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Therapist Corner: Acknowledging The Emotion First

Hello. I’m McCoy, and I am a Licensed Master of Social Work. I’ve been a therapist with Kids in the Middle for almost two years. During my time here, I’ve worked with a lot of parents. I’ve offered guidance on many challenges and learned from parents themselves. One of my go-to strategies for when a parent is struggling with their child is to ask parents to start by acknowledging their child’s emotions. This strategy works on multiple levels to de-escalate arguments, connect with your child, and improve their emotional intelligence. We’ll discuss each of these benefits later, but first, emotional intelligence is a central skill for all humans. It helps us manage our own emotions and navigate the emotions of others. This skill has been proven to improve mental health and overall life outcomes, but it isn’t taught in schools. By doing what we talk about here, you can teach your kids this essential life skill and strengthen the parent-child relationship. We’ll break down three instances where labeling emotions can be helpful.

The first instance is when you are disciplining your child. Children tend to misbehave, and many of our corrections get ignored or challenged. A great way to avoid a back-and-forth is to acknowledge your child’s emotions first. “I see jumping on the couch is fun, but couches are for sitting.” Your child sees you understand their behavior and can, therefore, better follow your correction. This works in more serious situations as well. For example, “I can see you’re angry. Your sister was bothering you, and you hit her to get her to stop. That makes sense, but we don’t hit when we’re mad. What can we do instead?” This example starts with the essential step of acknowledging your child’s feelings. It also gives them a clear understanding of what they did wrong and includes them in figuring out a better solution. You’re working all the parts of the brain we want them to practice and develop – emotion management, problem-solving skills, and self-awareness – and you’re getting your child’s buy-in on the preferred behavior.

A second key moment to label emotions is when your child asks a tough question. Tough questions come up a lot during a divorce or separation and are a staple of parenting. These questions can make you unsure, uncomfortable, or even angry. “Why don’t you and mom get back together?” “Why should I listen to you? Your marriage fell apart.” “Why doesn’t grandma come to Thanksgiving anymore?” These questions can be tricky, and you may not have a solid, age-appropriate answer. If that’s the case, you can’t go wrong with acknowledging the feeling underneath the question. “I know you really want your mom and I to get back together. It can be scary when parents separate.” “I can tell you’re very angry and hurt.” “I see you’re really worried about grandma.” These responses help children name their feelings and make them feel understood even if they don’t get a direct answer. This also gives you a break to calm your emotions and gives you time to return to the question later if it needs to be answered.

A final instance I’ll talk about here is when you feel yourself reacting emotionally to your child. As we talked about earlier, this may be because of a touchy question. It may also be during an argument or after having to repeat yourself several times. In this moment, it can be helpful to start by stating what emotion you’re seeing from your child. “I can see that you’re frustrated because you really want that toy,” or “That must make you very angry,” before working to resolve any conflict. By doing this, you can often de-escalate the situation and focus on what’s really happening. Kids will often get into arguments with you without knowing why. By telling them what you’re seeing, you’re helping them a) feel understood by you and b) understand better why they are acting the way they are. Labeling the feeling can also help you better understand the disagreement. Instead of the argument being something personal, it’s a natural human response. If it’s natural to feel angry when someone is in the way of something you want, the argument is not a reflection on your parenting or your child intentionally undermining you. Labeling the feeling helps your child calm down as much as it can help you calm down.

As we discussed, acknowledging the emotions your teen or child feel helps them develop emotional intelligence, but it also helps you parent in a way that you can be proud of. Instead of looking back at the day worrying you yelled too much or didn’t handle something correctly, you can rest easy knowing you met your child’s emotional needs.

Sometimes it takes several repetitions of “I see your angry,” before your child can hear you or calm down, which is normal. The effect is the same. Your child gets to feel seen and heard by you and is on their way to better understanding their own emotions. They also get to see what an adult does in a difficult situation. They have a model of how to handle conflict and anger. This skill can greatly impact your relationship with your child as they know you accept them even when they are angry or misbehaving.

If you’d like further reading on what I’ve talked about, I would highly recommend “Whole Brain Child” by Siegel and Bryson, “Between Parent and Child” by Haim Ginott, and “Talking to Children About Divorce” by Jean McBride. If you don’t have time for a book, Big Life Journal on Instagram and Facebook is a great resource for quick tips on parenting with emotional intelligence. You know your child best so use these tips as you see fit.

On a final note, I often remind parents that no one is perfect. Labeling your child’s emotions whenever you can, is a step in the right direction, even if it’s not something you’ve done before. And sometimes, the greatest gift you can give your child is showing how to make a mistake. Acknowledging the mistake, taking responsibility, and doing better are key elements of being a better human being; your children will copy what you do. Believe me; they will appreciate your efforts to be there for them more than you may ever realize.

McCoy Edmonds, MSW, LMSW