Gentle Parenting Tools: Recognize Feelings

Over fifty percent of the many spankings I received as a child were because of feelings, emotions, or as my parents called it “attitude”. Initially I thought that emotions in general were bad, but as time went on I realized that the fact was that children’s emotions did not matter in my home. My parents could feel angry or tired or sad and no one spanked them, but children were not allowed to have feelings.

As an adult, I now realize that telling someone not to feel is as ridiculous as telling them not to be hungry. I still feel all of the emotions I felt as a child, only now I am expected to communicate them for the first time. I often find myself in denial of my emotions, fortunately I have a husband who no longer believes me when I angrily protest “I’m not angry!”

Emotions can be scary when you don’t know how to recognize them and handle them. Adults are often uncomfortable with their children having what we perceive to be “negative” emotions because we want our children to be happy, and when they aren’t we take it personally. But being a good parent does not mean our children will be happy one hundred percent of the time, that would be unrealistic. Feelings are a part of life, and if you think about it, there really are no negative emotions. We don’t speak of body parts as positive or negative, such as a positive arm or a negative leg. Why do we label the emotions we are uncomfortable with as negative? Emotions themselves are not the issue, although how we handle them can cause problems. Even emotions that are perceived as “positive” can be handled badly, such as being so happy over winning a game that you begin to gloat and boast and rub it in the losers face. Feelings themselves are neutral, and our children need to know that it is completely acceptable for them to feel all of their feelings.

And yet, how often do we instinctively discount our children’s emotions? We say things like “Quit crying, big boys don’t carry on like that.” Is it really true that men shouldn’t cry?

Or how about “Don’t be angry”, how do you just decide not to be angry without processing that emotion?

Many times we feel the need to fix the problem. We can’t see the owie, so they are not really hurt right? We tell them “You’re OK”. Are they really? Would they be upset if they were OK?

Or maybe we are watching a movie and they are scared when something mundane happens. How often is our instinctive response a “reassuring” “That’s not scary.” Why not help them acknowledge their fear and talk about it?

We can’t “fix” their feelings, they will either be felt or suppressed. We can teach our kids to recognize and understand their emotions, and even give them acceptable ways to handle those feelings.

A great start is to recognize your own feelings and model good ways to handle them. Your kids are watching, if you handle your anger by throwing things and swearing, they will try it too. If you handle sadness by eating junk food, your children will think that is an acceptable coping mechanism. My instinct (after initial denial of the emotion) is to blame it on someone. So I will say things like “You are making me angry!” My husband will remind me to re-state it as an expression of MY feelings, not what someone else is or isn’t doing. It’s better to use “I-statements” such as “I am sad right now” or “I am so angry because…”
Recognizing our children’s feelings can start at a young age by giving them the names for their emotions. When my one year old comes running to me crying and rubbing her head, I say things like “Did you bump your head? Ouch that hurts!” If she is babbling angrily and pointing at a sibling I can help her understand what she is feeling by saying things like “You are angry because she took the toy, lets go ask her to give it back.” I have been amazed by how she is completely diffused when her feelings are recognized. She knows that I understand the problem, and that I am there to help her. She is also learning the names for those feelings.

Personally, the 18 month-3 year old phase drives me crazy. This is the age where they know exactly what they want, and are determined to get it. But they aren’t quite able to communicate clearly or negotiate or even handle disappointment well. Still, I’ve found that recognizing their emotions goes a long way! Helpful communication can be explanations such as, “You are disappointed because you wanted to wear shoes. I’m sorry, but we have to wear boots today.” Or “You are angry because you don’t want to sit in your car seat. I’m sorry, but the rule is that we have to stay in our car seats when we are in the car, so we can be safe.” Saying these things gives her the names for the emotions she is experiencing, and sometimes the explanation will make sense to her. Ms Drama has always been high sensory, so sometimes hugs or excessive attention make her even angrier when she is very emotional. She sometimes needs a bit of time alone with a stuffed animal or a book.

