Telling kids how they feel: a deliberately controversial post

One of the things I don’t like in many parenting books, but have found no research pro- or against- is this idea that you’re supposed to tell little kids how they’re feeling.  The books tend to call it “acknowledging feelings” and it’s what you’re supposed to do instead of praise, instead of solving kids’ problems, interfering in sibling conflicts, and a number of other verboten parent-interactions, depending on which parenting book or “expert” you’re following.

My first problem with this is, even if my kid is only two, how the hell am I supposed to know what he or she is feeling better than ze does?  Isn’t it presumptuous of me to say, “You’re sad because X” or “I can see that you’re angry”?  Sometimes I will ask, “Are you sad?” But, I’d get pretty pissed off if someone told *me* what I was feeling.  I think even very small children deserve more respect and agency than that.

My second problem with this, and mind you, this is correlation, not causation, is that I’ve hung around parents that use these techniques and their kids are either 1. holy terrors or 2. hold a bit of contempt (or just healthy ignoring) for their parents whenever their parents pull this crap.  In practice, it doesn’t seem effective.  But the parents who follow “experts” blindly tend to be less confident in their parenting in other ways, so it might be something else going on and not a problem with the actual (unproven) technique.

Do you think it’s appropriate to tell small children how they’re feeling?

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49 Responses to “Telling kids how they feel: a deliberately controversial post”

  1. feMOMhist Says:

    one shrink wanted us to tell fMhson he was just like everyone else, not different at all. I was like ummm I think he has already figured out that isn’t true. Shrink (Ivy educated BTW) insisted it would work.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I guess the idea that “Everybody is special in their own special way” is no longer in vogue?

      • feMOMhist Says:

        it was more like all kids have problems, you have problems so you are like all other kids. problem is fMhson already asks why HIS problems are the ones he has. He able to put it in perspective but he sure isn’t thinking that geez being a hyper-impulsive-zebra is just like having say divorced parents. Other kids don’t care if your parents are divorced and they sure as heck recognize that you are a H-I-Z. Teachers don’t punish you for being the kids of divorced people, but they do for being a H-I-Z

  2. Mados Says:

    No. My mom used to try this (not from I was really small though) and she was virtually always wrong. I found her guesses intrusive and annoying. So I just made sure to be more sfinx-like at home so she did not get ANY face expression to hook onto / misunderstand at all.

  3. InBabyAttachMode Says:

    I’ve wondered about this too. Especially now that BlueEyes (13 mo) cannot talk but is sometimes obviously angry/sad/frustrated. Usually if for example he keeps slamming his sippy cup into our wooden table I will take it away after I’ve told him I will take it away if he does it again, he will cry (a lot!). I then usually tell him that I understand that that makes him cry and then explain why. I think it’s nice for him to learn words for his feelings, but you’re right that it’s impossible to know why he is crying and what that means.
    Sometimes he will throw himself on the floor crying while I have no idea whatsoever what the reason is and then we’ll ask him if he is suffering from weltscherz again.

  4. scantee Says:

    Yessssss. This bugs the hell out of me for all of the reasons you’ve listed. The hard part is that this seems to be a big part of parenting philosophies, like the one espoused by Haim Ginott, that in I’m drawn to intellectually.

    In practice though, every time I’ve tried to use the reflecting their feelings back to them technique I always get a look of, “lady, you are totally crazy.”

    Maybe it works better with older kids?

  5. Cloud Says:

    I think like a lot of parenting ideas, there is a nugget of usefulness in this, but that it has been over-applied. When a child is very young, and hasn’t learned the words for his/her emotions yet, I think it can be helpful for an adult to help explain what some of the big feelings are. I don’t remember doing this much with either child, but I do remember occasionally labeling an emotion for them. And we definitely use the “I understand that you’re mad because of X, but here are some other responses you could try” (other than screaming at me, or throwing your toy across the room, or whatever).

    • Perpetua Says:

      I agree, Cloud. For me, the important nugget here is talking to your kids about their feelings, having an on-going conversation about emotions as a path to creating an atmosphere of respect (they have feelings, even big scary feelings, and that’s okay – what’s not okay is throwing/hitting/screaming/name calling, etc – as a disciplinary technique, of course, is has to have both parts together. I think some parents just do #1 and not #2, because they have trouble drawing the boundary firmly.). The scripted conversations of mirroring in parenting book never worked with us with Christopher Robin. In fact, I noticed pretty early that ze loathes this technique; ze can’t bear it. I think ze finds it overwhelming (ze is very sensitive to sensory overload, including emotion overload). But it’s more useful for Pooh (2 y.o.)- when I ask, it seems like you are feeling x? are you x? ze often says “Yeah,” and seems comforted, reassured. I don’t think the technique is about *telling* kids what they feel as much as acknowledging their feelings. It’s not for me to guess when Pooh slaps Christopher Robin that Pooh is feeling either frustrated or angry. At its best, the technique can start a conversation that helps us get deeper into what’s going on with our kids. I think I’m sympathetic to the technique (though it is not the sum total of my parenting techniques) largely because my most vivid memory as a child is not being listened to. Nobody cared what I thought or felt; I was routinely interrupted, ignored, silenced, told I was “too loud” or “too opinionated”. I was incredibly unhappy and lonely, and the adults around me didn’t seem or notice or care. I think I probably would have been pretty relieved if someone had said to me, very kindly, “You seem sad.”

