Sally’s Emotions Are Hers, Not Mine

“I’m really angry with you, mom! I don’t like you right now! I don’t like you!”

I don’t even remember what I’d done. I think maybe I told her that no, we weren’t going to get ice cream while we were out, or maybe I told her we really did have to go inside because I had to make dinner. Whatever it was, my preschool-aged daughter Sally was very upset with me.

But you know what? I didn’t try to stop it. I can’t control Sally’s emotions, and I’m not going to try to. I can’t force Sally to feel  how I want her to feel, and even if I could I wouldn’t do it. Sally’s emotions are hers, not mine. And yes, that means that sometimes she’ll get mad at me. And sometimes I get mad at her, too. And that’s okay. In fact, it would be kind of weird if we never got frustrated or upset with each other.

So I didn’t punish Sally for her announcement. Instead, I affirmed it. “It’s okay, honey. Sometimes people get mad at other people.” I went on: “I know you’re upset that we can’t get ice cream right now [or whatever it was]. That would make me mad too! It’s hard not always being able to do whatever we want. If I could do whatever I wanted right now, I’d be kicked back on the couch with some chocolate and a glass of wine watching those episodes of Parks & Rec that I still haven’t seen! But sometimes we can’t just do whatever we want, and yes, that sucks. I get angry about it sometimes too. Okay?”

We have these sorts of conversations a lot. Sometimes Sally responds with “Stop talking to me, mom!” And so I do. I give her space. Sometimes she listens but doesn’t engage—in these cases, I try very hard to avoid lecturing or patronizing and to focus on reassuring and guiding (though I’m not perfect). Most often, we have an actual back and forth conversation. You’d be surprised at how intelligent and thoughtful and cognizant preschoolers can be when you treat them like people rather than like problems.

While I don’t believe in trying to control Sally’s emotions, I do believe in trying to help show her learn how to handle her emotions herself. Sometimes that means just giving her time and space, and sometimes that means more direct involvement. Like the time she hit me when she was mad. I told her that it was okay to be mad, but it wasn’t okay to hurt other people, and that if she couldn’t keep from hurting people while she was mad she would have to go to another room until she felt better. I told her that if she wanted to hit something, she could, but that she couldn’t hit a person, because that would mean causing someone else pain. I offered her a mixing spoon and suggested she go outside and hit the grass. She didn’t take me up on it, but she also didn’t hit me again.

I also talk to Sally about how we can hurt others with our words, and about how sometimes when we’re mad we can end up saying things we wish we hadn’t. Of course, I make sure I’m understanding, and perhaps in part because I grew up in a household that practiced authoritarian discipline methods, it doesn’t hurt me when she tells me she doesn’t like me—instead, I’m just pleased that she’s actually allowed to express that feeling. Still, I think she’s starting to understand the whole thing about saying she’ll regret. In the example I began this post with, Sally later came to me and apologized. “I love you mom, I’m sorry I was mean to you.” But then, that’s something I model for her too—if I’m overly harsh or short with her because I’m stressed out, I later apologize.

As a parent, I’m a guide and a facilitator, not a dictator. I don’t tell Sally how to feel, but I do try to help her learn how to deal with her emotions in a healthy way. And I remember, too, that I’m not perfect either.

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Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
Busting the Mommy Myth
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Sally

    Sounds great to me!

  • Mel

    For parents who are trying to learn how to raise their kids without controlling their emotions, I recommend the “Love and Logic” parenting materials. I’ve loved using them in my classroom.

  • Kathleen

    I only hope I can model you as my 16 month old continues becoming more of a toddler….I have a tendency to get frustrated and forget that she’s acting the way she is because SHE’S frustrated….somehow I must summon more patience :-)

    To Mel: I have the book Parenting with Love and Logic: is that what you mean?

  • Sophie

    It’s lovely to read this because I have found that many parents do try to control their young children’s emotions or undermine them by telling them that’s not they feel. It’s so important for children to be able experience the full range of emotions and to be able to articulate how they are feeling. If they are constantly told by an authority figure that they are not feeling what they think they are or worse that it is wrong to feel what they are, they will grow up into adults with emotional problems. In my experience it is usually the negative emotions that parents are most likely to police but I have come across parents who do the same with positive emotions in particular love.