My 4 year old is getting to the point where she can tell me her feelings with some accuracy. She will come to me and say things like “I’m sad, I need a hug.” Or at church “I’m afraid of that boy because he was chasing me.” She’s also getting to the point where I can offer her some help with problem solving, “Are you upset because your friend won’t share? I’m sorry that happened. I’m glad you are being gentle with your friend. What do you think we should do now?” The blame game of tattling on someone’s behaviour, is changing into an explanation of her own feelings about the conflict, and figuring out how to resolve the problem instead of waiting for me to fix it.

Another great benefit of recognizing and talking about emotions, is the empathy it fosters. When someone gets hurt my children immediately ask if the person is OK and give that person a hug or pat their arm. At the end of a long pregnant day when I sat on the couch in tears, Ms Action came over to me and asked me if I was tired as she stroked my hair for me. I am so grateful for the compassion and empathy my children offer everyone around them.

I know when I began my journey into gentle parenting, I found much of this very irritating. this stuff was silly and irrelevant. I needed a real solution for problem behaviours, I needed a tool that actually worked! Communication? Recognizing feelings? Come on! I know my kids already. It has taken me a year of practice to get to the point where it is becoming instinctive to recognize my children’s feelings instead of seeing them as something bad, and to my surprise I’ve found that a lot of the “need” for punishment was eliminated when I stopped seeing feelings as a “bad attitude” problem that I was obligated to train out of my children.

What are some ways you handle feelings at your house?

Re-post: I am Not My Parents
Children of an Atheist talk about God
Breaking the Silence
Re-Post: Rights of a Child
  • nellakat

    I know it sounds like a small, silly thing, but rather than say "you are angry" or "you are sad", we say "You are having an angry feeling because of x". We do this for 2 reasons, the first is that I don't want my children to think they are defined by their feelings. I know it sounds kinda crazy, but I want to communicate to them that a feeling is something that happens but that they are bigger than their feelings. Secondly, we try to communicate that they have the power to choose how to respond to their feelings and that actions do not automatically flow from feelings. ex. "You are having an angry feeling, but you may not hit." etc. In that instance when the child calms down we would talk about how best to respond when we are angry. I don't know if that made sense, I know it seems like a trivial distinction but it has actually helped me a lot as an emotional woman to view feelings as something that happen, not as something I am.

  • Sandra

    I wrote a blog post about this sort of reframing of children's behavior from "sinful" to "doing the best they can even if that's not very good". Even though as a preschool teacher before becoming a parent, I had dropped much of the need-to-win-power-struggle paradigm of child development, I found being a parent of a highly allergic, hyperactive, ADD child to be a real challenge to my deep down preconceptions of sin/wickedness vs natural outcomes of environmental factors.

    Have to admit, though, after writing that post for the person who made the initial "children are selfish and lacking in empathy" comment, the person (and several others who wrote me as well) completely missed my point and clung rabidly to their dogma–children are born evil and have to be trained out of it in one way or another.


  • Rebecca @ The Road Home

    Please please please write a book someday – and address it to both parents AND caregivers (nannies, child care workers, nurses, etc) of young children.


  • Regina

    Thank you for sharing this! I had a surprising revelation a couple months ago while trying to teach my almost 2 yr old daughter how to handle anger. I told her "You are angry because of whatever. But when we are angry we don't hit/throw/rip/break, we…." and there I got stuck. What DO we do when we're angry?

    I ended up spending several weeks trying to figure out how to healthily express anger. I realized that in my family, anger was punished, no matter what the reason and so I never learned how to properly express it. My parents always fought behind closed doors, so we never saw them work through anger and frustrations. As an adult my first reaction is to stuff and deny it, then I want to break and hit things–but to talk about it? Explore the why and talk it out? That takes practice and vulnerability. Thankfully, my daughter is a pretty safe person to practice it with and she learns from me when I say "I'm angry because you did this. I don't like that. Let's clean it up/fix it/take a break while mommy calms down." I'm still figuring it out, but realizing that I needed to learn to express emotion, especially the really bad emotions like anger, was a big step for me in dealing with and teaching my daughter.

