Understanding Children’s Feelings



You walk into your local supermarket.  You look down the lolly aisle, to see a tiny toddler on the floor, kicking and screaming.  Is he misbehaving or manipulating, playing up or throwing a tantrum, or is this a case of the terrible twos?  These phrases, so often heard, seem to invite either a stern “take control” response, or a passive “grin and bear it” approach.  They come from paradigms that suggest we ignore or punish a crying child or perhaps distract and pacify him.  What we now know is that children treated in these ways grow up confused about their feelings and vague about their needs.

But thanks to dedicated researchers like Aletha Solter, founder of The Aware Parenting Institute, a different understanding of children’s feelings presents us with new options in response to tears and tantrums.

Imagine a world where children’s feelings were welcomed as expressions of their needs.  What if we supported them to express the whole range of their feelings, from joy to anguish?  What if a child’s natural capacity to heal from stress and hurt was encouraged?  As they cried, raged and laughed in our arms, they would grow into adults at home in their bodies and intimate with themselves and others.


Behaviours that indicate a need for emotional release
Behaviours seen as “normal” in a young child, such as biting, hitting, “incessant” talking, and “constant” movement, actually indicate that the child harbours unexpressed feelings.  Her underlying discomfort can be observed in the following behaviours:

the child -
*  sucks her thumb or dummy;
*  frequently clutches a soft toy or special blanket;
*  eats or drinks for comfort rather than hunger or thirst;
*  has difficulty going to sleep even when she is tired;
*  wakes up frequently at night;
*  bites, hits or kicks other children, her parents, or pets;
*  seems unable to sit still, is “hyperactive,” or has a short attention span;
*  frequently falls over or bumps into things;
*  seems “whiny”, or agitated;
*  says “no” to the majority of the parent’s requests;
*  repeatedly does things she knows her parents do not enjoy;
*  cries or flails her arms or legs when she is touched or gently cuddled;
*  has a “tantrum” (which is emotional release in action).

How can we respond?

If you observe the above behaviours, you can contribute to your child’s wellbeing in the following ways:

*  Come close and ask, “Are you feeling ..... because you are needing .....?”  Continue  in this way and your child’s needs for empathy will be met. 

*  She may need more support to release an accumulation of feelings.  Make eye contact and gently touch or hold her, and ask, “Do you want to have a cry?” 

*  Stronger feelings may require sensitive holding to provide emotional and physical safety.  Ask, “Would you like me to hold you now?”  It is important to hold your child only when you are feeling calm and when you generally provide sensitive attunement to your child’s needs.  The younger the child, the more she needs to be held when she is upset.

*  If your child is about to hurt you or another child, then first hold her to prevent the action, and then continue aware holding to allow her to safely cry and rage.  Explain to her, “I need safety for you and Jemima, so I’m going to hold you and help you let your feelings out.”

*  If your child is having a tantrum, stay close, offer empathy, and make sure she doesn’t hurt herself or others.  You might choose to hold her to provide extra containment whilst she continues raging.

*  Feelings of fear can be released through laughter.  Role plays about the feared situation can provide the balance of fear and safety to allow healing laughter to be expressed.

*  Frustration about unmet needs for autonomy can be expressed through power reversal games, involving laughter and silliness.  For example, the child runs after the parent, who mock screams, “Help, don’t chase me.”

After letting out her feelings, your child will appear relieved, calm, and present.  If you are able to be with her most hurt feelings, your child’s needs for acceptance will be met, and intimacy and trust between the two of you will profoundly deepen.


Instead of Empathy......

Many people believe that we help our child by getting rid of his hurt feelings quickly, by saying, “It’s okay,” “Don’t worry,” “Never mind,” or, “It doesn’t matter.”  When we confuse reassurance with empathy, we invalidate our child’s emotions.  He may then become an adult who ignores his inner barometer and who brushes away the feelings of those close to him.