    I have commented before about my childhood and the emotional abuse that was inflicted by my mother. And one of the most common things she would do was to control my emotions. I couldn’t feel anything negative about anything without being told that I was ruining everything for her and that if I loved her like I said then I wouldn’t say such horrible things. But I also wasn’t allowed to express positive emotions about anything that wasn’t to do with her, for example if I’d been to a friend’s house and had a nice time, because she would get upset and say things like maybe I wanted to go live there because I liked it so much better than home or didn’t I know how hard she worked to make our home nice and how hurtful I was being by saying somewhere else was nicer. I learned to bottle up all my real emotions very early and learned to present the emotions she wanted to see. Except at ten I became depressed and I could no longer be the happy smiley child she wanted. At eleven I tried to commit suicide for the first time because the idea of living feeling like that was too much and I just couldn’t do it. Afterwards in the hospital, once all the doctors and nurses were out of sight she accused me of doing it to try and ruin the work conference she was at the next day. I wish I could say that she’s better now that I’m an adult but she isn’t. Everything is about her and everything me and my brothers feel is because that’s how she wants it.

    • lana hobbs

      oh this is so familiar! i couldn’t have mentors because my mom would get so jealous. ‘why don’t you move in with so-and-so if she’s so much better than me!’ (uh, wow. i never said that. i only said you weren’t listening to what i was saying. never mentioned her…)
      i don’t know how to deal with a person who makes things about her and her feelings, and tries to control and dictate others feelings.

      • Alexis

        I know the feeling, too. Except I wasn’t allowed to show emotion at all. I had to be a robot, pretty much. It sucks, indeed. Lots of support and well-wished to both of you, Sophie & lana hobbs.

      • Sophie

        I wasn’t really able to show emotion either, I had a face that I presented to the world that appeared happy and content but it wasn’t real. That had been the hardest thing for my dad since I started talking about how things really were at home (He left my mum when I was a baby but stuck around for my brother and me) because he remembers me being so smiley and sunny. So for him to know that was just a face I had learned to wear, and that really I was sad and scared, it hurts him and he feels like he failed me. Except there was no way he could have got me out of that situation.

      • Sophie

        To be honest I have very little to do with my mum, I speak to her once a fortnight and I see her two or three times a year. And that is only to maintain contact with my two brothers who are under 18. She still has the power to manipulate me and upset me a great deal, so I try my best not to get into a situation where she can do that. Also now I am finally able to tell her that she is upsetting me but remain calm and in control of the situation. It’s only taken me 29 years!

      • lana hobbs

        haha, well then maybe in a few more years, i will get to that point, too :D i still feel like i revert to a cowering child the instant she looks at me.

      • Sophie

        I know that feeling! She tends to get away with a lot more when I’m at her house because I do revert back to feeling like a teenager, but in my home I feel stronger. It also helps that I have a very supportive partner who sees through my mum and protects me, he tends to not leave me alone with her and that stops her getting her claws in. She has tried manipulating him a few times but that was after I’d been honest with him about what she was like, so he was able to escape! It does get better, the longer you are away from it.

    • Gillianren

      Okay, feeling a little more lucky about my mom right now. She screwed up in some pretty major ways, but when she didn’t understand what was going on in my head and why I was acting out the way I was, she got me into therapy. Which is where I got my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, so well done, Mom. She has never made me feel like it’s my fault. I’m so sorry that your mother treats you that way. It isn’t right, and you don’t deserve it.

      • Sophie

        Luckily my dad saw what was going on with me and he did what he could including taking me to see a psychiatrist. Once I went to live with him at 14 things got a lot better.

  • lana hobbs

    parenting as a guide and facilitator instead of an authoritarian is new to me, but it’s very wonderful to work *with* my children instead of viewing everything as a battle that i must win.

    • The_L1985

      I know! One reason I can’t wait to have kids is because I want to have just one kid in my life that I can build up, instead of tearing them down or trying to live vicariously through them, like my dad did to me.