  • Kateri

    I've been following your blog for a while and don't think I've commented before. Love your take on things since I am the oldest daughter in a large family (We were catholic, but in a very patriarchal family, and the more I read about the quiverful movement, the more amazed I am at how my parents by themselves managed to come up with all the harmful philosophies that the quiverful movement is full of.) Anyway, I just wanted to say, I love the way you parent….you are the kind of parent I would like to be if I ever have children (don't have any children yet due to issues with infertility). I had never heard of gentle parenting prior to reading your blog. But it makes so much more sense to me than parenting by fear, which is the way I raised.

  • Michelle

    We do a lot of the same things you mention…naming the feelings when they are present and what we can do to handle the emotions. It has gotten a little more complicated as my children have gotten older. Because honestly…a 9-almost-10-year-old girl is sometimes a difficult creature to parent that way. My daughter that age is actually a real gem…but she has her moments and it's been a struggle to transition to this "tween" stage. My second daughter is about to start moving that direction and her personality is so different from my oldest that I'm almost scared of how it will go (LOL).

    I, too, am frustrated during the 18 mo – 3 year old stage. They just don't know how to talk about their feelings but you're right…they know what they want….

    I guess I am finding that there's some frustration with the older ages, too, in such a different way because while they CAN communicate, they often choose NOT to communicate…at least not in the ways you expect. Oh well…we keep on chuggin' along! :)

  • Young Mom

    Nellakat- Interesting observation about “you feel angry” rather than “you are angry”. And I totally agree with giving alternative behaviour options to express the emotion, I am planning on talking about that in a future post.

    Sandra- The “need to win” thing is promoted by most of the evangelical authors that write on discipline. I feel it can be so damaging to the parent child relationship, I know it was for me. I’ve also written about how my perspective on the “original sin” teachings have changed. I was pushed to re-evaluate when I was pregnant with my 3rd and my oldest was 2, and I realized that I was beginning to punish my kids the way my parents punished me, something I had swore would never happen. Ending the artificially created “war” between me and my children was one of the best things that ever happened to me!

    Rebecca- Thank you. : )

    Regina- It does take incredible vulnerability to be open about emotions, and it is even harder when you’ve been taught your whole life that emotions were evil. I love what you said about expressing your emotions to your daughter. In my own childhood, if a 2 year old did something “bad”, she would be immediately spanked. As we got older and did something that displeased our parents, the spanking was accompanied by an explanation of how we had disobeyed god. There was never any honesty or transparency from the parent to just say outright “I don’t like it when you do XXX, because that makes so much work for me”, instead it had to be tied to “what god wants” somehow. Since I care how my children feel, I’ve found they also care how others feel, so an explanation of how something hurt someone is enough for them to understand why what they did is not OK.

    Kateri- Thank you! Parenting is such a journey. I continue to be amazed by some of the choices my parents made, especially when my oldest reaches a new stage and I wonder how my parents could have rationalized doing things to their children that I would never dream of doing to mine. Parenting by fear (and out of fear!) is so crippling.

    Michelle- I have thought of that comparison of the 18 months- 3 year old stage to the tween and teen stage. I get nervous wondering how I will parent older stages sometimes, because I am figuring this all out as I go. But like you said, we just keep chugging along. : )

  • Anonymous

    In response to saying 'I have an angry feeling': I think that's silly. We are composite beings, with permeating public and private dimensions. You'd never say "The atoms of your arm hit the atoms of my face." (That's substance dualism) You'd indignantly cry "You hit me!" And then the whole person, not just the hand, is held accountable and given consequences.

  • Cici

    Thank you so much for this post, I really needed it today. I often find myself telling my little ones to "stop feeling" even though I know everything works out better when I just acknowledge the feeling.

  • Young Mom

    Anonymous- I think the idea is to avoid labeling the person with the emtotion, but I agree with you. I think that saying "I am angry" as apposed to "I feel angry" helps us to better own the emotion. I guess it would be personal preference.

