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.