The Power of Recognizing a Child's Feelings


By Ron Hindbaugh M.A.


When a parent tries to help a child but the child feels that the parent is nagging or criticizing, a barrier between the parent and child forms.  This barrier is the child's way of protecting themselves from the hurt, disappointment, or feelings of worthlessness that are part of feeling unappreciated.

The problem faced by a parent is how to help/correct a child without destroying the relationship that should exist between parent and child. This may be difficult but it can be done if the parent can keep in mind a few concepts.

·        Children do not feel important if they feel that a parent is nagging or lecturing them. Unfortunately many parents use lecturing and nagging because they feel that their child is not able to solve their own problems without this kind of "help." It has been proven, however, that parents only help children solve their own problems by listening, understanding, accepting, and setting standards not by lectures and threats.

·        It is important for the parent to understand and believe that their child is capable of solving most of the problems they face or create. It is also important for the parent to recognize that when a child messes up, telling them the obvious (i.e.  That they messed up) does not help them figure out what to do to correct the situation. They already know that they messed up and are probably feeling bad about it.

·        Recognizing the child's feelings when the child makes unwise choices is critical. When a child feels that the parent understands what they are going through, they are freed to spend their time learning from their mistakes.  When a child feels the parent does not understand they spend their time defending themselves, condemning themselves, protecting themselves, or avoiding the parent, who now becomes the problem.

·        From a practical point of view the parent must find a way to send a content message to the child that says, "You have made a poor choice and will need to suffer the consequences." and at the same time send a relationship message that says, "I understand and love you.  Making this bad decision cannot change my love for you." Here is how this is done.

When little Sally says, "I hate Grandma! She didn't keep her promise." The parent does not say, "I don't want to hear you talk about your Grandmother like that!" If a parent chooses to lecture in this way they are not helping Sally figure out how to work on her anger toward Grandma. This kind of a response does not recognize Sally's feelings or her ability to solve her problems. As a result Sally is now left with a mandated solution to her problem (i.e. keep quiet) and the parent looses an opportunity to help her work through her concerns about grandma.

When little Sally says, "I hate Grandma! She didn't keep her promise." The parent does say, "You sound pretty upset with grandma." This response recognizes Sally's feelings. It does not approve of those feelings but rather it is recognition of their existence. When Sally understands that you recognize her feelings, she is free to solve the problem she faces. She is free to share with you, in more detail, her concerns/feelings. She may say. "Grandma shouldn't make promises if she's not going to keep them. She promised to come to see my play." At this point, Sally's Mother is tempted to explain to her why grandma couldn't come.

Sally needs understanding, not explanations. A response by the parent that recognizes this fact could be, "You sound really disappointed." Sally is now free to solve her problem. "Mom, can I call grandma and talk to her? I want to tell her how I did."

Generally when children make mistakes they don't need parent's wisdom or solutions they need parent's understanding. They need sad parents, not mad parents. When we are sad that a child made a mistake the child knows we care. We are then free to impose the consequences. If the consequences are imposed with love the child is more likely to understand. They know we care.

Listen in to this wise parent. "There must have been something really important to cause you to come home late without a call.  I'm sorry that happened.  You understand the consequences of this decision don't you? Yup, you’re right. One week with no car privileges. Let me know if you will need a ride anywhere this week. Love you."

When a child goofs up they need to know that we choose to understand the situation they are in. They need to know that we are sad that they have a problem. They should not feel that they are incapable of "fixing the problem" or that they can cause us to be upset.

When a child goofs up they need to know that we will impose consequences, not because they, the child, are bad, but because we believe that they are responsible. The message we send should convey the idea that we expect our child to live by the rules and standards of our home and the society we both live in.