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Understanding Your Child’s Emotions

March 2013

Emotions are an important part of every interaction we have with our children and can serve as a positive energizing force. However, because we are often NOT the attentive listeners we could be, we often do not hear their feelings.  Or sometimes we chose to ignore them, or, worse, we tell our child he or she should forget them entirely.  In these ways we deny our children the growth of their emotional life.  If we do not help our children to become of aware of their own feelings and help them understand how to use them productively, how can we expect them to be sensitive to the feelings of others? 

Since every child will experience the full range of pleasant and unpleasant emotions, we need to help them understand and become comfortable with ALL of their feelings, not just the ones that are convenient for us.  This means we must commit some time and effort to understanding our own emotions as well.  The commitment will be worth it, however, because when we provide acceptance, love, and respect for feelings, we support our child’s healthy emotional development, which in turn stimulates courage and self-confidence in them.

Emotions are purposive.   They support our intentions and provide energy and motivation in line with our goals.  Therefore, during incidents with emotional overtones you can ask yourself, “What does my child expect to have happen by being so emotional?  What does he/she expect me to do?”  Your child’s emotion, properly understood, tells you his or her real need or desire.

For example, if children use negative emotions to achieve their goals, it helps their parents to understand why.  Theymay use them to get special attention.  For example, when your child is especially temperamental, she may receive special treatment and sympathy.  Emotions can also be used to control.  When your child throws a temper tantrum or displays large amounts of anger, he feels powerful and enabled to control situations, especially when you give in.  He can also use emotions to retaliate for what he thinks is unfair treatment.  Lastly, he can use emotions to protect himself from having to function, using sorrow or weakness to get support and special service in this instance. 
Emotions are of positive value when they elicit our concern or empathy for the feelings of our child.  This increased sensitivity serves to improve our relationship to him or her.  Even a display of anger has value in so far as it enables them to stand up for their rights when they feel defeated or frustrated.  However, when emotions are used to control others, as in the above examples, the self-centeredness involved actually impedes your child’s full emotional development.  

How can you change your child’s expression of negative emotions when you see they are impeding his growth?  Ignore your child when he is trying to get attention inappropriately.  At the same time, look for behaviors you want to reinforce in him and give him plenty of attention for them.  When your child is pursuing power, if you fight him, he automatically wins.  Therefore, decide not to fight or to give in.   It will also help to remember that any attack on you usually comes from his deep discouragement.  At those times, look for ways to experience empathy for the hurt he feels.  This will enable you to concentrate on improving the relationship and helping him to develop feelings of confidence in himself.

Remember, feelings are always present.  You CAN become more skillful in recognizing yours and your child’s and utilizing their potential value to generate genuine and positive involvement with him or her.  I guarantee you that your efforts to do so will be worthwhile. 

(In my next article I will discuss additional ways to foster emotional growth in your child.)



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