  6. rented life Says:

    I like the idea of asking instead. But then I was raised by stoics and we aren’t supposed to have feelings, so I’m a bit biased. Then again, if my parents had said “I understand you feel X” it might have helped me feel it was ok to feel those emotions, instead of struggling with it as an adult.

    This concept is suggested in conflict management in all kinds of interpersonal communication textbooks, and while I could see how it might be helpful with some adults, if you get the feeling/emotion wrong, you’ve potentially escalated the conflict. I feel like this helps the person *not* experiencing the emotion–they are able to slow dow (theoretically) and work on some compassion/empathy.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a really interesting idea… maybe it’s more for the parents to work on their empathy rather than the children? I do wonder though if it works that way or if it could lead to parents being more controlling and less empathetic because there’s no feedback about whether or not the parent is right.

      • rented life Says:

        Yeah, I’m not sure from the parent-child dynamic what the results end up being, as in my field it’s mainly taught between adults. It can be helpful between adults, because sometimes the upset person needs to feel understood/heard and it allows for some self-observation/awareness to occur. But the main suggestion is that by rephrasing the upset person’s comments, you are learning to understand others. Again though, from a personal stand point, it works in limited situations.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think there’s also something different between, “I hear you telling me that you are X” and telling someone they are X when they have not directly communicated that emotion to you.

  7. becca Says:

    For very little kids, I think it works to say “you are upset”. For slightly older kids, it has to be “you are upset, I would be upset if X happened to me. Is that why you are upset?”. “Upset” in small kiddos is pretty obvious, and it’s not specific (sad/angry/hurt/scared- it covers it all). Naming it does actually seem to help them start to use words about it, and modeling how to express the feelings sure *seems* like a good idea.
    At the same time, when I was an older kid, I was hyper emotional and I remember people telling me how I felt all the time and I HATED it (far more than I do now). The only thing worse than them getting it wrong was them getting it right. Though usually they got it wrong, assuming I was mad *at* someone instead of *at* myself. So it might be one of those things that doesn’t work with older kids, or certain types of kids. I’ll be careful with it as my kiddo gets older.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hm, on the one hand, using a more generic term increases the chances of being correct, but on the other hand, sometimes this technique is supposed to be used to teach kids emotions and having happy/upset as only two emotions seems like teaching that colors are either dark or light without actually getting into say, red, blue, green etc. Though if the idea is just to seem like you care as a parent, then the upset/happy dichotomy may be enough.

  8. PQA Says:

    I actually find labeling my feelings to be more useful. For my mini-me it seems my modeling of things, this is what I look like when I am happy , this is what I look like when I am frustrated, I am angry right now so I am going to go into the other room, etc seems to have more of an effect and engage her more then telling her what I think she is feeling. The other day after the zoo I was telling her what a fun day I had with her seeing all the animals and how happy it made me that she followed instructions so well. Then there was a pause and then she announced “I happy fun day”. So she took my emotions and applied them to what she was feeling, it was super cute.

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I struggle with this too. How am I supposed to know what you’re feeling? It might be anger or disappointment or frustration or sadness or pain or a million things.

  10. femmefrugality Says:

    I ask why they are feeling the way they are feeling. I’ll tell them it’s okay to feel that way, but offer suggestions on how we can feel better. I don’t know if this is expert approved or not, but it seems to work okay in our realm. Another expert tip I’m against: no “time-out.” You can call it whatever you want, but it’s not supposed to be a happy place to be. You do something blatantly wrong, you need to learn there are consequences, not have someone coddle your feelings.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ah yes, time-outs… living in a red state we were surprised to find they were controversial in some blue states. Here the question is whether or not you should beat your child (and we’re not just talking about the spanking wars). Time outs are just so far out on the disciplinary spectrum compared to that.

  11. Dr. O Says:

    Ah geez, I don’t think Hubby and I have been all that intentional about dealing with Monkey’s emotions up to now, although he is just a toddler, and I don’t think he really knows what he’s feeling at any moment these days.