  • sylvia_rachel

    This is exactly what I try to do with my daughter. I am sometimes really good at it, and sometimes … not so good. But wow, when we succeed in solving a problem together, it’s so much more rewarding than “winning” a battle!

    • Basketcase

      Trying is the key thing I reckon. Its never going to work every time, no-one is that perfect, right? My theory (for once LJ can understand us) is to try and do this sort of parenting as often as possible, and apologise those (hopefully rare) times I get it wrong. I want LJ to understand that he can have any emotion he wants, so long as they dont hurt other people. That said, with him being only 8 weeks old, I do still shush him when he is upset…

      • sylvia_rachel

        Yes! “You’re allowed to feel however you feel, and that’s okay, but you’re not allowed to take it out on other people.”

      • Joykins


  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    My dad said something once that has always stuck with me. He said that when he was a kid, it made him so mad when adults didn’t take seriously the things he was upset about. He said, “There’s lot of things that my parents got upset about that I, as a kid, didn’t understand or couldn’t care less about (such as financial troubles, worries about work, etc.) but even though I didn’t feel the distress myself, I was supposed to be respectful of the fact that they did. I always wanted them to return the favor. When I was upset about something that they didn’t think was a big deal, I wanted them to respect my anger simply because it was important to ME.”

    I will strive to do that for my own children.

    • grindstone

      My only fault with L&L is the “uh oh” tactic they espouse. The “uh oh, I’m running out of energy” or however it was worded. Uh-oh meant big trouble in my house growing up, and I triggered when I read the dang book! Other than that, they seem pretty cool.

      • Rilian Sharp

        What’s L&L? I don’t see it mentioned anywhere else.

      • Feminerd

        I think it was mentioned later on as “Parenting with Love and Logic”. It’s hidden among the comment thread and not easy to find.

      • grindstone

        Somehow disqus put my comment wherever it randomly pleased…..makes no sense now, but yes, Love and Logic,

    • NeaDods

      Oh, yes! My parents did the same thing too. Kid emotions weren’t “real” and thus didn’t need to be respected. So often what I felt was blown off or even mocked.

      What made it worse is that I had real problems with panic attacks and anxiety as a kid. When things got really bad for me, they didn’t know what to do and laughing/yelling at me only made it worse… so they ignored me until I quieted down and then ignored the outburst or downplayed it. Hardly giving me the tools to deal with the problem, there!

    • Thalestris

      I’m in awe of your dad for being able to verbalize that at all, much less retain it into adulthood.

      I had the same experience of having my emotional outbursts ignored. (The main thing I can think of is crying, and having my parents just wait for me to be finished before they start talking again. It was quite a surprise when I was in my 20s, and with my first romantic partner, and found that he REACTED when I cried. He tried to comfort me. I was not used to that.) I’m autistic, and thus it took me longer than it takes most people to recognize emotions (in myself or in others) or put words to them. It occurs to me now that I didn’t have much of an incentive to develop these skills, since I would’ve had a sense that my emotions didn’t really matter to my parents. Communication is hard work for me, so it would make total sense never to try and verbalize something like “I am upset about x” if I didn’t think I would be taken seriously.

      • Rachel Heston-Davis

        I should clarify that my dad’s parents were loving and did respect him. They didn’t ignore his emotions or anything. But I think back in the 50s and 60s it was less of a thing to take all your kids’ emotions really seriously.

      • Thalestris

        Oh, I got that sense from your comment, don’t worry.

        My parents were generally loving and respectful, too — but we are a very science-and-tech-oriented family that prizes rationality, and I also think it may have been harder for them to understand why I was upset because I react so differently to things than normal people, AND I was lousy at explaining why. (Kind of a feedback loop, there — my poor communication skills made my emotions hard to understand, and therefore my parents treated them as weird, random outbursts that needed to be ignored, which told me that my emotions were not valued so I shouldn’t bother learning to express them verbally.)

