I Let My Kids Express Their Big Emotions, But With One Major Caveat

by Kristen Mae

“You’re a bad mom! I HATE YOU!”

My driver’s seat bulged into my spine from the impact of my 9-year-old’s foot. Did it sting a little when she told me she hated me? Honestly, no, it didn’t. I know she doesn’t hate me. I know it now and I knew it when she said it. She was furious because she’d come with me and her 13-year-old brother to his annual well visit and the doctor had suggested that as long as both kids were in the office, they may as well both get their flu shot. Mari had thought she’d get to sit in the corner reading her book but instead ended up having to get stuck in the arm. She felt blindsided and betrayed, and she totally, completely, all-the-way-down-to-tantrum-town, lost every last bit of her chill.

I’ve read a lot about how important it is for us to allow kids to express their big emotions. I’ve even written in favor of it. So, when my daughter first started to lose it, I acknowledged how upset she was without shaming her or diminishing her feelings. She was reasonably upset, and the tears didn’t surprise me. Getting a surprise shot just kinda sucks. But when, even after the shot was over and done with, her crying continued to escalate, I tried to help her calm down. She wasn’t having it. It was during the car ride home that she kicked my seat and told me she hated me.

I’d had enough. I pulled the car over and turned around so I could look at her. “Enough. The shot is over and done with. You are no longer crying because you’re surprised and scared. At this point, you’re raging out of pure anger, and you’re making me and your brother miserable with your screaming and crying. If you can’t calm yourself down in the next couple of minutes, you’re grounded.”

She managed to settle herself down, and later that night we reconnected so we could talk more about why her reaction wasn’t okay and what to do differently next time.

Because, even though I am pro let-kids-express-their-feelings, I am very much anti let-kids-ruin-everyone’s-day-with-their-feelings. I’ve had this rule for as long as I’ve been a parent, and both kids know it. You’re allowed to feel all the things you need to feel, but you don’t get to totally annihilate the peace of everyone else in your environment. You can be angry, but if you scream and bang on the kitchen table, I’m sending you to your room to finish your outburst. And if the outburst in your room is so loud that it’s ringing through the house and stressing everyone else out, I’m going to shut that shit down too. Expressing our emotions is a skill we all must learn. But so is managing them and expressing them appropriately in a way that doesn’t infringe on other people’s well-being.

So much of the advice given to parents these days is to let children express whatever they’re feeling, to simply listen to them, never tell them to stop crying. (Saying “never” about just about anything to do with parenting is kind of ridiculous anyway, but that’s a whole other essay.) I agree that we should encourage kids to express how they feel, but we need to bring some nuance to this discussion. Children’s emotions and how they express them aren’t black and white, so the way we respond to those emotions shouldn’t be either. Anyone with a toddler and older knows kids are perfectly capable of using their emotions to manipulate their environment, to get what they want, or simply to escalate and vent their own white-hot fury.

I don’t want to send the message to my kids that their feelings are more important than the feelings of everyone else in the room. Whether we’re at home with just family around or out at a restaurant surrounded by strangers, I will not allow my kid’s emotional outburst to escalate to the point that it disturbs others. My son will often get so frustrated with homework that he’ll scream or slam his calculator on the table. Not okay. You can be frustrated, kid, but I’m over here trying to cook a nice pot of chicken tortilla soup and you’re harshing my mellow. Take a deep breath, walk away for a minute, ask for help, call a friend. You have plenty of available options for managing your frustration that don’t involve shitting all over my chill environment.

Explaining appropriate expressions for our feelings is just as important as giving our kids space to express their emotions. So I talk a lot with my kids about how to express or control frustration, anger, and fear. As adults, we are often required to tamp down intense feelings, to find a healthy outlet for them as opposed to, say, fighting a random stranger in an intersection because they cut you off in traffic. (I mean, we’ve all wanted to, haven’t we?)

So, after my daughter’s outburst about her flu shot, we talked about how next time she can ask to have a moment to collect herself and take some deep breaths until she can accept the situation. No one likes shots. We all sometimes have to do things we don’t like — it’s part of being human. So we have to have tools to help us settle into acceptance.

We also talked about how sometimes if you let your anger spiral out of control, you might say things you don’t really mean. I knew she didn’t mean it when she said she hated me, but one day she might say something she doesn’t mean and the person she says it to may not realize she doesn’t mean it. Sometimes you can’t take back hateful words. She said again and again how sorry she was and told me the next day that she’d had trouble falling asleep that night because she felt so guilty for saying she hated me, that she never ever wanted to say those words to me again. I told her that her apology was obviously sincere and I wholeheartedly accepted it.

I know that when it comes to managing big emotions, both of my kids are works in progress. Hell, I’m a work in progress. We all are. But I just want to make sure I don’t send my kids out into the world thinking that their emotions are always more important than everyone else’s right to a reasonably calm environment.