Practical Parenting Advice for Dealing with Your Child’s Emotions

I recently asked my community of parents what they were struggling with during lockdown. There were two main areas of struggle and one of them, which is what I’m going to be focusing on today, is around difficult feelings that are coming up in this current challenging situation.

Watch the video or scroll down to read more…

I’m talking about our children’s difficult feelings – upset or anxiety around not being able to go to school and everything being topsy-turvy – and also our own worry as parents that we may not be measuring up as teachers, our children may be falling behind, or they may not be able to slot back into school so easily.

What I’m going to be sharing here are three approaches to help children with upset and difficult feelings of all kinds. We’re also going to look briefly at why good techniques like positive thinking and breathing don’t always work and how you can help them work better.

Then we’ll look at the difference between feelings and stories and why it’s important to distinguish between the two. I’ll also share a personal, real life story to illustrate how I helped myself to resolve a tricky situation.

Emotions and Feelings

Anxiety is an emotion, and here’s the thing about emotions. We tend to like the nice ones – we’re all like that, aren’t we?

We like feeling joyful. We like feeling happy. We like feeling calm.

Sometimes we like feeling excited, but we’re not so keen on the feelings at the other end of the spectrum – sadness, worry, shame or vulnerability, for example.

We also tend not to like it when our children are in those feelings.

Even if you’re open to the idea that it’s good for children to express their feelings and you’re able to be with them when they have an anger outburst, some of the other feelings are more uncomfortable than anger.

For example, we don’t like it when our children are anxious or when they express jealousy.

I get that. I’m the same. We don’t want it.

But here’s the key learning that I want to share with you today:

Feelings and emotions just want to be felt. They want to be experienced. That’s their purpose in life.

And sometimes they have a message for us, a really important message they want us to listen to.

When we try to make those feelings go away, whether in ourselves or in our children, we’re not allowing that feeling to be felt.

And what we resist persists. It’s a law of nature.

The way to help children with their difficult feelings is not to try and persuade them not to have them.

It’s actually the opposite. It may sound paradoxical, but it’s about allowing them to experience those feelings and emotions more fully.

If your child is really upset or anxious about school having been cancelled, or about missing their clubs or friends, you may like to try one of the following three ways to help them deal with these difficult feelings.

#1 – Show your child that you understand about that upset or anxiety.

Be with them in it. Express to them that you’re with them in it.

Accept and embrace that emotion, for now.

You could say…

I totally get that you’re really missing school. And you don’t understand why the whole world has been turned on its head and you hate that coronavirus.

You don’t want to hear the adults talking about it. And I totally understand how much you miss your friends and that having me as teacher is just not cool…

Whatever your child is expressing, make it appropriate for them.

This is empathy.

And it’s different to sympathy. It’s not, “Poor you, I’m so sorry that you’re going through this difficult thing…

Empathy is a very grounded thing. “I hear what you’re saying. I’m here with you.

You need to tune into your inner earth mother, perhaps. Be really solid. Be with them. Don’t get swept along by the emotion but be big enough to hold it.

Your child will experience that you get it and that will be such a relief.

They won’t have to keep expressing it because you’ve understood, and it then follows that the emotion can diminish.

#2 – The Feeling Counterpart

Emotions and feelings are never completely separate, but this is about the experience in the body. And some people, whether child or adult, are more in tune with this bodily feeling part of it – the sensation.

I was talking to a mum the other day who was saying that her daughter was feeling all these feelings in her tummy, and I totally get that.

And in a way, The fact that she’s talking about that is a wonderful gift to her mum because the next step would be for this mum to talk to her daughter about those feelings.

We talk about a lump in the throat or a stone in the heart or stomach, or we see red. These are all sensations we have that are the bodily correspondence to an emotion.

If your child doesn’t have that awareness yet, you can ask them where they are feeling it in their body.

Use your hand to suggest the stomach, or the heart region, or perhaps the head – helping them to identify those feelings and understand what those sensations are, if they’re having them.  

Once you’ve identified them, you can also ask questions like…

  • I wonder how big it is?
  • Is it as big as a cereal bowl, or as big as a school bag, or a car?
  • How heavy is it?
  • Is it like a small conker, or perhaps a bag of flour or a big sack of potatoes?
  • Is it moving like a wriggly worm or popping bubbles, or maybe like the feeling of water draining out of the bath?
  • Or perhaps it just feels like a big stone sitting there?

And you can try to identify whether the feeling has a colour and what that might be.

You can talk through it with your child if they respond to that. And if they don’t – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

It’s about becoming really curious and helping your child to feel those feelings, because feelings that are felt tend to diminish.  

#3 – Have a conversation with the worry

This is interesting. Some time ago, I was talking to a mum whose five-year-old daughter was very worried, but she was also very self-aware and articulate. And she was aware that she was worried.

She would say things like, “Sometimes my worry says…

Or, “My worry thinks…

Again, this is a bit of a gift for a parent because you can respond to that.

You can ask to have a conversation with the worry.

And if your child’s up for that, you can have a conversation directly with their worries – a kind of role play, but it’s real.

