Are you trying to do the right thing by validating your child’s feelings only to hear even angrier tirades? Your best intentions backfire and you don’t know why. Let’s break this down to figure out why your child is reacting negatively when you are trying to empathize.
“I am understanding of how my child is feeling, but it seems to just make her madder,” is something I hear from many parents. Progressive parenting has put a lot of emphasis on validating feelings and being empathetic—rightly so. Your kids want nothing more than to know you understand them. But in our impatience to get on with what we want them to do, to correct them, we may end up invalidating their feelings without realizing it.
- “I understand you’re upset. You can be angry, but you have to get in the shower.”
- “I get that you’re mad at your sister, but you can’t hit her.”
- “You’re upset you got a bad grade. Buck up. You’ll do better next time.”
- “A friend should never make fun of you. You need to tell her you’re not going to be friends if she talks to you like that.”
- “I understand you’re mad, but you don’t have to get so upset. It’s not that big a deal.”
What’s wrong with these statements? They seem normal. Certainly not put downs or threats. Even when the parent isn’t yelling, they typically invoke more negativity. Why?
Each of them is an effort to change how the child is feeling. In the name of understanding, parents have found (they think) a short-cut to stop a child from expressing upset. So why do they tend to rev up even more? Because they’re not really understanding.
- The ‘but’ erases any understanding your child may feel. The ‘but’ says that all you care about is getting her in the shower, to stop hitting her sibling, to cheer up, to get to the dinner table, to not get so upset. You care more about your agenda.
- Detached expressions of understanding feel patronizing and belittling.
- You’re not letting the emotions be—allowing your child to have them. You’re not being empathic, you’re just softening your directions.
- You’re still in the process of telling your child what to do—something that will get you nowhere unless your solutions have been solicited.
- You’re still asking your child to feel differently.
This may be a step in the right direction to connect with your kids. Your parents just gave that look, pointed that finger, accused you of ingratitude, or threatened to give you something to really cry about. Your miles ahead of that treatment you hated.
But your kids are not interested in your progress. They want to feel accepted and truly understood. Especially your Integrity kids* will see right through your attempts at empathy.
So what should you do instead?
The first thing is to understand the principle behind connection. Instead of giving lip service by saying you understand, true empathy means knowing allowing any and all of your child’s emotions no matter how unacceptable the behavior. It means understanding that there is pain beneath unacceptable behavior that needs to come out and stop festering.
These statements show how quick you are to judge and eradicate bad behavior and saying you understand is used merely as a launch into correction mode. This means, the actual emotions of anger, resentment, guilt, powerlessness, confusion, rage are quickly passed over and still not accepted. Your words of understanding are empty, and your kids know it.
You actually don’t have to do anything about the emotions—just allow them. Don’t try to make them go away. It’s so much easier than you think.
Let’s reframe those rejected attempts at validating to be more empathic and connected:
- “You really don’t want to take a shower. I keep trying to make you and you just feel forced. Let’s see if we can figure out how to make this situation work for both of us.” You are taking your child’s resistance seriously; you’re hearing her. It doesn’t mean you have to give in.
- “Wow, when I see you hit your sister, it tells me how angry you must be. I know you know you’re not supposed to hit, so you got too angry to stop yourself.” Instead of trying to teach no hitting, focusing on the anger gives the child the chance to tell you about it. There’s plenty of time to talk about next time.
- “Looks like you’re really upset about the grade you got. I guess you expected a lot better, and this is a huge disappointment.” Fear that your child’s emotions are over the top sends you into fix-it mode. But the more you just stay with the emotion, the more he feels gotten and the sooner he will get over it—when he’s ready.
- “That must have felt so hurtful to hear those words. I sure would have felt bad if I were you.” Quiet comfort and hugs. After emotions are out, “What do you wish you could say to her?” Again, fixing it with what you think should happen invalidates how your child is feeling. Stay with the hurt. Then later talk about what she would like to do about it.
- Simply allow the meltdown. Do not try to calm the child down. When it’s all over, “That was really hard. You wanted that really badly and couldn’t have it.” Respect for your child’s agenda means modeling consideration. Never diminish the power of emotion.
*Integrity Kids – 9 Signs Your Defiant Kid is Actually an Integrity Child