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Sitting in the coffee shop is my favorite place to observe parenting at its best and sometimes not so best. I just overheard the following from a caring and loving group as they addressed their two-and 1/2 year-old child.

Grandpa: Now you’re not going to cry again when you come with us are you?
Grandma: Yeah, you made grandpa feel really bad last time.
Grandpa: If you cry again, we won’t be able to take you sledding, okay?
2-year old: (looks confused then nods and goes off with mom to look at books)

Now, on the surface this appears to be a situation where very caring and loving grandparents are doing the right thing. They certainly demonstrated care and love, but is it right to tell the child that their “feelings” have hurt someone and that good things will be taken from them if they “feel” that way again? While this is not a traumatic experience for the child, it is these well intentioned, but not so purposeful engagements that ultimately differentiate between very well-adjusted and healthy children, and those who we describe as ‘just fine.’

Sometimes we just don’t want to have to deal with every little emotional blip in our child’s day, nor should we feel we have to. Today’s tip is about being willing to examine how you have handled similar situations in the past and to consider options that promote healthy emotional growth and regulation.

How might we as parents use this situation as an opportunity to both nurture and teach? There are numerous conversations that could take place, but the key to children’s growth is to honor it WITH a conversation.

The best place to start is with an acknowledgement of their feelings. It is very comforting to learn that someone else understands our inner experience. No matter the age, we all appreciate this. Then you can attempt to get words that describe a thought behind the feeling. This is a prime time to purposefully teach our child that thoughts can bring icky feelings and that we
can control our feelings by controlling our thoughts. How about a sample conversation to illustrate this objective:
Child: (Crying)
Parent: I see you are upset. Come here. (hugs)
Child: (Crying)

Parent: I want to help, but I can’t do much if I can’t hear words from you. Could you stop for a minute? If you want to cry more later, you can. But I need to hear your words in order to help you.
Child: (Crying)
Parent: Okay, ready? I can see you feel sad. Tell me more about it.
Child: (Crying), “You might not come back.”
Parent: Oh, so you are scared. You are scared because you think we won’t come back and get you? Is that right?
Child: (Crying) Yeah.
Parent: Those are very scary thoughts!
Child: Yeah.
Parent: I understand you now because you used good words to tell me. Now, can I tell you something that might help you feel better?
Child: Yeah.
Parent: Your thoughts are scary but that doesn’t mean they are real. You imagined something icky and it seemed real to you, but that doesn’t mean it is real. You made a picture in your mind of mommy and daddy not picking you up. We can imagine all kinds of things. Some thoughts are scary and some are not. Would you like to imagine some silly thoughts?
Child: Okay
Parent: What if… mom and dad picked you up from grandpa’s riding an elephant. Would that be funny?
Child: (laughs)
Parent: We can see mom and daddy on an elephant in our mind and that is fun. Do you think mommy and daddy will really pick you up riding an elephant?
Child: (laughs)
Parent: No, we won’t be picking you up on an elephant. It is a very funny thought, but it is just a thought, right? It doesn’t mean that it is real. What is more fun, imagining scary thoughts, or funny thoughts?

Having planted the seed that feelings follow thoughts, the parent can then provide additional assistance to help relieve the child’s feelings of insecurity. Maybe the child and parent can brainstorm ideas. Perhaps arrangements can be made to call two times while at his grandparent’s to check in if needed. In many cases the simple act of allowing a child to talk about feelings and fears is enough to quell the anxiety.

Of course, I don’t know the real reason for this child’s discomfort, but I suspect the parents don’t know either. When we tell a child they will not be allowed to participate because of their feelings, they will no doubt do their best to bury their thoughts of fear allowing them to engage in the desired activity. But since the fear in this case is arbitrary and not related to the activity itself, it is likely to show up again and again in one form or another.

This conversation is an INVESTMENT, and as such will relieve the parent and child from potentially more severe and frequent problems in the future. Plus, this is a BONUS opportunity; we have a chance to start teaching children how to control thoughts! This is not something kids from the ‘just fine’ generation were generally taught. DOUBLE BONUS: We fortify our relationship by talking WITH and listening to our child! That is a magnificent big pay-off investment!

I encourage you to look at these situations through a new lens. See them as grand opportunities to teach, rather than a problem or a burden. If you care to learn more about being a great listener, you might also want to check out this national best seller:

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk: by Adele Faber & Elasine Mazlish

About the author

Kate MartinKate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015. 

She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. 

For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.  

Buy the Book by Kate Martin: The Best Thoughts To Think Five minutes Before