Helping Children Communicate Their Feelings

By Barb Grady

            One of my students recently called me to relate an affirming story about expressing feelings.  “I got upset because he wouldn’t help me put his toys away, he said, ‘When you look at me like that you hurt my feelings.’”  While a mother’s pride is sometimes overstated, this time it was not.  I knew exactly why my student was so pleased.  She, like myself, had once taught preschool and was intent on helping children communicate their feelings.  That’s not easy for young children: language is still rudimentary in the early years, plus many children hide their feelings to secure adult approval.  Unhappy feelings do not just disappear though—they go underground, often to reemerge years later.

            I never told my parents that they were hurting my feelings when they showed disapproval.  Such an idea never entered my head and could have been dangerous if it had!  Surely, my parents could not have understood, much less expressed, such feelings when they were young.  Now, we realize that when children let us know how they feel, we can help them understand themselves and also help them to cope with unhappy feelings, which is much more useful than repressing them.

How Times Have Changed

            My student was not only amused and proud; she was also honest. She told her son that she was sorry to have hurt his feelings, and that she had been upset because she was tired and bending over to put the blocks away was hurting her back.  He replied, “That’s because you’re old!”  My student kept her cool and said, “I guess you must feel angry at me.  You know it hurts my feelings to call me old.”

            Within minutes, my student and her son went swimming.  By then, the slate was clean.  They could be friends again because there was no hidden backlog of unhappy feelings.

Encouraging the Expression of Real Feelings

            After a lifetime of working with children and recalling my own feelings as a child, I am convinced that nothing, aside from loving and protecting children, is as important as helping them communicate their real feelings.  Grappling directly with perceptions and sensations leads to solving problems in the here and now, rather than leaving them to fester into a source of discomfort one is never able to figure out.  It can also save on many counseling sessions in the future.

            How can we help children tell us how they feel?  By reading them stories and following up with conversation.  By listening to accounts of their dreams, and asking what they think the dreams are saying about deep-down feelings.  By paying attention when children want to tell us something rather than saying, “I’m busy now.  Tell me later.”

            We are most apt to cut off the expression of real feelings when children tell us things we do not want to hear.  If a child says, “You’re fat!” and you roar, “You can’t talk to me that way,” the child may very well decide not to talk to you in any real way.

            Less intimidating responses to offending comments do exist.  My friend looked as if she was going to faint when her two-year-old daughter, disobeying an instruction to get her pajamas, yelled, “I will not, you mean lady.”  My friend turned red, and said in a shaky voice, “If I ever talked to my mother that way I would have been struck dead by lightening.”  My friend did not go on to tell her daughter that she was a bad girl and should never say such a thing; instead she did some deep breathing to gain control of her emotions and said, “I know you’re angry and want to play, but now it’s bedtime.”  My friend’s courage and fortitude have been well repaid by a teenage daughter who over the years has managed to tell her most of the issues that have upset her.

            In our worthy attempts to help our children communicate their feelings, we must be careful not to extract an apology for “unacceptable behaviors.”  Forcing children to say they are sorry, when they are not, is forcing them to lie.  Nor should we belabor communicating to the point of boredom.  Short answers are far better than long ones.  At times we will be tired, frustrated, or annoyed; at times we will lose patience because we are human and do not have complete emotional regulation.  Children learn to tolerate our imperfections, our fallibility.  And if we happen to leave an important problem unresolved, we can always return to it later.  We can always say: “I’m sorry I shouted at you, instead of telling you my feelings.  I guess grown-ups sometimes lose control too.”

            Children need parents, not saints—a truth I have learned while raising my daughters.  The true teachers are those who encourage children to accept human frailty, to acknowledge both love and anger, and to muster the freedom and courage to become their fullest selves.