Kyle and Ella came to me concerned that their 6-year-old daughter, Maya, was “always negative about everything.”
“What can we do to change that?” they asked.
Knowing that children (and people) are rarely “always” anything, I recognized that Kyle and Ella had stumbled into the pitfall of extreme thinking and were bringing their judgments about Maya’s negativity to their interactions with her.
Judgments we have about our children can cloud our thinking about how to help them. (We know from our own parenting in the early days!) These judgments also overflow in subtle but powerful messages to that child. For example, when parents believe a child is “always negative” this passes on a message that “You’re a problem that constantly needs to be fixed” or “You are incapable of being anything but negative.”
So how do we get unstuck?
There are two primary questions to answer when dealing with a child’s difficult emotions:
1. What is an accurate description of my child’s feelings?
Kyle and Ella were very honest and eager to learn, so I asked a few more questions: “On a scale of 0-10 where 0 is ‘truly always negative, never ever a positive emotion’ and 10 is ‘the most positive child in the world’, where would you place Maya?” The parents answered, “Three.”
“What keeps it from being a zero?” I asked. They responded quickly, “Oh, when she’s happy, she’s filled with joy.”
As I probed deeper, Kyle and Ella began to make a shift from their exaggerated perception of Maya to an accurate, helpful perspective: Maya is a passionate, sensitive child – she feels both frustration and joy deeply, but seems to be discouraged fairly often. Not quite the same as “always negative about everything”!
Getting an accurate picture of Maya’s true feelings set the stage for the next question…
2. Who is responsible for those feelings?
Often when children feel strong emotions, parents’ knee-jerk reaction can be to try to control or “fix” those feelings. The problem is that when parents feel like they need to fix or manage their child’s emotions, this sends the message that the parents are responsible for the child’s emotions, which then puts the child in the power seat.
Not only that, but giving extra attention to big, negative displays of emotion reinforces to Maya that the way she gets the attention and power she needs is through big, negative displays of emotion.
As we talked, it became clear to Kyle and Ella that instead of an approach geared toward needing to fix Maya, they could instead change to focus on helping Maya learn how to better identify and manage her emotions herself.
Are you empathizing with these parents? If so, here are some questions and steps to take:
- Become aware of your own feelings and beliefs under the surface. For example, extreme thinking by parents can make a child prone to extreme thinking as well.
- Communicate a message of “we love you no matter what! Good mood or bad mood, we love you!” Also, communicate to your child that you are a resource for your child. Your child’s emotions are his/hers to feel, understand and respond to. But you, as the parent, will be available as a resource.
- Help your child accurately identify what she/he is feeling in this situation. (If they have trouble, offer some empathetic suggestions.)
- Help your child problem solve what to do about the situation. This gives the child power over her/his own emotions. (Perhaps ask some thoughtful questions.)
- Empower your child to empathize and understand others’ emotions. There is power in learning to empathize and recognize emotions in others, so we may be able to see them more clearly in ourselves!
It can be a challenge to stop from rushing in to manage or fix a child’s big emotions — but by working with children to help them own and understand their own feelings, it will equip them for wisdom and insight for themselves and others for years to come!
Want to learn more about these concepts? Download our one hour recording of a Discipline That Connects workshop.