        I definitely agree with your idea that it just wasn’t as much of a thing back in the ’50s and ’60s to treat a child’s emotions as valid. It’s probably better now, too, than it was even when I was a child in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

  • Christine

    I’m hoping to be able to do this more and more as my 16-month-old gets older. Right now it’s difficult, because she’s still at the stage when we’re trying to teacher her what emotions are, so I am constantly having to put the words into her mouth, and that’s a very scary thing to do. (We’re also working on trying to make sure that we have unique and appropriate responses to her being upset, not just “you’re upset, things must not be going well for you”.)

    • minuteye

      Maybe some explicit empathizing might work? “If somebody had broken my toy, I’d be feeling angry. Is that what you’re feeling?” Interpreting kids’ emotions can be so tricky, since so many of them seem to get expressed the same way.

      • Christine

        Part of what’s so scary is that I recall, as a child, my parents not understanding why I’m upset. So addressing what I think the cause of her upset is might still result in dismissing what she’s upset about. But that’s another good habit to be in, for when she’s older. I’ll have to try it.

  • smrnda

    I think adults haven’t typically cared enough to see things they way children, and haven’t really taken children’s emotions seriously. When I used to work in childcare, we were taught about how it’s important to think of situations from the perspective of the child – for a child, being told to ‘go in because it’s cold’ is going to annoy them if they don’t feel cold. Sometimes kids get upset and adults don’t notice why since the world looks very different to adults and to children. I remember one girl who got really angry at another worker and it was hard to find out why – turned out the girl had gotten scratched by her fingernail and she thought the woman had done it on purpose.

    Something that I always notice is adults who expect kids to sit still through boring trips to the store. Do they seriously expect a kid to sit still while Mom and Dad wander up and down the wine aisle? If adults got locked in a shopping cart while a kid walked around looking at toys, we’d probably be bored too.

    Kids are also learning to regulate their emotions, and their limited knowledge of the world can make certain things seem really upsetting. It’s also important for adults not to freak out and get angry – your way of telling Sally not to hit people will probably work because you’re teaching her why not to hit.

    • Jayn

      “Do they seriously expect a kid to sit still while Mom and Dad wander up and down the wine aisle?”

      And then Mom meets a friend and stops to talk for 15 minutes about stuff you don’t care about and might not understand, making the shopping trip even longer and more boring. (Kind of a tangent, but that drove me NUTS when I was young enough that mom still took me shopping with her.)

      I do agree, though, that we ask certain things of children we wouldn’t expect of adults, which is made worse by the fact that children aren’t as well equipped to deal with those situations in the first place. An adult understands that ze needs to sit quietly for a while, where a child just knows ze’s BORED.

      • sylvia_rachel

        And then Mom meets a friend and stops to talk for 15 minutes about stuff you don’t care about and might not understand, making the shopping trip even longer and more boring.

        OMG yes. TBH, this still annoys me when I’m visiting my hometown and shopping with my mom … particularly when it becomes evident that this person I don’t know, or know only very slightly, has been told a whole bunch of kind of personal things about my medical situation :P (My mom is out on the far extrovert end of the extrovert-introvert scale, while I’m sort of middling introverted, and this is just one of the clashes that causes, even though we both mean well and do our best.)

      • smrnda

        My parents went to wine tastings a lot, which was the most boring thing I ever sat through as a kid, made all the worse because it felt all snooty and pretentious. The most irritating thing was watching the ‘grown ups’ take itty bitty sips and then ooh and aah over the stuff. It actually made me particularly averse to wine for a long time.

      • wmdkitty

        I’m an adult and that sounds incredibly dull.

      • wmdkitty

        “An adult understands that ze needs to sit quietly for a while, where a child just knows ze’s BORED.”

        There’s nothing wrong with being bored — in fact, it’s healthy. The problem comes in when the child starts yelling, screaming, or tearing displays down. This behavior, unfortunately, is often ignored by the “parents”, when it ought to be nipped in the bud immediately.

        Also, re: the “five minute” chats…

        Mom always claimed it was “only a minute”, but it was more like twenty. Yeah. I timed her once. Yes, this still irritates me to no end as an adult, because I’m one of those “get in, get my stuff, pay, get the hell out” shoppers, and extremely introverted*. Mom… isn’t.

