Little People, Big Feelings (And How Parents Should Respond)

Five years ago, I became “mama” to a sweet little pink bundle.  She has grown into a smart and kind big sister who loves to dance and make us laugh.  Sometimes, I look at her and see my sweet little baby, but more days than not, I see her long legs and pony tail and wonder how in the world I blinked and became mama to a full grown KID!  She’s reading, writing, telling jokes,  and legit helping around the house and with her little brother.  She looks just like a little grown up.

A few weeks ago, my friend shared an article about being intentional in the way we speak to our little girls.  It included tips like complimenting their character instead of focusing on appearances, empowering our daughters to try new things, and not comparing them to others, etc.   I was scrolling through, nodding in agreement, until I got to the last tip.  

“Avoid telling her, ‘You’re fine.'”  

I immediately paused because I knew this was part of my every day vocabulary.  

I’ll be honest, most of the time, my daughter is a complete delight.  She has a sweet spirit and is the type of kid who just naturally wants to do the right thing.  However, those of you with experience raising a five year old daughter know that sometimes those BIG feelings can erupt over the seemingly tiniest of problems.  Crocodile tears can come out of nowhere when a sandwich has been cut into squares instead of triangles (the horror!!), and meltdowns can happen because her favorite fancy nightgown is in the washing machine.

In both of those scenarios, my daughter is clearly fine.  She is in no danger, and she’s not in pain. She just isn’t getting what she wants.  The thing is, I have cried real tears and felt real emotions when I was in no danger and feeling no pain.  I can tell you right now that if my husband ever met those tears with an eye roll and a snappy “you’re fine!,” I would be crushed.  Yet, for some reason, it’s easy for me to dismiss my daughter’s feelings.  I can tell her It’s fine- the sandwich will taste EXACTLY the same no matter what shape it’s in (really!). I can remind her that she has about a dozen other equally “fancy nightgowns” folded in her dresser.  I can say those things- I have said those things- but they don’t help.

After reading the article, I was more aware of just how frequently I was telling her she was fine.  

It wasn’t just occasionally, but I was DAILY telling my daughter that she or the situation she was upset about was “fine”.  I brought it up with my husband one night after we had put the kids to bed.  He is a licensed professional counselor who works mostly with children, and  I’m SO thankful for the career path he has chosen. It has given him such great insight into how we speak to our children.  He was able to shed some light on the issue and even give me some helpful ideas for what to say instead.  

He told me that small children can’t differentiate themselves from their feelings. Their feelings are so overwhelming to them, when they feel sadness, their whole being is sadness. If you tell a small child their feelings don’t matter, they get the message that THEY don’t matter. Secondly, they aren’t always able to identify their feelings on their own, much less cope with them.  They may be upset over something completely ridiculous, but their feelings over something like the loss of an ice cream cone are as intense to them as our feelings would be over the loss of a friend.  

Instead of dismissing their feelings or telling our children they are fine, the best thing we can do for them is talk them through it.  

Admittedly, I wasn’t telling her she was fine for her benefit.  I was telling her she was fine because I didn’t want to deal with a silly fight about what night gown she would wear to SLEEP IN at the end of the day.  However, it’s so important that we show them that we care about THEM by stopping what we are doing and acknowledging their perspective.  If we do this, we will be raising a generation of empathetic individuals who are able to process their feelings and cope with them in a healthy way.

My husband told me the first thing I should do is validate and put words to her big feelings.  

“I can see you are upset about your night gown. I know it’s your favorite, and  it’s disappointing that it’s in the washing machine.”

Then, we can help them identify their feelings and let them know they aren’t alone.

“You are feeling sadness right now.  It’s okay to be sad.  I am here to help you.”

After we help them find their calm, we can present them with choices and/or solutions.  

“It will be so much fun to wear that night gown tomorrow.  Let’s go see what other night gowns we could wear tonight!  You can choose one from your drawer.”

I know there will be some of you who think this is coddling or babying.  

Some of you may accuse me of raising a child to be too fragile for the real world, but I can tell you the results I have seen suggest just the opposite.  In the weeks that I have made these changes, my daughter has had LESS meltdowns. Instead of bursting into tears, she’s communicating with us using sentences like “I’m feeling <insert emotion here>.”  

I have seen her model empathy to her little brother and friends.  Handling her tantrums like this hasn’t inhibited her or caused her to be emotionally needy (although at five years old, I’m pretty sure that’s normal), it has given her tools to cope with her feelings and find solutions and compromises for her problems.  She’s not entirely self sufficient all the time, of course (Neither am I!).  She is still cranky when she’s tired and suffers from hanger from time to time.  The biggest difference has been in our relationship.  I’ve learned that each tantrum has the potential to bring us closer together or further apart.  By connecting before correcting, she feels safe, and her feelings aren’t dismissed- they’re resolved.

I still slip up, and I totally understand being OUT of patience.  I know that sometimes we want a quick fix and a short answer.  But if we can stop, just for a minute, and get down on the same level as our children, and just. slow….down, I think we will see them for who they are.  Because the truth is, she’s not a tiny grown up. On the inside, she’s still my little baby.  However, those long legs and pony tail are enough for me to know, she won’t always be.

 

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2 Responses to Little People, Big Feelings (And How Parents Should Respond)

  1. Jenna Myrick July 3, 2017 at 7:11 am #

    WHAT A GREAT POST!!!!! Thank you for writing about such an important topic in a sweet and informative way! And your daughter is so bubbly and bright!!

    • Becky Walker
      Becky Walker July 3, 2017 at 8:27 am #

      Thanks so much Jenna!

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