Parents, Please Stop Denying Your Kids’ Feelings

Parents, Please Stop Denying Your Kids’ Feelings July 11, 2016

bungeeWhile in Colorado last week, my very-cautious daughter did the very-brave thing of trying one of those bungee-jumping contraptions that have popped up at every adventure park on the planet these last few years.

In line in front of her were two boys — brothers, ages 3 and 6. The 3-year-old had bungeed before and was clearly excited; his older was inexperienced and decidedly unexcited. But, with some encouragement from his mom, he overcame his fear and stepped into the bungee harness.

We all watched as the boy sprung up and down for some time, gripping the ropes tightly, but smiling faintly, too, as his mom snapped pictures on her phone. Finally, after a couple of minutes, he signaled that he was finished, stepped out of the harness and joined his mom on a bench nearby.

“You did so great!” his mom said, hugging him. “I’m so proud of you. Did you like it?”

“I hated it,” the little boy told his mom, barely audible.

“No, you didn’t,” she said.

“I hated it,” he repeated in the same voice.

“You were smiling the whole time! You enjoyed it,” his mom insisted.

“I hated it,” he said.

“Stop saying that word. I mean it,” she said.

“I hated it,” he said.

“Don’t say that,” she pleaded. “Your daddy is going to be so proud of you.”

“I hated it,” he said.

Two things American parents do really well are encouraging their kids to try new things and praising them for their bravery. Two things American parents don’t do very well are allowing children their feelings and treating those feelings as important.

And that’s unfortunate.

When we deny our kids’ feelings, we deny them their voices. We let them believe their thoughts, opinions and feelings are not valid. And when kids can’t trust their feelings, or respect them, they are put in a position to question themselves, dislike themselves and hide parts of themselves from others. (All the things that keep therapists in business.)

I’ll be honest: The whole thing with the “hated-it” kid was very funny to watch. He was just so deadpan the whole time; all of us sitting around him had a hard time not giggling. But when his mom said “Your daddy is going to be so proud of you” — almost as consolation for his unhappiness— my stomach sank.

Not only was Mom denying the little guy’s feelings; she also was teaching her son that it’s good to do things he hates as long as Dad is proud of him.

Of course, she was just trying to be honest with her son and encourage his bravery — but, in doing so, she overshadowed what was really important in that moment: meeting her little boy on an emotional level.

So what could she have done instead?

She could have acknowledged his feelings — “Wow, you really didn’t like that! I’m glad you thought to end the ride early.” She could have given him kudos for trying something that scared him — “Great job for giving it a go, buddy! You never would have known you didn’t like it unless you’d tried it.” She might even have given him a little power to boost his self-esteem — “You didn’t enjoy this ride, and your brother did, so why don’t you decide what we do next?”

As for my Maxine, she held on to those ropes for dear life. She smiled, but it was a strained smile, and seemed relieved when the whole thing was over.

“Great job!” I told her. “Did you like it?”

“Kind of,” she said, “but I’m never doing it again.”

I think we, as parents, are very good at encouraging our kids’ bravery; we just need to get better at encouraging their feelings, too.


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