  • Sandra

    I heard the comparison of toddler and tween/teens when my kids just before my kids hit the first stage. So I thought if I worked hard at relationship-building in the toddler years, the early teens would be a breeze. Moms of teens looked condescendingly down their more experienced noses and smirked. Now I am the older mom of teens (dd1 turns 14 tomorrow, dd2 is 12 1/2) and I am laughing up my sleeve and all those moms who thought they knew better.

    The "rebellion" of the early teens is exactly the same as the "rebellion" of the two year old–both are venturing into a greater independence of being, stepping away toward enticing new adventures and running back for reassurance, and both need a lot of loving redirection. I spent a LOT of time and energy fostering their competence and confidence as toddlers, proving myself again and again as a jumping-off point and safety net rather than a set of implacable walls/rules/boundaries to hem them in.

    No, my relationship with my teen/tween is not all hearts and flowers; there is lots of yelling both ways (we like to yell, it clears the air, and we all feel better), and I offer to sell them about once a week. But they still crave my opinion and advice (though they won't always ask for it), they still snuggle with me every morning and night, and even sometimes hold my hand in public just for affection.

    I would think this is just normal teen stuff except that I look around at teens and their parents in our homeschool activities, sports teams, etc. and only ONE other family has even close to the same relationship with their teens as we do, out of dozens of families we know. So I heartily preach gracious parenting–keeping the relationship always first over any other element of behavior modification or other parenting responsibility. I am my kids' mentor, not their friend, not their keeper, not their spiritual mediator.

    Ooh, was gonna expound more but gotta run pick up dd1 from swim team.

  • Karen

    Thank you for posting this! It's the post I've been waiting for, to see how you deal with training your children… One thing we always say to our kids is "You can't control your emotions – those are gifts from God, even when they don't feel like a gift – but you can control your responses…" I don't know if this seems to vague, but it seems to give 1) understanding and empathy to our kids and 2) encouragement that you can be empowered (and not just passively take the emotions and react) to overcome an emotion with Christ's strength working mightily. Sounds weird, but it really has helped around here.

    Resting in Him,

  • Anne —

    Lol, I guess I'm kind of like your kids right now…learning the proper way to deal with emotions and stuff. It's hard! Sometimes I unconsciously suppress my emotions because it's what I've been used to, what I've been doing for so long.

  • Young Mom

    Sandra- Thanks so much for sharing! Very interesting stuff, I wonder if there are some books out there on this comparison?

    Karen- Good stuff! I’m excited about this series, I think writing it down is helping me dissect what I am actually doing myself. So often when people ask me what I do now that we don’t spank, I find myself trying to explain how I am following my instincts now and only feel qualified to recommend books I’ve read. : )

    Anne- Me too! Some days I feel like I have a long way to go, can’t tell you how much writing has helped me on that journey.

  • Sarah

    This is amazing. I'm 26 and I still feel like my feelings own me sometimes, and feel guilty when I am angry or upset. I will definitely try your approach with my own children one day.

  • Leah

    Sounds like you're doing a great job of being in tune with your children. They're lucky! Good for you! Keep it up!

  • Sandra

    " I wonder if there are some books out there on this comparison?"

    It was a long time ago so I can't remember where exactly I heard the comparison. I know I was doing a lot of reading then on Rudolf Steiner indications of child development (Waldorf education) and before that I'd been reading Bill and Martha Sears. I also read Mothering Magazine from cover to cover within hours of its arrival. I think it has gone completely to an online format now.

  • Melanie B

    This series is really interesting to me as I'm really struggling with some of these same issues even though I'm coming at it from an very different place. In my family there was never the sense that you talk about of emotions being evil or everything coming back to "God is angry" or to sin. But still anger was out of control and I never learned healthy ways to express it. My dad just lost his temper and acted like a two or three year old and in some ways I'm still stuck there too. So I do some of what you're talking about in terms of helping my children process emotions like sadness or frustration; but I'm still very stuck on anger. And I really don't know how to deal with outright disobedience. I just get so caught up in the power struggle and don't know how to short circuit the loop so as not to fight that battle. I'm looking forward to the continuing series because even if you aren't in the same pace, your reflections do help me to try to work on it instead of writing it off as "just the way things are" and "I can't fix it" and living with the mess.