    We are starting to begin with “Use your words” when Monkey gets upset, which sometimes works. Then we just ride out the tantrums we can’t stop in whatever way seems most bearable at the time. The only time I think I try and identify the source of his behavior is when Monkey is obviously tired, it’s near bedtime, and we make the decision to not cater to his wishes. “No, Daddy/Mommy’s not reading another book. You’re tired, and it’s bedtime,” in the calmest, firmest voice one of us can muster. That doesn’t usually receive a very accepting response.

    Our methods seem to be working for us as well as anybody else’s, but I’m guessing any number of experts could list the ways we’re permanently damaging him. I’m sure we’ll continue finding new ways of damaging him as he gets older.

  12. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    It is grossly intrusive, disrespectful, and manipulative to ever tell another person–no matter how young–what they are or should be or must be feeling, to demand that another person reveal their feelings, or to make assumptions about what another person is feeling. To do so sends the message that your feelings are not your own and that they are subject to the scrutiny and judgment of others. That is a highly destructive false message to send to another person, especially when they are too young to recognize what bullshitte it is and thereby discount it.

    Setting expectations for other people’s behavior is, obviously, fine, and such expectations must be enforced. With other adults, enforcement takes the form of setting boundaries. With children, enforcement takes the form of physical control (sending to their room), punishment (no games), rewards (dessert after broccoli), etc.

    But setting and attempting to enforce expectations for other people’s feelings is dehumanizing and evil. It is the exact diametric opposite of love.

    • mom2boy Says:

      LOL – not big on self-help books?

      I make assumptions about Tate’s feelings and reasons for his behavior all the time. Just like I do with everyone else to be able to get by in the world. Empathy – making sense of external behavior based on internal feelings of another person – a generally highly regarded human trait.

      There are emotionally abusive people in the world. Some of them are parents. I don’t think, however, that the majority of the “tell me what you are feeling” style of parents are trying to be dehumanizing and evil. Mostly they are trying to avoid/end temper tantrums without spanking.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Mostly they are trying to avoid/end temper tantrums without spanking.

        Why are they so very bad at it? (See: Problem Two above.) Maybe it’s reverse causality– parents whose kids aren’t hellions don’t feel the need to read/follow these books and model the awkward conversational scripts therein. And they’re told by others that the SuperNanny style of parenting is child abuse, and they’re willing to believe it is because they’re already caught up in the maternal guilt industry, so that’s what is left, I guess.

        It’s also important to note that there’s a difference between being empathetic, trying to recognize others’ feelings, and telling other people what they feel based on your perception of what you see. The former is admirable, the latter has a lot of room for error and does take away the person’s agency.

    • becca Says:

      Awww. You must be feeling disappointed in your own parents, and fiercely protective of small people that you empathize with.
      Oh.

  13. anandar Says:

    I would guess that one of the reasons that parenting experts advise attempting to describe/reflect a child’s emotions is as a tool to develop parents’ ability to pay close attention to their children and their emotions (along the same lines as developing parental emphathy). Child observation is one of those things that early childhood experts have lots of training to do, but we parents are not necessarily naturally skilled or experienced. Not to mention, it can be hard to do in parenting situations where my own emotions are running high, or when my own agenda is (to me) paramount. Eg, the classic conflict of trying to rush myself and our preschooler out the door in the morning, and she is upset about something that (seems to me) really irrational.

    I would guess/hope that attempting to dictate or take control of a child’s emotions is pretty much the exact opposite of what the experts are recommending.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Good point about the difference between expert abilities and parental abilities. Perhaps it is valid for a child psychologist to say, “I can see that you feel X.” Although… I bet there are a lot of child psychologists who aren’t as good as they think they are at making these diagnoses, and there is a sordid history of (bad) adult psychologists dictating their patients’ emotions.

  14. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Great topic! (Or should I say… another great topic.)

    We’ve gone nuts in this country, when it comes to parenting – which doesn’t mean we can’t all stay open, learn, and do better. But… I repeat: we’ve gone nuts when it comes to the invasive and pervasive way we are telling parents (usually mothers) that they’re doing something wrong, or need to do something differently.

    There are plenty of (valid) reasons for this, but it doesn’t change the net that we’ve lost perspective. We’ll do a great deal right, a fair amount wrong, and if we’re lucky, more of the former and less of the latter and a tremendous amount depends on the individual kid, our circumstances, and our own skills.

    Among those skills – communication.

    Is it reasonable to expect a parent to learn “shrink-speak” with his or her kid? Is it reasonable to expect a parent who is tired, stressed, and refereeing two little ones to form a question rather than a statement?

    I don’t know. I’m a communicator. I can switch up language pretty easily if I make a point of it. I’ve learned (over the years) to ask more questions rather than make statements, and I agree that it’s irritating to be told “you seem this” or “you seem that” – though some of it depends on the delivery. It’s also irritating to be asked “are you this?” or “are you that?” depending on the delivery.