Parents also respond in more extreme ways to their children’s feelings by: 
ignoring - “I’ll leave you here if you keep being naughty”;
punishing - “I’ll make you really cry if you don’t shut up”;
belittling -   “Stop crying now”;
contradicting - “You don’t need me to pick you up, go and play”;
or ridiculing - “Cry baby.” 
Children then learn to fear emotions and grow up weighed down with self-judgments.

The extent to which we are empathised with as children has a profound effect on us as adults.  A child has such a strong need for love and empathy from his parents that his psyche will bury unaccepted feelings.  This leads to later symptoms, including low self-esteem, addictions, and depression.

Empathy and its effects

Empathy involves being truly present with another.  Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication provides one way of offering empathy.  When we sense that our child is feeling something, we can ask, “Are you feeling ..........., because you are needing .........?” for example, “Are you feeling disappointed because you really want to play?”   

Simply being present and empathising with an upset child allows her to know and trust herself.  The child receives unconditional love as all her feelings are validated, leading to a deep sense of self-acceptance.  Intimacy between parent and child is free to flourish.

Healing from hurts through crying and raging

Feelings that do not get expressed and empathised with in the moment get stored in the body as tension.  The tension protects a child from emotional pain, but also restricts her ability to feel love and joy. 

When a child has held in feelings she may need other types of support as well as empathy to express them.  Helping her cry and rage allows her body to get rid of muscular tension and stored stress hormones.  These natural stress-release mechanisms have been thoroughly researched and described by Aletha Solter, Ph.D., in her three books, “The Aware Baby”, “Tears and Tantrums”, and “Helping Young Children Flourish”.

Intimacy and protection from painful feelings

When we get close to a child who is protecting himself from his feelings, the intimacy connects him to his pain.  John Breeding suggests,  “Keep reaching for closeness.  This is especially crucial for boys .. [who] ... push you away and isolate in their distress.  Let them push and show their hurts, but don’t ever believe that they really don’t want to be close.  They do, desperately!  Keep reaching in.”  If we only hear our child’s “go away”, (because of course we want to respect his need for autonomy), then his needs for intimacy and healing from hurts may not get met. 

Want more cooperation?

I believe that the desire to contribute is very strong in all people, including children.  Nonviolent Communication shows that a child is more likely to contribute when he is requested to do something rather than is demanded of, and when he is sure that his needs are considered important.   However, contribution is also less likely when he has past hurts or stresses which have not been empathised with and released.  This is because the accumulated tension feels uncomfortable and his need for release becomes the most prominent one.  He wants to contribute, but not as much as he needs to feel comfortable inside his own skin.

When do children need to cry or rage?

Children need to release stress and hurt feelings after:
a stimulating day, conflicts with other children or family members, separations, divorce, remarriage, moving to a new home or school, the birth of a sibling, and seeing frightening events on television or in real life.  The younger the child, the more that stimulation affects him, and the more he needs to express his feelings through crying, raging or laughing. 

Encouraging expression of hurt feelings allows reconnection after separations and conflicts.  The symptoms of disturbed attachment - excessive clinging, whining,  aggressiveness, or resisting closeness, indicates a need for release.  Secure attachment can be regained through encouraging and accepting a child’s upset feelings whilst holding him lovingly.

Often a child will whine or complain about a small thing, and we may repeatedly try to fix matters for him, or grow frustrated.  Actually, this little thing is the last straw, and the child may even ‘create’ a last straw by asking for something we will not give him.  The child is trying to reach a point where he can express his stored up feelings.  Instead of giving in or punishing, we can encourage him to cry and rage, leading to peace and calm for both parent and child.

Holding a crying or raging child

If I hold my daughter whilst she cries it is really important to me that my intention is only to contribute to her wellbeing.  I aim to stay present in my body, and to sensitively connect with hers.  If I feel frustrated or angry, I do not hold her.  It is important that holding happens in a context where the child’s needs for trust, autonomy and empathy are met on a daily basis, and where she is given frequent opportunities for expressing her feelings about power imbalances.   