        *until I start talking about something like, oh, Doctor Who, or my cat, or some random geekery that nobody else in my family understands, and then I try to explain, and they just go “what.”

      • The_L1985

        I feel your pain, Kitty. I just want to buy things and get out so I can spend the rest of the day doing stuff that’s actually interesting to me. (Which is why I loathe shopping for clothes and shoes–I’m a petite person with tiny feet, and it takes half of forever just to find things that fit.)

      • Christine in Australia

        Oh, man, the new car buying! My dad was one of those people who had to get a new car every 5-6 years. And because he believed the folktale that you get a better deal if the salesman sees you’re a family man… all the family had to go. I HATED new car buying time, it meant weekend after weekend going around different dealerships, comparing deals… AAAAAAAHHHHHH. I’m just grateful it was only every few years.
        (In contrast, when my first car got too old and unreliable, I went to ONE DEALERSHIP and looked at ONE MODEL. And I’m still driving that 8 years later.)

      • The_L1985

        Only every 5-6 years? My dad had some sort of vendetta against property taxes, and would buy a new car as soon as the last one was paid off. Drove me nuts, especially as a kid when I was expected to go too. I wasn’t even allowed to bring a toy while Mommy and Daddy were having the long and (to a child) completely incomprehensible talk about financing. No books, no toys, and nothing to do but look at cars that I wasn’t nearly old enough to drive.

      • The_L1985

        Oh, I know. Mom taught at the school we went to, so we had to sit there and WAIT for her to finish her end-of-day work, then she’d say, “Ok, time to go!” and we’d think we were finally going home–only for her to run into a friend on the way out the door and stop to chat with them for 20 more minutes.

        I plan on talking to my kids if I have to take them to the supermarket at an early age. “Ok, now we have to get carrots! Let’s find them together–do you see any carrots?” and make an adventure out of it. And of course, I’m going to take a note from my mom and give the kids a few low-pressure decisions: “Now which flavor juice do you want to try this week, apple or white grape?”

      • Jayn

        Oh man, I forgot about the stopping on the way out the door thing. Don’t tell me it’s “time to go” and make me get ready to leave if you’re NOT ACTUALLY LEAVING. (And this was while we were out visiting people, so it wasn’t like “Oh hey, I haven’t seen you in a while” but the same people she’d been spending time with for the last however many hours.)

      • The_L1985

        When I finally said something to tha effect in middle school, Mom just stared at me. She hasn’t even realized she was doing it, much less that it was so irritating to both of us.

        Of course, she didn’t stop, either, but at least she started making an effort to say things like, “I was just on my way out the door” to help cut the conversations short.

  • Marta L.

    This reminds me of a discussion point I’ve seen a few times in my Methodist church about whether we are supposed to control our emotions and impulses or just our actions. It’s a theological question that’s very important in (for example) how the church talks about homosexuality – but it’s also an extremely important question at a personal, psychological level, I think. It seems we’re responsible for not just controlling our actions but cultivating the right kind of emotional reaction in the first place. But it takes a lifetime to do that and Sally is still very young, of course! I think the first step on that path is owning the emotions or in this case allowing Sally to own hers. You can’t address the fact that you get angry too easily if you hide the anger rather than admitting you have it. And shaming/suppression almost never works at that deeper level.

    Tl;dr version? You’ve done good, and I hope you’ll continue to do the same. Of course, the way Sally expresses herself so openly and honestly – so has she.

  • tsara

    Can I just say that I love that Sally (apparently) said that she doesn’t like you right now?

    I don’t think many kids recognize that their feelings now are not what their feelings will always be, especially when they’re angry and trying to communicate that.

    It’s awesome.

    • Libby Anne

      I hadn’t thought of that exactly! But yes, she did say “right now”! I think it might be because of how *I* express my emotions: “Honey, I’m being a little short at the moment because I’m kind of stressed out right now.” I think I usually add “right now” when talking about emotions. Interesting.