    Frankly, the basics work quite well. Gentleness. Body language. A quiet voice. And asking “What’s wrong?” or “Is anything wrong?” And that could be followed by “You seem quiet” or “you seem sad,” etc.

    But we have to stop torturing the parenting process. Learning new skills? Sure. Looking to experts? When we genuinely feel in our gut that something is wrong – and with an open-mind, not refusing to listen to the observations of others close to our children.

  15. chacha1 Says:

    I was raised by stoics and have an excellent poker face myself. (No poker *skills,* but that’s a different story.) I was not encouraged to be emotional and reactive, so I wasn’t. I’m pretty sure that I would have raised a kid the same way, because throughout my life I’ve observed people who are emotional and reactive are less successful – in the sense of relationship or job stability. I’m not saying it’s healthy to suppress emotion, just that celebrating it isn’t always so either.

    All that said, it would never occur to me to try to diagnose what a child was feeling. I would just tell it to mind its behavior; to go away and be quiet (if it was causing a disturbance), and to talk when it was ready to talk. Simply because that’s how my parents related to me. They rewarded conversations, not tantrums.

    • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

      I wish I had parents like yours.

      • chacha1 Says:

        :-) They are, and always have been, great parents. We haven’t always been super *close* but that is maybe a tradeoff of the stoicism thing. Their first priority was always their relationship. I respected that. … I think what made this calm, cool & collected style of parenting work so well for them and for us was that they were not putting it on. They are very “to thine own self be true” people. But it must be noted that we were not problem children; due to the isolation in which we grew up, we did not have many opportunities to get in trouble; and we were early readers. From early ages, they were able to put books in our hands and we coped with pretty much all emotional upsets by distracting ourselves with reading.

  16. Que Sera Says:

    Wonderful topic and I’m happy to know I’m not the only one who goes nuts when I hear people using this method! I’ve though more about using “expert” advice (or at least looking at it) since #2 was born and #1 has really been acting up in response. Still not sure whether to go to the parenting books, though. I know I won’t buy anything wholesale since I do go with my gut mostly and dislike a lot of the parenting styles of those who blindly follow certain expert advice and strategies without catering it to their or their children’s personalities..

  17. Pamela Says:

    I was a very cynical kid. I would have rolled my eyes at my parents if they said that to me, followed by “Oh, *please*.”

    Then again, I rolled my eyes at Mr. Rogers, and he was by all accounts a nice man. I AM A MEANIE-BUTT.

  18. First Gen American Says:

    My mom wasn’t big on trying to understand my emotions. When I got mad or upset, she would mock me and impersonate my behavior, be it crying or angry to try to make me stop. That’s definitely not a route I’d recommend. Needless to say, we never talked about feelings too much.

  19. mareserinitatis Says:

    I scanned the other posts, but I think I have a different perspective on this. I have always felt that it’s very important to acknowledge and empathize with a child. However, I noticed something happen with older boy when he was about ten. Prior to that, he wouldn’t have words associated with his feelings. When he was ten, he read the fifth Harry Potter book, which is where a lot of the most angsty stuff in the series was written. After he was done, he started to be able to communicate much better what he was feeling. This also significantly lessened the intensity and frequency of his tantrums. (He was a world-class tantrum thrower…)

    My take away is that it’s important to empathize, but little kids often don’t have the appropriate vocabulary to explain how they’re feeling. If they do have the vocabulary, they may not be practiced enough to associate the words with the reactions they’re having to an event. Therefore, I think it’s rather a good idea to start asking them how they feel with suggestions, explaining what the words mean and how they can manifest themselves. Also, getting them to talk about the reasons they’re upset may help to clue you and them into what’s really going on.

    On the surface, I think it’s inappropriate to tell kids how they’re feeling. However, some of them may not be experienced or mature enough to understand for themselves how they’re feeling, so they may need some help in that department. That may be what some books are referring to.

  20. tirzahrene Says:

    As a stepmom, I found that acknowledging the validity of the kids’ feelings worked a lot better for us than the way I was raised where the parents kind of ran roughshod over what the kids felt and the kids were supposed to suck it up and, you know, submit. Just saying, “Hey, I get that it sucks,” or “You’re allowed to be mad about this,” or “I know this is hard for you” – which was how I took it as, not “You’re making a face; you are obviously sad” kind of prescribing of feelings – calmed the kids down a lot. It was saying, “I see you, I accept your feelings, and even though we’re not doing anything to make you feel better, it matters to me that you don’t feel good.”

    Basically I read those books and used it to say, “It’s okay to feel how you feel. And your actions are still held to X standard.” THAT worked really well for us.

  21. The art of learning not to take things seriously: A deliberately controversial post | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured Says:

    […] yeah, some parenting philosophies say you’re supposed to tell kids how they’re feeling.  And some say that you’re supposed to empathize no matter what.  Sometimes we’ve […]


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