When I stopped trying to “solve” my child’s anger and frustration, and instead started providing good supportive listening, the insight my son generated surprised me.
Trying to “solve” an upset child’s emotions is futile. What does work? Listening, caring, believing, and accepting. And even though I’ve been teaching this for a long time, of course I don’t always remember to apply this. I recently learned this lesson—yet again!—with the aid of my four year old son. The result of the conversation surprised me.
Lian was running around the playground with his friends when I came to pick him up in the afternoon. We headed out alongside another dad and preschooler. On our way to the car, we had a set of doors to go through, and Lian said: “I’m going to open these doors!” He started running toward them, which inspired the other preschooler to do the same – and the other preschooler got to the doors first. He was about to open them when Lian shouted “No no no! I want to open them!” and the other child backed off with a confused look. We all went through. The other dad and kid continued on their way. I felt a little sheepish about Lian’s outburst, and Lian was visibly fuming.
As we were walking, Lian aired his grievances: “I wanted to open the doors! He should have listened to my words!” and I, genius psychologist parent that I am, tried to solve his anger, first by pointing out that the other kid probably didn’t do it on purpose, then by reassuring Lian we can open more doors on other days, and finally by reminding Lian that he did in fact get to open the doors. Of course, none of this helped Lian feel better. He was upset, and wasn’t able to process new information. He didn’t need me to fix his emotions. He needed me to accept his emotions.
When people don’t feel heard, they will will increase the intensity of their communication, either by speaking more loudly, or by saying more extreme things, or by acting out physically. They will continue to intensify their communication until they feel heard. Whenever I suggested a different way to look at the situation, Lian repeated his list of complaints a little more loudly: “I wanted to open the door! He should have listened to my words! I didn’t want him to open the door! I told him that I wanted to open the door!” Once we got to the car, I offered Lian a snack. He ignored me and kept talking about how upset he was.
After a couple of minutes of this back-and-forth, I finally got the message and switched to supportive listening mode. I listened with care, paraphrased with warmth, and let Lian lead the conversation. The result surprised me.
Lian: “I wanted to open the doors!”
Me: “You wanted to be the one who gets to open the doors?”
Lian: “Yes! He should have listened to my words!”
Me: “When you said you wanted to open the doors, you wanted the other kid to let you do it, and not run up to the doors?”
Lian: “Yes! I said I wanted to open the doors! Just me!”
Me: “You wanted to open the doors by yourself, and you said this.”
Lian: “I’m really mad!”
Me: “You’re feeling angry?”
Lian: “Yes! I’m really angry, because he should have listened to my words!”
Me: “You’re angry because you wanted to open the doors, and you said so, but then the other kid ran up to the doors first.”
This went on for about 10 minutes. Ten minutes, truly. Lian was really upset, and had a lot of venting to do. I was helping Lian find words for expressing his experience, while doing my best not to only paraphrase and not add any content to what he said. At some point, the conversation took a surprising turn.
Lian: “I’m really mad.”
Me: “You’re feeling very angry?”
Lian: “Yes.” [thoughtful pause] “I was angry because I was afraid that the other kid would open the door.”
Me: “You were afraid that the other kid would open the door, and you wouldn’t get to open it?”
Lian: “Yes, I was angry because I was feeling afraid I won’t do what I wanted.” [some silence] “Hey look, they’re building a balcony!”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. This was a very significant insight, which Lian got to all by himself. He realized he was angry because he was afraid of not getting what he wanted. And just like that, after articulating this realization, the intensity of Lian’s emotions decreased, and he was able to start attending to the world around him. A short while later Lian said that he is “feeling a little better” and accepted my offer of a snack. We went on to have a fun afternoon together.
The temptation to help my child by “fixing” his emotional state is very real. When my child is upset, and the most natural reaction is to try and help him feel better quickly, by giving him information or experiences that will change how he feels. The only problem is that this rarely works, and often leads to a clash between us, with my child feeling misunderstood and as though I am discounting his experience. What does work is to show my child that I accept his emotions, help him clarify to himself what he is feeling and why, and model the option of accepting emotions, even uncomfortable emotions, without needing to immediately change them. This helps him process his emotions, learn not to be afraid of them, and also understand them better. Paradoxically, it also helps these emotions subside faster.
Although the example I gave here involves a conversation with a 4 year old, the same principle holds true for kids of any age. So, next time your child is upset, try to listen and say back what you are hearing. Remind yourself that what you are doing is immensely helpful, and helps strengthen your relationship with your child, because it is such a clear demonstration of how much you respect your child’s experience, and how much you care about your child. I will try to remember to do this more regularly, too. 🙂
If you are interested in learning more about how to offer supportive listening to your child and how to have these conversations in a way that strengthens your relationship with your child, consider taking the self-paced Parenting For Humans foundations class.