      • Basketcase

        “Right Now” is a great thing to add to negative emotions in particular I reckon, as it shows you are aware its not positive, and you are aiming for that emotion to not hang around.

  • Highlander

    :: sarcasm starts>
    And to think, you could have just beaten her into submission so that she would never express her anger to you, and wouldn’t trust you to be a sounding board for her emotions. Those authoritarian parents have it so easy, they don’t have to talk to their kids at all.
    <::sarcasm ends

  • Kellen Connor

    My parents were not as authoritarian as some, but I was their first and they did not get what they were expecting with me. Consequently, a lot of energy was expended attempting to program me with “correct” emotions.

  • Basketcase

    OMG, I LOVE the suggestion to take the mixing spoon outside and hit the grass. I will have to remember that one!

    • The_L1985

      I was often told to go punch a pillow, and I’ve seen the “Calm-Down Corner” suggested on several positive parenting sites–complete with a Play-Doh-filled balloon “stress ball” so they can “squeeze the mad out.”

      • Basketcase

        I admit, this morning I was really glad for the soft toys in my babies room, when he kept waking up after 2 minutes asleep and 2 hours attempting to get him to settle. Throwing one out of the room with all my strength was a wonderful calmative and did no damage.

    • Gillianren

      It’s worth noting, though, that current studies show that acting out your aggression when you’re upset is a bad pattern to get into. It actually makes you more likely to respond with violence, not less.

  • Lucreza Borgia
    • wmdkitty

      Bookmarked. This looks useful for a lot of situations, not just with kids.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        It’s a great tool that I use all the time. It works really well, is moderately easy to use once you get the pattern committed to memory, and can help diffuse people with extreme emotionally driven behaviors in an efficient manner. When using it on people other than children it’s very important to not use the word ‘but’ when you are interjecting how you feel. A lot of people mistake validation for agreement and don’t want to use this tool because they think that by validating that they are somehow condoning the negative behavior that they want changed.

        Variations of this method can help you convey how you feel to people who do not understand why you are upset or angry or whatnot. I use the “when you do X, I feel X” statements all the time with my husband and it has helped us grow as a married couple as he sometimes has problems understanding why I react very differently than he does emotionally.

  • JaCo

    I would like to see more parents understand how this applies to kids’ bodies too. Just because we want our children to hug someone so the person is not offended does not mean our child feels the same way. I don’t care if it’s Grandma, the child has a right to not want to touch someone. Whenever a parent asks their child to give me a hug, I try to be quick with “it’s okay if you don’t want to – I don’t always feel like hugging people either. “

  • wmdkitty

    I just realized something. I cannot recall even one instance of an apology from either of my parents. (But they always forced us kids to apologize, whether we meant it or not…)

  • Joykins

    I’ve worked on this with my tween daughter. “It’s OK to feel angry and frustrated, and it’s OK to express that. But it is not acceptable to be mean and disrespectful, and if you want to do that you’re going to have to express yourself in your room by yourself until you can interact like a decent human being again.” Because I don’t want to raise a child who is going to unload a torrent of verbal attacks on someone and expect them to take it, ever.

  • Ann Joseph

    As you know, it is very easy for children to over react and believe me, I am sure you have other occasions of her too when she over reacted with joy and enthusiasm that made you stand at awe. Aint? Being a folklorist, I sometimes come across simple stories and meaningful proverbs about emotions and find some are really useful to advice our kids also. Here are some…

    1.) One always thinks that others are happy. (Yiddish)

    2.) The greatest hate springs from the greatest love. (English)

    3.) He who threatens is afraid. (French)

    4.) Anger ends in cruelty. (Indian-Tamil)

    5.) A flood can be controlled but lust, never. (Philippine)

    6.) Jealousy is a pain which eagerly seeks what causes pain. (German)

    7.) It is truth that makes a man angry. (Italian)

    8.) Anxiety breaks a man’s backbone. (Hebrew)

    9.) He who is feared by many, fears many. (German)

    10.) One joy scatters a hundred grief. (Chinese)

    Hope you enjoyed. Feel free to try more…