One of the biggest challenges we face as parents is knowing how to respond when our children have a big feeling—when they get angry, very sad, frustrated, or even super excited.
This work begins for us when our babies are tiny, when they sometimes cry for prolonged periods for seemingly no reason.
And it continues as our children grow into older babies, toddlers, and beyond.
How we meet our child’s big feelings will teach them how to meet their own feelings, and, I’d argue, how to understand themselves as they grow.
The 5 Big Feelings
When my teaching partner Alejandra Siroka and I help parents learn how to meet their kids’ feelings in our classes, we define these feelings as the Big 5:
Certainly children and adults may many other feelings throughout the day. But we find that children seem to struggle with these five feelings the most.
Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that parents or caregivers struggle most to respond to their children when they are feeling these particular feelings.
What We Were Taught About Feelings
Most of us were raised with the idea that some of our feelings were ok, and some were not. For example, in some families, anger was an acceptable emotion, but sadness was not. In other families, frustration was tolerated, but exuberance (and the behaviors that resulted from that feeling) were unacceptable.
Consider your own original family. Which feeling or feelings were accepted or encouraged? Which were not?
Often it’s the case that feelings that were labeled “bad” or “unacceptable” in our original families are those that we have the hardest time coping with in our children.
Sometimes we meet the display of a feeling in our child just as it was met by our own parents or caregivers.
We might say “that’s enough!” when our child is too exuberant, or “stop that crying right now” when our child is sad for what feels like too long.
We might punish or unintentionally shame a child for acting out of anger or frustration.
And sometimes, if certain feelings were met with particular displeasure by our parents when we were young, we might meet the feeling in our child just we felt as children.
There are times when I notice my son processing a feeling—or behaving a certain way due to a big feeling—and I feel as if I am the one feeling that feeling. I respond as if my parent might come in at any moment, and I feel afraid.
Sometimes we do a little of both. We react as if we are both the parent and the child, which can make it pretty difficult to respond to our child in this moment with any kind of clarity or patience.
The Healing Power of Tears
Even though it is certainly true of adults, it took me a long time to come around to the idea that my child might need to cry to offload feelings or the stress of the day. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.
I had somehow convinced myself that he would only cry if something was physically wrong—he was hungry, cold, tired, wet.
But emotional upsets can happen to young babies, too. There are times when your baby experiences something stressful or exciting and just needs to process it. Tears can really help, especially if they are shed in your loving arms.
As your child grows, this need to be held—physically and/or emotionally—in the throws of a big feeling also grows. It happens when:
She can’t open her water bottle.
You say no to a treat.
It’s time to go home from the park and she is not ready.
You need to get him into the car seat and he really doesn’t want you to.
He’s trying to write his name and just can’t get the “a” right.
It was a very long day with two birthday parties and lots of play and fun.
You are preparing to go on a trip, or just got back from one.
All of these experiences can lead to tears, tantrums, and the need to offload a big feeling.
Why it Matters How We Respond
Since most of us grew up with the idea that at least some feelings are bad or wrong, it’s not hard to understand why we can sometimes go to great lengths to avoid big feelings in ourselves or in our child.
But what if we could wipe the slate clean? What if we could see our anger or frustration or sadness as what they truly are: simple feelings that arise and pass away, just as the weather shifts and changes?
It may take some time to retrain ourselves to meet our own feelings like this, but we can help our children learn the truth now.
If we can learn to see our child’s feelings as part of his or her human experience, rather than something shameful or problematic, we can help our child see them that way too.
We can teach our child these truths:
Feelings do not define you. They do not make you bad or good, an angry person or a sad person.
Feelings come and go, just like clouds in the sky. What you feel now will shift and change—maybe soon, maybe later.
Feelings don’t harm you. You can feel swept up in a big feeling, like you are inside a tornado, and then live to tell the tale.
Feelings are information. Fear can help us know where our boundaries are. Anger can show us what matters to us. Your feelings help me understand where you are emotionally.
Feelings don’t make you unlovable. If you have a big feeling, I will still love you—even if you act in a way that I don’t prefer while you’re in the middle of that feeling.
Imagine what our world would be like if all children grew up really believing these things. If they became adults who didn’t fear their feelings, try to stop their feelings, or feel bad for even having feelings.
How You Can Help
The most effective and helpful thing you can do when your child is having a big feeling is just to allow the feeling to come, and to give it all the time it needs to pass.
This means not trying to prematurely distract your child from the feeling, punishing him for it, or sending him away to have it on his own.
Until he is into the elementary school years, your child needs help from you to ride out big feelings, and being sent away only makes that ride scarier and harder. It can also send the message that his feeling is too much for you—and therefore, him—or shameful in some way.
If your child is a young baby and can’t yet communicate in words, or you don’t know what is causing the feeling, go through your list of possible causes first. If she really is hungry or wet, attend to those needs before trying to listen to her feelings.
I share more about this in my post How to Deal with Tantrums Without Losing Your Cool.
One More Note About Behavior
Allowing feelings and respectful behavior are not mutually exclusive, by the way. We can still help our kids learn how to behave in non-harmful ways even as we allow their feelings.
In fact, getting more adept at allowing our child’s feelings helps us separate the feeling from the behavior. This little bit of separation can also help us become more adept at responding to our child’s behavior when they do something we wish they hadn’t.
For more on managing behavior and big feelings, check out my Essential Respectful Discipline Toolbox.