Acknowledging Children’s Feelings

March 8th, 2010 by Dionna | 6 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle Discipline Ideas, Successes, and Suggestions, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

Recently I shared some suggestions I found helpful from the first chapter of “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk.” The book begins by listing some of the common ways parents react to statements by their children and offering healthier alternatives. One important step in dealing with children’s feelings is to acknowledge those feelings with words.

It is important to help children identify their emotions. Emotions are such an abstract concept. While there are certain physical qualities of emotions that parents can help point out in others (“Look at how Jane’s shoulders are slumped down and her face looks sad. I wonder if she is feeling lonely because no one is playing with her”), it is even more important to name emotions for your child as she is feeling them.

When your child approaches you with something, resist the urge to give advice or solve the problem. Instead, put a name to the emotion and use just a few words to show you understand how your child is feeling.

sad toddler boy sits in blue laundry basket
“I had to give a book report in front of the class, but I couldn’t remember what I’d written. I just stood there forever. Everyone laughed at me!”

Instead of “Maybe next time you should rehearse your report in front of the mirror a few times.”
Try “That must have been embarrassing for you!”


“I hate playing with Will. He always has to take the best toys and never wants to share.”

Instead of “But you really like Will. Maybe you need to try being nicer to him.”
Try “Boy that would be frustrating.”


“Ella told me she was going to ask me to stay the night this weekend, but she never called.”

Instead of “Well let’s rent a movie and have fun together.”
Try “You sound pretty disappointed that you haven’t heard from her yet.”


By resisting the urge to solve problems or make everything better, it gives your child the opportunity to struggle through the problem and come up with his own solution. Children need to have experience wrestling with tough emotions and situations. The adult can be there to listen with empathy and reflect the child’s feelings.

The scenarios above are, of course, just the beginning to a longer conversation. Here is an example from the book of a real situation reported by a parent:

A father in our group reported that his young son came storming into the house [and said] “I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!” The father said, “Normally the conversation would have gone like this:”

Son: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
Father: Why? What happened?
Son: He threw my notebook in the dirt!
Father: Well, did you do something to him first?
Son: No!
Father: Are you sure?
Son: I swear, I never touched him.
Father: Well, Michael is your friend. If you take my advice, you’ll forget the whole thing. You’re not so perfect you know. Sometimes you start up and then blame someone else – the way you do with your brother.
Son: No I don’t. He starts up with me first . . . Oh I can’t talk to you.

But the father had just attended a workshop on helping his children deal with their feelings, and this is what actually took place:

Son: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose!
Father: Boy, you’re angry!
Son: I’d like to push his fat face in!
Father: You’re that mad at him!
Son: You know what that bully did? He grabbed my notebook at the bus stop and threw it in the dirt. And for no reason!
Father: Hmmm!
Son: I bet he thought I was the one who broke his dumb clay bird in the art room.
Father: You think so.
Son: Yeah, he kept looking at me all the time he was crying.
Father: Oh.
Son: But I didn’t break it. I didn’t!
Father: You know you didn’t.
Son: Well I didn’t do it on purpose! I couldn’t help it if that stupid Debby pushed me into the table.
Father: So Debby pushed you.
Son: Yeah. A lot of things got knocked down, but the only thing that broke was the bird. I didn’t mean to break it. His bird was good.
Father: You really didn’t mean to break it.
Son: No, but he wouldn’t believe me.
Father: You don’t think he’d believe you if you told him the truth.
Son: I dunno . . . I’m gonna tell him anyway – whether he believes me or not. And I think he should tell me he’s sorry for throwing my notebook in the dirt!

The father was astonished. He hadn’t asked questions and yet the child had told him the whole story. He hadn’t given one word of advice and yet the child had worked out his own solution.

So what about you? Do you automatically jump to solving your child’s problems, or do you listen with empathy and encourage her to work through them? I’d love to hear your real life stories.

And if you haven’t ever tried to acknowledge feelings and listen while your child sorts out a problem on his own, I challenge you to give it a shot this week.

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6 Responses to:
"Acknowledging Children’s Feelings"

  1. So is it pathetic that my first thought was that I could apply these same principles to how I relate with adults?

  2. Amber   AmberStrocel

    I do respond to my 5-year-old with empathy, and I am trying to empower her to solve her own problems. For me the issue has just been waiting for her to get to a place where she can actually do that. I would say that she’s about 50/50 right now. For a long time I did end up solving problems, because when your 2-year-old is at a loss you sort of have to. You can model resiliency and all that, but they just don’t always have the tools needed to actually BE resilient at that age.

  3. Lauren @ Hobo Mama   Hobo_Mama

    I love these examples, and I do need a reminder to be empathetic. I agree with Amber that the problem-solving aspect is maybe more practical once your kid’s a little older — and I totally agree with Tammy that I’m going to use this on adults! :)

    I know Mikko (2.75 years old) is really interested in emotions right now, but he’s still not perfect at reading them. If someone’s mouth is open in a picture, for instance, he assumes they’re crying, even if they’re laughing or yawning. I try to point out what different emotions are as he works through all that, since he seems interested. I can see how mirroring back his own emotions would be equally helpful.

  4. AFWife

    I wonder if my toddler is too young for this…I have been trying to acknowledge his feelings but he just can’t quite communicate yet.

  5. Dionna   CodeNameMama

    Tammy – I don’t think it’s silly at all. I think it’s a good point – we are trying to treat children like people, so much of what we do should apply across the board!

    Amber – I agree. With every age there is a point where it’s healthier for the adult to be more involved in solving the problem.

    Lauren & AFMom – I don’t think toddlers are too young. It’s ideal to have conversations with your child about all kinds of things, why not identifying emotions? And even if they aren’t verbal yet, they are still learning words/concepts, as evidenced by the many babies/toddlers who sign.

  6. Fran Magbual   BabiesOnline

    Great follow-up to your “Dealing with children’s feelings” post. I like your examples and will try to be more aware of how I respond to my kids and yes, as Tammy mentions, with adults as well!

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