Stop Assuming What Your Kids Are Feeling And Let Them Define Their Own Emotions

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When my kids have big emotions, it tends to trigger big emotions in me too. Sometimes I am just exhausted after a day of parenting and feel like I will break if bedtime doesn’t hurry up and arrive. Other times, if it’s more than just the result of tiredness, hunger, or the sadness from having to use the wrong fork at dinner, when my kids swing through the emotions of frustration, pain, and disappointment over an event or relationship I have no control over, I hurt too.

I am a fixer, and in these moments my instinct is to “fix” the problem for my kids—in part because if they feel better, then so do I. But that isn’t good for anyone. And as the adult, I have to catch myself from over-explaining what they are feeling to them.  Again, that’s not good for anyone either.

I want my kids to be able to use their own words when it comes to defining what they are feeling.

To help them do this, from a very early age, I taught my kids how to understand their emotions by reading books about feelings, by validating their feelings when they say they are sad or mad, and by labeling what I am feeling when I am outwardly expressing emotions. While not telling them what they are feeling, I have tried to give them the vocabulary so they can do it themselves.

Emotional intelligence is a strength, and if I want my kids to have these skills, I need to back off and let them sort through the mess that is the cause and effect of feelings—theirs and others.

But as a busy parent to three little kids, who is emotionally intelligent and often intuitively knows what is bothering them and what it will take to make it better, it can be really hard to watch my kids struggle; it takes extreme patience to let them define their own feelings.

When my oldest daughter was in second grade, her class hosted a Publishing Party. Parents and guardians were invited to listen to their children read the short narratives they had written during their creative nonfiction unit. Leading up to the day, my daughter expressed frustration that she didn’t want to read the story she said her teacher was “making her read.” She didn’t give me any more explanation and she refused to talk to her teacher about her unhappiness.

On the day of the party, my daughter was excited about the event, but she was cranky and anxious about her part in it. She didn’t want to read her essay, but didn’t say why. Public speaking doesn’t usually bother her and she is a strong writer. In passing she had said she wanted to read a different story, one she liked better. I knew there was something more than just not getting her own way, and I had a feeling it had to do with her need for perfection, but I didn’t push. I didn’t provide an out by saying, “Oh you must be you upset because….” I didn’t insert myself into the problem by offering a solution. I kept my distance by simply reminding her she could talk to her teacher to make a plan that felt better. She didn’t want to do that.

The classroom filled and one by one each student volunteered to read their story to the students and adults ready to listen. I could see my daughter grow increasingly uncomfortable as it was getting close to her turn. The teacher called on my daughter to read her story and my daughter’s face turned bright red. Her eyes filled with tears. She was visibly upset.

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My heart was breaking and I wanted to scoop her up and make it better. I could feel the other parents and adults in the room looking at me to see what I would do. But these were her emotions to work through. She needed my support, not my interference. I was there, but I purposefully pushed her to her limit so that she could find her own voice and use it. Her classmates encouraged her to read.

“You can do it, Eva!”

“Your story is really good!”

“I will read it for you!”

The teacher told her it was time to read or to pass. My daughter’s tears finally broke loose, and that’s when I went to her and guided her to the hallway. She was ready to talk.

She told me she had wanted to read another story she had written because she thought it was better. She wasn’t proud of the one she had to read.

Oof. I know that feeling.

What looked like stubbornness and brattiness was the perfectionism I had anticipated, but also disappointment, some shame, and desire to present what she thought was her best self.

I praised her for talking to me and told her I wasn’t going to force her to read what she had written. I knew the teacher wouldn’t either. My daughter needed to make the decision for herself. She didn’t read her narrative, and it was fine. I and the teacher understood why, and her classmates and the other adults showered her with empathy and hoped someday they could hear one of her stories.

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They had the chance at the end of the school year. My daughter went through the same round of caginess as the next reading event arrived. She didn’t want to read what she thought she was being forced into. I used the last experience to guide this one, and reminded her that with some communication, she could work this out with her teacher. I offered to email her teacher to set up a meeting before school. Surprisingly, my daughter agreed. I made it clear that it was my daughter’s job to lead the conversation.

Together they made a plan to scrap her assigned piece for one my daughter wanted to read, but the teacher made it clear that my daugther didn’t have much time to get it to where it needed to be for the presentation. My daughter offered to work on it at home and during class time that is usually meant for play.

My daughter read her piece like a boss on the day of the event.

I know not all tough experiences will go this way, but I was wicked proud of how this one played out. I also know that part of my daughter’s success was the autonomy she had to solve her own problems by learning what the problem was in the first place.

Until my kids are ready to help themselves, defining feelings and putting reasons or excuses to their actions will not help either. When I know something is eating at my kids, I don’t jump to their aid right away. I let them stew in their own emotional discomfort for a bit. I eventually ask them what is wrong, and if they are at their breaking point, I of course comfort them, but when they are not ready to talk, I don’t try to get it out of them by guessing or suggesting what I think is bothering them.

It is so important to let them use their words to explain what they are feeling. I need and want them to have good communication skills and the ability to express their emotions. It’s my job to give them vocabulary and their job to arrange it into language.