Helping Children Deal With Their Feelings

helping children deal with their feelings

“I was a wonderful parent before I had children. I was an expert on why everyone else was having problems with theirs. Then I had three of my own.”

So begins the book, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Faber and Mazlish use humor with their parenting and professional experiences to help parents learn effective communication.

Helping children deal with their feelings is fundamental in creating a parent/child relationship built on respect.

Respect, from the Latin re+spectare, means to look again or to give a second look. When we have mutual respect, we look each other in the eye again, and again and again. Respect begins with a look.

Faber and Mazlish, both students of Dr. Haim Ginott, tell us that there is a direct connection to how kids feel and how they behave.

If kids feel right, they’ll act right. We can help them feel right by accepting and respecting their feelings.

It can be easy to dismiss our children’s feelings. Children can be overly dramatic or use the wrong words to describe their emotions. Taken off-guard, we respond with phrases such as, “You’re not hungry. You just ate,” “You’re not hot. The air conditioner is running,” or “Don’t say you hate your sister. That’s an awful thing to say.”

Kids can become confused and angry when adults deny children’s feelings. Hearing their feelings dismissed teaches our children not to trust their feelings and keeps them from learning to express them appropriately.

Faber and Mazlish recommend four steps in accepting and respecting our children’s feelings:

1. We can listen quietly and attentively.
Turn off the television, radio, cell phone and computer, and give your child your full attention. Listen and refrain from giving advice, judging, asking questions, pitying, psychoanalyzing or taking sides. Just listen.
2. We can acknowledge our children’s feelings with just a word.
Using just a word or two, for example, oh mmmm, I see, will help our children feel that we are hearing what they are saying and feeling. I’ve found nodding with steady eye contact acts as an understanding word.
3. We can give the feeling a name.
That sounds frustrating. You must be upset (angry, sad). You must feel happy about that.
4. We can give the child his wishes in fantasy.
“I wish you could wear your pajamas to school.”

A three-year-old friend of mine was upset and in tears about having to take turns on our tree swing. I listened for a while, then looked Andie in the eye and said, “I think you’d like to swing all day.”

Andie nodded through her hiccups.

“It’s frustrating to have to take turns with your brothers.” Another nod.

“I wish I could build another swing, just for you, so you could swing and swing and swing. I’d write your name on it with pink and silver letters.”

Andie wiped her face and gave me a smile. She jumped from her mother’s lap and ran to get a ball. Feelings acknowledged. Crisis over. Move on.

When we use these four steps, we’ll help our children deal with their emotions. We can accept all feelings. Actions intended to harm are what we should not accept or condone.

A child might be angry and express hatred or a desire to harm. We could respond with, “I see you’re upset with your brother. Use your words to tell him what you want. Remember, no hitting.”

Listen so kids will talk. Talk so kids will listen.

It’s a two-way street, built on respect. Look ’em in the eyes and listen, really listen.

Building Cathedrals Not Walls

2 Responses to “Helping Children Deal With Their Feelings”

  1. Maren, usually I find your posts totally make sense. But I’m ambivalent this time. The core of your message I agree with completely. “Feelings acknowledged. Crisis over. Move on. […] Listen so kids will talk. Talk so kids will listen.”

    And I shall do my best to remember the first 3 steps from Faber and Mazlish. But I don’t think I agree with Step 4. Or at least, it shouldn’t end there. It’s nice to have a moment to fantasize, but I think it’s also necessary to acknowledge the reality of a situation and our responsibilities. So unless this becomes some kind of Step 5, I would recommend not indulging in Step 4.

    And I do not think that we should accept or condone all feelings. For example, jealousy or hatred. They’re understandable sometimes but that doesn’t make them OK. And it’s our job as parents to give our kids the ability to develop nobler feelings or at least to control better their negative ones. It’s not just about expressing what we want, it’s also about acknowledging that sometimes we can’t get what we want, and focusing on the positives instead. A child might feel jealous momentarily of another sibling, but he/she should over time feel this less and less.

    I’d welcome your thoughts. Thanks very much!

    • Alston,


      What I think Step 4: We can give the child his wishes in fantasy does is help the child see that the situation is not going to change.

      We aren’t going to change the rules. We aren’t going to make someone get off the swing. The child is still going to have to take turns.

      You wrote, “… but I think it’s also necessary to acknowledge the reality of a situation and our responsibilities.”

      So much of our communication with children is about age appropriate interaction and understanding the child in the situation.

      In my example of three-year-old Andie and the swing, I see her as being frustrated about the reality of having to take turns with the swing. (And by the way, our tree swing was wonderful!)

      There was no reason to tell her that the reality was she was going to have to wait her turn, and that waiting was part of her responsibilities in order to use the swing.

      So, I see your recommendation of Step 5 embedded in the situation.

      For a ten-year-old who is frustrated and acting out about having to wait his turn, one might see that your Step 5 needs to be explicit.

      “I wish there were more swings, but there is only one swing and four of you want to swing. Everyone will have to wait his turn and then get off after five minutes. That’s what everyone agreed to do.”

      When I say, “We can accept all feelings,” that means we listen for understanding to keep communication open and in order to help our children deal with their emotions and the situation in a positive way.

      I can accept that a child is feeling angry, so I listen and ask questions to try to understand why. This kind of listening is more about problem solving than acknowledging feelings.

      If I felt the situation with Andie warranted a problem solving technique I might have used five-step-problem solving to help her own the problem and the solution.

      After years of working with children I feel that by listening, acknowledging feels, and using effective problem solving techniques we can guide our children back to the loving and kind beings that they are.

      Here is the link to the article about five-step-problem solving:

      Another article that explains another listening technique is here:

      Also, I’ve put together a series of articles into an email course called Constructive Communication. Find out more at the link below.

      Alston, I think we both agree on where we need to guide a child.

      I think having an article that looks at only one aspect of the communication process, acknowledging feelings, doesn’t lend itself to the bigger picture of guiding our children to be their “bigger, better” selves.

      I welcome your questions and comments, and if you’d like to visit more about this, please let me know.

      This work of helping children grow up is, well, work!

      All the best,



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