How to Handle Children's Feelings So They Can Learn to Deal With Them

Tammy Cox By Tammy Cox, 13th Nov 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Parenting

After the tragedies of 9/11 American families faced new and difficult ranges of feelings. The level of anger, intense sadness, fear and yes perhaps even joy when we saw how as a country we came together to care and support one another were hard to comprehend, let alone explain to our children.

Understanding feelings and why we have them is essential.

To provide a better understanding of feelings, I divide them into five broad categories.

1. Anger - which can include irritation, frustration, rage, aggravation and a lot of other labels we use when we don't want to admit we are angry. Anger is a feedback emotion and it tell us that we are not getting what we want. Underneath all anger is some unmet desire.

2. Sadness is necessary to help us heal from a loss. It communicates that we need to grieve. People who do not grieve a loss often become depressed and numb or inexplicably angry.

3. Depression is another feedback emotion. It is anger turned inward or sadness resisted and is exemplified by a desire to disconnect from other people and sometimes life in general.

4. Fear, which includes anxiety, dread, apprehension, etc. gives us information and often alerts us to danger or risk. It can also be based on experiences from our past or things that are not even real. It is important for us to name the fear to effectively deal with it.

5. Joy - happiness, elation, and all those wonderful feelings we want the most is there too. When we are feeling joyful everything seems to be going right!

Doing what doesn't work.

As parents we all want our children to grow up with the ability to handle their feelings in healthy and appropriate ways and they are born with their feelings working quite well. Everyone knows what a baby is feeling. But then we try to control them and end up teaching the opposite of what we want.

Denying feelings, scolding or reprimanding, using guilt, lecturing, punishing, moralizing, using sarcasm, comparisons and assuming are all "feeling-stoppers" which we use to teach our children to stuff their feelings instead of share and work through them.

When we judge feelings as good or bad we fail to see the value

Stuffing feelings with food.

Unfortunately we usually start this at a very early age and one of the most common ways is with food or some other form of oral gratification. Many years ago, I took my 6-week-old granddaughter to the doctor for her immunizations. After getting shots in both hips she was furious and loudly telling the world about it! The nurse suggested I give her a bottle or pacifier to stop her crying and as I was reaching for a bottle it struck me that this is how we first start teaching children to stuff feelings with food. Fortunately that baby would have none of it. She spit the bottle out and cried louder than ever. I decided to let it be OK for her to express her outrage and just held her. She worked through her anger, stopped crying and was soon peacefully sleeping. When she woke later she was her usual happy self. I know that had I persisted in trying to force her to stuff her anger she would have been cranky and fussy all day.

More stuffing.

We teach our infants and young children to stuff their feelings in many other ways. We jiggle, bounce or pat a fussy baby, rather than recognizing that the fussiness is just their way of expressing feelings. Whereas an adult might talk about feeling lousy or being uncomfortable, tired, hot, worried, etc., a baby does not have those verbal skills so fusses instead.

When a child is feeling sad we pat them on the back and tell them not to be sad. We tell a small boy to act like a big boy and not cry or be afraid. We tell our little girls that it isn't pretty to be angry. We tell a recently dethroned toddler he can't possibly hate his baby sister, instead of recognizing and acknowledging his intense feelings about no longer being the center of our universe.

When a child is throwing a tantrum we try to stop him. Or we say if he doesn't stop crying we'll give him something to really cry about. The result is the child feels discounted and violated and he learns that it isn't safe to express certain feelings. When a child is jumping and shouting for joy we tell them to sit still and be quiet or at least not be so noisy. In these and many more ways we give children the message that feelings are not OK. They then conclude there must be something wrong with them if they are having such feelings.

We lie about our own feelings.

In the attempt to keep them from picking up on our feelings that we're uncomfortable with we lie to children. We will say in an angry tone of voice "I'm not angry, I'm just sad (or hurt) that you would do that..." Or we tell them nothing is wrong when it is very obvious to them that something has angered us or we are sad. This can be very confusing to children and make them doubt their intuition and their own feelings.

The end results of inappropriate handling of feelings are adults who are overweight (or have eating disorders) from stuffing feelings with food, addicted to alcohol, work, sex or any of the other "isms" we use to numb out on, emotionally unavailable and/or depressed.

Being in charge!

As adults we think we should control our feelings and teach our children to do the same, but I recommend being in charge of feelings instead. Not only is that approach more empowering, but we can use what we are feeling to give us clues to a better understanding of what is going on in our lives.

To explain the pitfalls of controlling or stuffing our feelings I often ask people in my classes to do this little exercise which you can try now. Hold up one hand and label your fingers starting with the thumb as anger, forefinger as sadness, middle finger as depression, ring finger as fear and the pinky as joy.

Now using your other hand, suppose you are told to not be angry and so you hold that thumb down to control the anger. Then you are told "Don't cry! Don't be sad." or "Big boys don't cry!" and you hold down the forefinger. Then you get the message that it is not OK to feel depressed and hold down the middle finger so as to control that feeling. And of course you want to appear brave so you control that fear finger. When you finally get to your joy finger you will notice that with all the others under control you have far less flexibility in your pinky. The extent that you can freely feel all the other feelings, that is the amount of joy you can experience.

When we are able to be in charge of all our feelings we find that just as a hand with 5 fully functioning fingers at our disposal can be very useful for building things, typing, playing an instrument and so many other things – our feelings can also be very useful.

How parents can help.

Parents can help children develop healthy ways to handle feelings by first of all modeling appropriate expression of their own feelings. Parents who have problems appropriately handling their own feelings can find help through therapy, personal growth workshops and many good books on the topic -- just check out the self-help section of the library or bookstore. Gaining these skills and teaching them to your children is probably one of the most valuable gifts you can give them.


Anger, Emotional Eating, Emotional Expression, Emotional Intelligence, Feelings, Sadness

Meet the author

author avatar Tammy Cox
Parent educator and instructor trainer, relationship coach, public speaker, writer, Mother, Grandmother, former caregiver of elderly parent and now several dogs and a cat.

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author avatar RondaKay
23rd Nov 2015 (#)

Yes! Communication is key. We, as parents, need to learn that when our children are upset, nothing is more important in their world at that moment then what is going on with them. We need to stop what we are doing, hug them and let them share what is making them so sad and then help them to get past it.

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author avatar Barbara Frandsen
27th Jan 2016 (#)

This article provides valuable information. When we understand our feelings and allow ourselves and our children to experience feelings in healthy ways, everyone benefits.

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