“So, you’re Caitlin’s worry. I’m delighted to meet you. Could you tell me what you’re worried about?

Have this conversation and talk your child through it using step one that I shared with you above about empathy.

“Oh, that does sound scary. Aha! You’re worried about that – I get it. Okay.

After you’ve done quite a lot of that genuine empathising – empathy only works if it’s really sincere and genuine – then you can problem solve a bit with your child’s worry, finding out if there’s anything that might help – whether the child might do anything to help themselves.

And even if nothing comes as a problem-solving next step, the fact is that you’ve had a conversation with the worry.

You’ve taken it seriously. And this is key.

This allows the worry to have an outlet, to have a listening ear, and to be experienced.

Next Steps

Once you’ve done these three things, you can move on to the next steps.

These could be things that you may have been doing before that weren’t so effective, like positive thinking or breathing, if you feel that would be helpful.

But by doing what I’ve just talked you through, you will have helped your child to create a space to do those things – and these techniques will be more effective now.

You’ll see that the reason they don’t work on their own is because of all the feelings that were in the way.

With the suggestions above, you’ll have helped the feelings to diminish.

But there’s also a post script on that…

You may well diminish the feelings but it’s important not to go in with the purpose of diminishing them, because they don’t want to be diminished! They want to be heard and experienced and felt.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

Moving on, I promised you that I would say a little about worries you may have been having about your abilities as a teacher, or how it’s going to be for your child when they go back to school.

First of all, I advise all of the above for yourself!

Listen to your own emotions, experience your own sensations, and have a little chat with your worries.

And then, and this is really important, differentiate between the feelings or emotions and the story that you’re telling yourself about it.

It’s natural to feel a bit overwhelmed in the current climate. It’s natural to feel disappointed if you feel you didn’t manage to teach your child something, or they got stuck and you couldn’t help them.

But what tends to happen is that we don’t just feel that natural kind of disappointment or overwhelm, or fear about the current situation.

We tend to make up stories about it, too.

We tell ourselves that our child will find it really, really hard when they go back to school again because they weren’t seeing their friends for all that time.

  • They may have lost touch with them.
  • They will have fallen behind.
  • Other parents are doing much better with the whole school at home thing.
  • They’re making much faster progress and my child will suffer and it’s all my fault…

And the thing about these stories is that they make us feel really bad and they feel totally true. In this context, if it makes you feel really bad and you totally believe it to be true, then it is what I call a story. It’s something that you have made up.

I do this as well – we all do it. It’s part of the human condition because we’re meaning makers.

These stories add to our suffering. It’s natural to feel disappointment or overwhelm, for example, but if we make up the stories, we literally compound the suffering. There’s no end to it because we can’t get out of the stories.

I hope that makes sense to you, but in case it doesn’t, I’m going to round off with a story from my own experience – quite a recent and raw story of something difficult that happened to me.

Recently, I ran a webinar for another community of parents. It went really well and I got a lot of lovely feedback. I had a few conversations with parents afterwards which were great as well.

I made some really good connections but, so far, no one has signed up to work with me. And this has never happened to me in the history of running online classes and webinars.

I have to admit that I didn’t just feel the slight pain of business dipping.

I got into the story that I must have done something wrong.

I told myself this was really bad, that it shouldn’t have happened.

It made me feel so bad that last week, although I’d planned to do a Facebook live, I didn’t do it. I was just feeling bad and it impacted on my ability to help my community.

Fortunately, I was able to show up in a really good way for my clients, but I got into a bit of a rabbit hole and I lost touch with the heartbeat of my business, which is what fulfils me.

Then, at a certain moment, I realised what I’d done. I realised that it was a story – that in business there are natural fluctuations. It didn’t actually mean anything.

Things go up and down and it’s time to focus again on what’s important to me, what lifts me up, like speaking with my clients, sharing in posts on Facebook or showing up in groups – serving and helping people.

I immediately felt so much better and also felt this new strength as well to do with having overcome that.

The thing about stories is that they can derail us from what’s really important and I’m guessing that what is important for you now is showing up fully for your children – nurturing them, connecting with them, providing safety, being a vessel of love.

If we spend time worrying that we did something wrong, or not well enough, we’re not really there for the very people we care most about. A bit like me not being there for my business.

Finally, if this has touched you and you’d like to take it further into a one-to-one conversation with me as to how I could help you more, let’s talk. I’d love to speak with you.

Every month I make a few free video calls available. We can talk about these things and everything that’s coming up for you and is challenging your child.

I can give you a listening ear so that these feelings can diminish.

If that sounds like a supportive, positive next step, do get in touch. You can choose a slot in my diary so that we can really connect, one-to-one.

Solve the Struggle with Your Kids


The 6 Wise Parenting Powers

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Solve the Struggle with Your Kids


The 6 Wise Parenting Powers

Download my no cost guide to raising a secure and happy family.

By signing up you're agreeing to receive the guide, a few emails to help you get started and my irregular newsletter, with useful articles and resources, news of free parenting trainings and special offers on my mentoring services. You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy.