telling us that our children are obese and I agree, I am guilty of this.

    I dont agree with some of this If you tell a child that they just ate, then that should be it or fruit is fine, but I know my Kids they didnt want the fruit. They wanted the moutian of cookies.

    On the Milk issue, waste is waste, I tell my kids that if you pour the milk over the cereal in a circular rotation and up to half the bowl it will be just fine and you will have milk left over, guess what “hey dad you were right”. My daughter still pours the milk out in the sink.

    Look my kids are almost grown up. I think I did a decent job, my kids are not perfect and I am not perfect.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      But the point isn’t that you are giving them cookies, the point is that instead of telling them no, you are saying “I acknowledge your desire for cookies.” It’s perfectly ok for kids to WANT cookies. You don’t have to give them cookies every time they want them. Why do you have to try to nullify the desire? That’s just silly. I want a stiff drink right now, but I’m not going to have one. You can instill in your children the knowledge that fruit is better than cookies without trying to control what food they desire – face it, you can’t take away a kid’s desire for cookies.

      As far as milk (or issues like that), I’d say that most people learn by DOING rather than just having someone TELL them. You can tell them until you are blue in the face that they need to pour the milk a certain way, but the fact is they’ll probably need to spill some a few times before they learn. And that is completely acceptable. We all spill a few things (literally and figuratively) as we grow and mature – it’s life, and it’s ok.

      And I never said anyone had to be perfect (I’m far from it), but there’s no reason to remain stagnant as a parent. Why not try to learn new methods of communication?

  7. Monty

    I am in the Army I know it wouldnt work to good with my Soldiers and My First Sergeant would have my azzz.. Sis the i am not perfect is like a signiture not saying anyone here is.

    • CodeNamePapa   CodeNamePapa

      I think you’re hitting the nail on the head without even trying – why does everything have to relate to how things are done in the military?

      Is the “Sergeant-Soldier” relationship what you want to model and re-create when it comes to “Parent-Child”? Is a toddler going to be able to follow orders? Should you really expect them to?

      Don’t you think there may be a better way to communicate with someone who doesn’t have full grasp of right/wrong, self-control, etc. because they are TWO years old?

      Dionna is just trying to present a way to communicate in a way that is simple for the child to understand, validates their feelings, and doesn’t demand them to “toe the line” all the time.

      We, as parents, “know-it-all” – don’t we? We know it’s too cold to go out without a coat, we know it’s not time to watch more videos, etc. – but do we know what our kids are feeling? It’d be arrogant for us to assume that we do – the techniques Dionna is talking about simply (and explicitly) allow the child to express their feelings.

      Yes, it’s quite likely that when Kieran expresses that he really wants to watch another video, he won’t talk us into it – but the point isn’t that “mama and papa end up getting our way” – the point is that when conflict occurs or his wishes don’t match ours, we don’t dismiss his thoughts and feelings as unimportant simply because he’s a child, or “not the parent”…

  8. DT

    I’m calling B.S. on the photo. I’ve seen the series and I think K-Diggity is trying to catch a snow flake, not sharing his emotions.

  9. Charlie

    Sometimes it’s about letting them have those big feelings. If I am not ready to let go of something — be it milk or cookies — just letting the child be upset is enough. Saying no to cookies and then saying, “stop crying. You are not getting cookies” is not only denying them what they want but denying them their expression of disappointment.

  10. Cool. I’ve had that book on my shelf for ages. Better get reading in preperation for my son speaking (any day)

  11. Monty

    I said at the begining of my statement that I do not beleive in some of this. I am still parenting in a way that has worked for me. I dont really need want to argue cause what happened last time. I dont think that you are understanding that this just dosnt apply to a TWO year old. Anyway there will be a good show on today about breastfeeding on the Doctors. Have a nice day.

  12. Darcel   mahoganywaymama

    I have meaning to get my hands on that book. I’ve noticed the more I say yes to my girls, and the more I really do listen to them, and consider their feelings, the happier we all are. It’s when I start with no you can’t do this, or have that that they get in a funk, and so do I.

  13. Charlie

    Monty, you don’t know me but Dionna will tell you that I love to discuss, hate to argue so I truly am coming from a place of wanting to understand. I’m curious what part doesn’t apply to a 2 year old. I have had a few 2 year olds in my parenting life and I have done what Dionna is recommending in her blog post. I’m not perfect at it. I’ve done the more subtle denial of feelings. I’ve tried to assuage hurt feelings when my child just needed to get them out. But overall, I feel I do a decent job of being empathetic and validating to my children’s emotions at all ages and it’s always found a place.

  14. Yikes, this post hits home for me. I don’t know how often I do it, but I see myself in some of these responses, and that’s just not fair to my child. This is a well-written post, thank you for this. I will be more aware of my words moving forward, to be certain to be empathetic, rather than brushing things aside simply because she’s a child.

    thank you!

  15. Randa @ The Bewitchin' Kitchen   bewitchinkitch

    Stopping by from SITS…and I couldn’t have written it any better

  16. What a great post! I have a challenging 3.5y old and after reading this, I had some “aha” moments too!

    Happy SITS Saturday Sharefest!

  17. Huh. That makes totaly sense.
    I really am glad you made me more aware of my responses. I dont want to invalidate my kids feelings like that…but per your examples, I have TOTALLY done that.

    I am going to add your book suggestion to my list maybe my library will have it someday!


  18. *added I just looked and they do have it! I have just reserved it. Thanks again!

  19. Fran Magbual   BabiesOnline

    When I read the scenarios at the beginning I realized I do that with my kids all the time. Your post has really got me thinking about the way I deal with my kids and even how I deal with my husband. Thanks for a great read and giving me something to think about.

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