  • Pippi

    I know exactly what you mean about the whole "attitude spanking" thing. That makes me so angry. I feel like it is one of the laziest things a parent can do. My mom used to switch us until we stopped crying, saying that only then would she know we were really sorry. What kind of screwed up logic that is I can't even imagine. And I see my brother do the same thing with his son. He will tell him to do something, and then snap out, "And smile while you do it!" Seriously? My nephew has the smile of a serial killer. It scares me. The kind of smile that never comes from his emotions, but only from a conscious thought that he should smile at that moment. I wish I could tell them that everything they do only makes his problems worse.

    Anyway, I choose to let my kids have their tantrums. And sadly, I have no doubt that time will show between my kids and the ones being raised on Fundamentalism, which was the better way. I wish it wasn't so.

  • Young Mom

    Sarah- Getting past the guilt is hard, it helps me to remember that anger is not the problem, it’s handling it badly that could cause problems.

    Leah and Sandra- Thank you.

    Melanie B- My parents showed anger in inappropriate ways, often taking it out on the kids, but as children we weren’t allowed to feel. Ad an adult it was very hard for me to even admit that I was angry, and I still struggle to express it in a healthy way, but it is getting easier. The book I linked last week (Discipline without Distress) actually has an entire chapter on how to handle your own anger as a parent, which has been very helpful for me!

    Pippi- Yes! Those were the worst spankings, and looking back I cannot understand or reason why a parent would continue hurting a child and expect them to be able to gain control of themselves. I remember giving the fake smiles, I remember shoving down every feeling to be as docile as possible so that it would be over more quickly, and I was a very compliant and “obedient” child! Some of my siblings were not as good at pretending. It really is a terrifying experience.

  • ‘Becca

    Acknowledging emotions definitely does help behavior! We are always working on this because our son typically gets more upset (acts "worse") when his dad and/or I are feeling bad either emotionally or physically, so our own feelings easily distract us from being willing to think about his feelings.

    One idea that's been very useful to me is that ANGER IS A SECONDARY EMOTION; it grows out of another feeling that came first. For all the members of my family, the first feeling usually is fear. We are getting angry to blame someone else for our fear, to punish someone for "making" us feel afraid, to scare away our fear by being fierce, or because we are annoyed at ourselves for being weak and afraid. The first feeling might instead be embarrassment, regret (something didn't work as intended), physical pain…all of those have elements of fear in my psyche.

    Example: My son decides to walk along the top of a brick wall that's narrow and muddy. He slips and falls onto the sidewalk, lightly scraping his knee. He jumps up, turns on me, and hollers, "I'm FINE!!! Stop LOOKING at me like that!!!" Now, I feel hurt that he's yelling at me and acting like it's a bad thing that I'm concerned about him…but it's not helpful to him (or, ultimately, to me) to launch into a lecture about how a child ought to speak to his parent or otherwise turn this into a discussion of ME and my feelings and rights. It works a lot better to remind myself that his angry bluster is covering up his fear (while falling, fearing he might get hurt worse), embarrassment (at being seen losing his balance), regret ("I should have known it wasn't safe to walk there."), and/or pain–but I don't have to label any of those feelings for him. I can just say, "I'm glad you are fine." in a factual sort of tone and move on. Sometimes he'll then contradict himself: "I am NOT fine! I have a HURT KNEE!" and then we can move on from that point.

    I often tell him stories of times in my childhood (sometimes even times in my daily life now) when I felt confusing feelings. My parents used to tell me stories like that, and I feel it helped me to understand that everyone has weird feelings sometimes and might not make the best decision because of those feelings. In fact, I guess my parents still do that for me. :-)

  • Young Mom

    'Becca- Thanks for bringing up that great point! Anger is often triggered by another emotion.

  • Anonymous

    The name for this is "emotion coaching" if anyone reading the archives would like to google for more information.