Monday, April 29, 2013

Toddler Tactic #8 - Acknowledge and Validate Emotions

I've saved the most powerful and in my opinion, the most important Toddler Tactic for last.

When a child gets hurt, our first response is usually to pick them up and say, "oh, you're okay" in an attempt to calm them as quickly as possible and urge them to get over whatever unpleasantness they are experiencing.  Upon reflecting on this practice however, I've come to realize that it really does little to comfort the child or to help them through the emotions they are feeling. If you stubbed your toe, would you rather your friend say, "oh, you're okay" or "ouch, that must have hurt!"  I would feel taken aback at the former while the latter would leave me with the feeling that at least my friend felt sympathy for my pain.

For this reason, when comforting either of my children, I always first state what happened - "you scraped your knee on the step" and then I wait for a response which may be a nod accompanied by vigorous crying.  Then I simply say, "that must have hurt a lot" and continue to hold him securely and quietly until he calms down.  I might add something to calm his fears to the effect of, "I know it stings now but it will go away soon."

Sitting quietly and calmly with a child while they work through a painful moment (physical or emotional) is key to helping them learn to rely on their own emotional resources.  When we rush them on to feeling better, we send the message that difficult emotions must be buried as soon as possible.  When we sit with them in their discomfort and validate their feelings, they learn that whatever emotion they are feeling is okay and will pass with time.

Sitting quietly while a child works through strong emotions can be difficult because as parents, we can feel uncomfortable in such situations as we are so programmed to fix problems.  It's also very possible that our own upbringing didn't equip us with adequate skills to handle emotions or that our current busy lives find us sweeping the tough stuff under the rug and hoping it will go away. I like to think of these moments as yet another opportunity where my children help me to learn and grow as much as I guide them. 

A child's feelings should be acknowledged even if they seem silly or self-centered or irrational.  We don't have to agree with them or condone their actions but it's important to validate the feelings behind the behavior. Whenever Riker is upset, I attempt to put the feelings into words for him. Sometimes just having his parent state the facts about what happened and then identify his feelings is enough to put him at ease. This isn't surprising really as feeling understood is an exceptionally powerful thing.

I also do my best to not scold Riker for having emotions - anger at his brother for knocking down his blocks, frustration at losing in a game or sadness at not going to the park. These are all valid emotions and the child needs assistance to identify and process them so that they can manifest themselves safely and then fade away.  Brushing emotions under the rug or punishing the resulting actions does neither.

A note on using this tactic. When acknowledging, it is more powerful to phrase the sentiment without using the word "but," which has the effect of negating everything said before.  For example, instead of saying "You want to keep playing this fun game together, but I'm too tired," one might say, "You want to keep playing this fun game together. I am very tired; I can't play anymore." The former suggests that my being tired clearly takes precedence over the child's desire for fun and connection but the latter gives equal recognition to both parties and yet clearly states a necessary boundary. 

In summary, this tactic goes like this - listen, acknowledge feelings, validate emotions, and then show confidence in a child's resourcefulness by not getting all wound up and by not rushing in to fix everything. More often than not, by utilizing this tactic, Riker is able to quickly get over upsetting incidents and get back to his naturally joyful state.

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