I don’t know about you, but when my child gets upset I just want him to stop. Obviously, I don’t like that he is mad for him, because I care for him. But, more than that, I want him to stop for me. I don’t like how I feel when someone around me is mad, especially if someone is mad at me. But the truth is no one can stop another person’s feelings. Trying to stop a child’s feelings usually causes those feelings and behaviors to become amplified because the child, and every other person, has a strong need to have his emotions validated.
Many parents don't understand how validating a child's feelings is necessary to help a child calm. What do I mean by “validated?” For me, a great example of this was the first, and only, time I got a speeding ticket. That day, I forgot to set my cruise control and was just mindlessly moving as fast as the other cars. When I got pulled over, I honestly had no idea I was going as fast as I was. I felt horrible. I immediately called my husband who did a decent job ‘validating’ my feelings. He empathized with me and said he felt sorry for me. I was surprised how the rest of those I encountered that day didn’t validate my emotions. Instead, many told me their stories of getting tickets and about the expensive fines they had to pay. No one named or empathized with how I was feeling, which was genuine sadness mixed with shame. Instead, their focus was based on their experience. When I got home that day, my husband did a good job validating not only my emotions related to getting the ticket, but also my emotions related to how no one else had validated my feelings. I was experiencing strong emotions and needed to feel supported and understood.
Keep in mind, validation didn't mean I wanted someone to excuse my misbehavior. Sometimes parents think validating a child's emotions means minimizing or normalizing their child's misbehavior, but that isn't at all the purpose. Rather, validation helps the young child feel supported. This helps the child calm and be more likely to behave appropriately or realize his or her behavior is getting out of control.
Here is an example of how validation, or lack thereof, influences a child's behavior. Imagine that you are giving your children popsicles. One asks for red, so the other child asks for red too. You reach into the box and give the first child the red you easily find. You reach into the box again but find there is no more red. You ask your second child, would he like orange, green or purple? Your child immediately screams. You tell your child that there are no more red - he is just going to have to pick another color. He screams again and this time swings at the popsicle box or lunges at his sibling’s red popsicle. What is going on? Your second child isn’t feeling his emotion being validated, and each time he feels this way it causes his behavior to escalate. He increasingly feels frustrated and angry that his emotion, which was frustration and anger, isn’t being validated. Instead, he wants to feel understood. For example, “Oh, no! You really wanted red just like your sister. I’m sorry but I didn’t realize there was only one red and I already gave that to your sister. That doesn’t feel fair because it isn’t. You want red too.” Then once the child shows signs that he is feeling understood, you calmly ask if he wants a different popsicle and then talk though his choices.
A major second point about anger is to realize that you have to teach a child about anger at a time when he is calm and ready to learn. Even when your child is a baby, you can name the emotions he or she feels. While you read books, point out and name how characters feel. At the library, get books focused on specific emotions. Young children are often drawn to the pictures in the book. During play, pretend that a stuffed animal or puppet is mad. Name the animal’s feeling and then playfully coach the animal to calm down by taking deep breaths or other calming behaviors. Another idea is to do a variation of “If you’re happy and you know it,” and instead do “if you’re mad and you know it.” There are all kinds of fun and playful ways to help your child learn about emotions and about various coping strategies.
The third major point about anger is to realize that when the child is in the middle of anger, it is time to wait out the storm. It is not a time to teach or lecture. Instead, clearly state any rule that has been broken and then ensure safety. For example, “No biting. Biting hurts.” This is true for all of us. If we are emotionally aroused, our ability and desire to use logic or language significantly diminishes.
The fourth and final point about anger is that after your child’s anger, you as the parent must allow the child (and yourself) to do what is necessary to make repair then get back to normal. What I mean by repair isn’t necessarily for the child to say “sorry” or be forced to hug someone he injured, because just as you can’t force a person to stop feeling an emotion, you can’t force someone to feel one either. Instead a young child will learn to feel empathy for others, including feeling ‘sorry’ for his or her own misdeeds, as a developmental process.
What I mean by repair is that the child will feel confident that his relationship with you is still firm. A major piece of this is that the parent must clearly show the child that despite the child’s previous anger and behavior, that things are okay and back to normal with you and the child. In other words, once you have calmly disciplined your child and your child has calmed and returned to play, you have to let any anger you feel about what happened go, at least with your child. Have your legitimate emotions validated by another adult (out of earshot of your child) or by writing about them in your journal instead, but don’t expect your child to validate them for you. Also, make sure you don’t bring up the incident later in anger. It is okay to process what happened during a learning time, but it is essential that you remain calm throughout any future discussion of the now-past incident.