How to help our children understand their feelings

What is your reaction when your two-year-old throws herself on the floor kicking and screaming in the store aisle because she wants that new toy?  Or how about when your two children are fighting over whose turn it is to send the hotwheel cars down the track?

 Often, we are so caught up in the undesirable behavior that we just want to do whatever it takes to make it stop. We may try to stifle our children’s feelings because they are too intense, too much, too embarrassing.  Big scary feelings can be hard to invite in. And if it’s hard for us as  parents, imagine what it’s like for our kids.  Often they have no understanding of the emotion (energy in motion) coursing through their bodies.  Who has ever asked them, “What’s going on for you? Help me to understand?” 

 What if you could be that “understander” for your child? For starters, you could pause, take a deep breath and say to yourself, I can handle this calmly and with love.  And then get down on the floor with your child and those big feelings and say, “Wow you seem really really frustrated right now.  You really want that toy.  It’s okay to be upset.  I’ll stay here with you.”  Notice I’m not saying that you give in and buy the toy; rather, you allow your child to feel whatever she is feeling with no blame, shame, or guilt.

When my two boys were younger and used to fight a lot, I would sometimes have to put myself between them to keep them safe.  They would be raging on either side of me trying to get to the other one, and  I would shout something like, “You are sooooo mad right now.  You just want to hurt your brother.  But this feeling will fade.  It’s just energy going through your body.  If you can bear with it just a few minutes, it will fade and then you can work this out.”  Once they started to calm down, I would say, “It won’t always be this way.  I know you guys will figure out a better way to work things out.”  Perhaps I said that last piece for my own sanity, but eventually they did figure out how to be together without the physical fighting. 

The message I wanted to impart to them is that feelings are a natural part of life. It’s okay to feel our feelings. Feelings come and feelings go. What’s not okay is to hit someone because you are mad at them.  When we allow our children to feel intense emotions without blame or shame and when we help them understand and name the feelings, it allows them to release that energy from their bodies. This reduces the stress state and helps them to be able to think more clearly and make better choices.


  1. I love how you talk about holding your children back from each other and talking about their feelings at the same time.
    I was recently in a situation similar to this and it was very confusing to me in the moment. I was dealing with my 3 y..o. twin boys and one had hurt the other so the other of course wanted to hurt the other one back and I had to hold him down for quite a long time. While I talked to him about being angry. It was very hard. And all he wanted to say back to me was “I want to fight!” It was a very hard situation for all of us. And for once the other twin did use my being distracted to go find other trouble. I do believe in the end it was helpful in the long run.
    I wish more people talked about protective use of force in NVC circles. I think our society doesn’t understand this concept very well. I know I still have a lot to learn.

  2. Sherri Boles-Rogers says:

    I hear how hard and confusing it was for you to hold back your son when all he wanted to do was fight back after being hurt by his brother. The emotions are so intense in those moments that it’s so hard for us, as parents, not to get swept up in them also. Sometimes it takes all we can muster not to get angry ourselves, but to hold the space for the child to feel the feelings. I know for me it pushes the PLAY button on my old tapes from childhood that say, “It’s not okay to be angry. You must shut it down at all costs.” The more you can use VAL: Validate, Accept, Listen–the more your child will come to trust that you can handle his emotions and help him to deal with them too. VAL may sound like: “Of course you want to fight! You’ve just been hurt and you’re angry about that! I’d be angry too if someone hurt me like that. I’ll stay right here with you until things calm down and then let’s talk about it. And we’ll talk to your brother and find out why he did that.”
    My heart is with you. I’ve lived through that scenario so many times, so many years….and it does get better! Hang in there. You’re watering some deep seeds in your boys and someday you’ll see the blooms.

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