Feelings, Actions and our Response

Scene #1 – Your children are fighting and obviously very mad at each other. After things start to escalate, you come from the other room and tell them to stop fighting, apologize to each other, and to start playing nicely together.

Scene #2 – Your son comes home from school and says he hates his teacher. You know his teacher personally and so you say something like, “In our family we do not hate people. I know that Mrs. Smith is a great teacher and there is no reason for you to say something like that about her. I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of talk.”

In his classic book, Between Parent and Child, Dr. Haim Ginott explains the importance of maintaining a distinction between wishes, feelings, and acts. “We set limits on acts; we do not restrict wishes and feelings.”

A great way to start to think about Dr. Ginott’s statement is to bring this closer to home. Imagine that scene #1 changed to you and your spouse fighting. Someone (neighbor, pastor, mother-in-law) comes into the room and tells you to stop fighting, apologize to each other, and to step back into your marital bliss. Yeah right, it’s not that simple!!

Imagine Scene #2 is that you are angry at your boss because of the way he treated you in a meeting. You come home seething at your boss and someone (spouse, your mom, a friend) tells you to stop being angry at your boss because he is in authority over you and deserves your respect. Now you’re still mad at your boss AND also the person who told you to stop being angry!

Just as adults can’t flip a switch and change their feelings, the same holds for our children. Whatever the emotion – anger, frustration, resentfulness, jealousy, fear – they need to learn to process those feelings. We must avoid trying to command or coerce them to have a different emotion because that is not realistic or healthy for the child.

As parents we have a couple jobs. We must set limits on inappropriate behavior. For example, “We do not hit our siblings”, “If you continue to fight over that toy I am going to take it away for 20 minutes”, “If you call your brother stupid or another name, you are going to have to go to your room for timeout”.

Our other important job as parents is to help our children to process their emotions in a healthy way. Often this involves talking through the situation with the child helping them process their emotions. For example, if your child says he hates his teacher, you would likely want to respond by saying something like, “Wow, Mrs. Smith must have really done something that made you angry”. See where the conversation leads. Simply talking through the situation will be a huge step in processing the feelings and you will likely be able to watch the emotional levels come down as you talk it through.

Other situations may not require a detailed conversation, but simply identifying and naming the child’s emotions can help increase the child’s emotional awareness. For example,

“I know that you are angry at your brother right now, but that does not give you permission to call him names.” This helps the child to understand what he is feeling and to understand that limits still apply even when he feels very strongly.

“I know you are really jealous that your sister gets to go out for dinner with grandma and grandpa, but you will have a special outing with them some other time. This may seem like a real bummer for you right now, but grandma and grandpa like special alone with each of their grandkids.” You are not telling the child how to feel, but helping them to understand their own emotion and explain why this is happening. If the child keeps whining or complaining about this situation, you will need to say something like, “I explained to you why your sister gets to go and not you, if you would like to continue sobbing about this you may do so in your room.” Again, you are giving freedom for them to experience their emotions, but setting limits on their actions.

I have found Dr. Ginott’s statement helpful in thinking about and handling my children’s behavior. So here it is one last time, “We set limits on acts; we do not restrict wishes and feelings.”

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