I received this email recently, which demonstrates how holding provides the safety for expressing strong feelings.  I wanted to share an amazing experience I had with my two year old last night.  She had been grumpy all day but had not cried.  In the evening she demanded to have some chocolate pudding before dinner.  When I said no she threw herself into a frenzy.  She lay down on the floor kicking and screaming as loud as she could (which is very loud!).  I asked if she wanted me to hold her and got no response so I just watched until I had an idea to hold her in the sling.  I used to wear her in the sling constantly when she was a baby.  She fought against it and struggled to escape.  After a few minutes I let her out to check the oven.  I didn't want her to get burned so I put her on the floor.  She continued to scream and kick until I asked if she'd like me to hold her again.  She lifted her arms and when I picked her up, she opened the sling and climbed back in all by herself!  When I had her snuggly adjusted  again, she resumed struggling and screaming.  After about ten minutes in the sling she stopped crying and said "I want to go play."  I put her down and within seconds she was laughing and playing with her sister and remained in a fabulous mood the rest of the evening......

Seeing the difference that crying makes

Some parents choose to have a daily time for release, others wait until the “big explosion” comes along.  I prefer to support my nearly three year old daughter to vent her feelings daily, often in the evening before she goes to sleep.  When she doesn’t have a cry for three or four days, she starts showing that she has unexpressed feelings.  She takes a long time to go to sleep even when she is tired, and moves a lot during the night.  During the day she seems agitated, gets easily frustrated, and avoids being close.  On the other hand, when she has a cry every day or two, she easily goes to sleep lying beside me when she is tired, is relaxed throughout the night, and happy and alert during the day.  She concentrates for long periods and enjoys cuddles and closeness.  Time and again the differences reassure me that crying in my arms contributes significantly to her daily wellbeing.  

Emotional healing for parents too

I think that the true nature of adults and children alike, is loving, aware, peaceful, intimate and generous.  Hurt feelings hide these qualities in our children and ourselves.  We can help our children reconnect to their essential nature through supporting their natural healing ability, and similarity we can we help ourselves.

When we do not respond to our children in loving, aware, gentle ways, it is because we need empathy and support to express our own upset feelings.  It is inevitable that our old hurts are stimulated by the daily stresses of parenting, and by being with our children as they cry and rage.  Having our own needs met enables us to respond more lovingly to our children.  Regular empathic support to safely share our feelings may come from a friend, therapist, or Aware Parenting group.

The more we embrace in ourselves, the more we can accept in our children.  Learning to empathise with our own feelings is a life-saver when there is no other adult around.  Nonviolent Communication is very helpful for learning the process of self-empathy. 

Aware Parenting may not always be easy, but it is certainly fulfilling.  Releasing our own feelings in supportive relationships gives us more resources to be present and loving with our children whatever their behaviour and however strong their feelings.  Seeing the differences in our children, knowing that we are contributing to their emotional lives, and enjoying more intimacy with them, makes it all worthwhile. 


For more information about emotional release in babies and children,

See Aletha Solter’s website at www.Awareparenting.com
and Patty Wipfler’s at www.handinhandparenting.org
and John Breeding’s at www.wildestcolts.com

If you are interested in learning NVC,

Check out the website of the Centre for Nonviolent Communication at www.CNVC.org and www.NonviolentCommunication.com and nvcaustralia.com, where you can find out about learning and training in NVC, web support groups, and purchasing books, videos, and audiotapes.


References

Solter, A. (2001)  The Aware Baby (revised edition) 
Shining Star Press  ISBN 0-9613073-7-4

Solter, A.  (1998)  Tears and Tantrums  What to Do When Babies and Children Cry
Shining Star Press  ISBN: 0-9613073-6-6

Solter, A. (1989)  Helping Young Children Flourish  (Two to eight years of age) 
Shining Star Press  ISBN: 0-9613073-1-5 

Marshall Rosenberg, (2003) Nonviolent Communication A Language of Life, 2nd edn., PuddleDancer Press.  (available from CNVC.org)


This article was first published in byron child magazine www.byronchild.com in 2005