motherconsolestoddlerEvery day, I get to spend time with parents of young children. Their stories of parenthood are sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, as parents express frustration that their precious, limited time with their child is spent in power struggles and negotiations: high aggravation, limited joy.

In my experience as a parent and parent educator, I have found that there are a number of key concepts that help parents gain important insights into the meaning of their children’s behavior that lead to more positive and effective responses to the range of challenging behaviors that arise in early childhood. Here’s my shortlist:

  • Don’t fear the feelings.
  • Having a happy child doesn’t mean your child is always happy.
  • Young children are strategic, not manipulative.
  • Don’t take the bait!
  • Know your triggers.
  • Avoid solving your child’s problems.

My kids are now in their 20’s, and I often wish “I knew then what I know now”: these simple, core understandings could have helped me be a calmer, more mindful parent when my kids were young! But the good news for all of us is: it is never too late.
In this post, I will take a look at the first two guiding principles – we’ll tackle the others in later weeks!

1. Don’t fear the feelings.
Everyone wants their child to be happy. So what do we do when our kids are angry, sad or frustrated?

Don’t fear the feelings. Feelings aren’t “right” or “wrong,” and they are not the problem. It’s what children (and we adults!) do with our feelings that can be problematic. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Four-year-old Trevor became very oppositional with his parents after his baby brother, Joseph, was born; he was also negative about Joseph, saying “mean” things about him and asking when the baby would be going back to the hospital.  Initially, Trevor’s parents reacted by telling Trevor he was not being a good big brother and by putting him repeatedly in time-outs. But this only seemed to increase Trevor’s defiance and anger towards his brother.

It’s natural, as parents, to feel distressed when our children express negative feelings, whether it is anger, frustration, jealousy, sadness or fear. These emotions make us uncomfortable, so we either overreact or minimize them (“You don’t mean that! You love your brother”).  But challenging feelings are a natural part of being human.

When we ignore or try to talk children out of their difficult feelings, we are sending the message that their feelings are not acceptable. This doesn’t make the feelings go away. They just get “acted-out” through behaviors (often negative) that can lead to more stress, not less, for the child—and for the parent.

But when we acknowledge and help children express their feelings, it opens the door to helping them learn to cope with them in healthy ways. For example, validating for Trevor what a big change it is to have a new baby in the family; that having to share attention is hard; and helping him find ways he can express his feelings that don’t hurt his brother. As the Daniel Tiger song reminds us “It helps to say what you’re feeling.”

2. Having a happy child does not mean that your child is always happy.
Learning to deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments—such as not getting everything they want, when they want it—builds strong coping skills and resilience in young children. Observe any preschool class, and you will see how children learn to manage daily challenges: not being the line leader or snack helper that day; having to lie down on a nap mat for an hour even if they aren’t tired; needing to share their favorite toy…the list goes on.

That said, clear and appropriate limits can make children pretty unhappy in the moment. It is perfectly normal and expectable for young children to lose it when they don’t get what they want. But just because children protest a limit doesn’t mean it isn’t good for them. I have yet to hear a child say: “Thanks, mom, for not letting me have those M&M’s before dinner. I know how important it is to eat my growing foods.” So don’t fear the tantrum.

It’s all about our mindset when it comes to limits: they are not mean, they are loving! They lead to adaptation, flexibility, and the development of effective coping strategies—accepting a cheese stick instead of candy, or finding another toy to play with when the one they want is off-limits—which translates into the ability to follow rules, get along with others, and to cooperate, collaborate and compromise. These are the skills that bring children a sense of competence, contentedness and well-being and that lead to success in school, relationships, and life.

So keep reminding yourself that becoming a strong, resilient person involves living through and learning to cope with some uncomfortable emotions and experiences. Protecting your child from these moments may take you and your child out of your misery in the short-term but does not lead to happiness in the long-term.  Learning to express the full range of human emotions in healthy ways and managing life’s frustrations and disappointment does.

Want to learn more about setting limits and helping your child express emotions? Download the free Daniel Tiger for Parents app for access to all of the show’s strategy songs, including songs about calming down, expressing feelings, doing something new, including a new baby, and making good choices.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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