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Sunday, 25 March 2001

Helping Children Cope with Difficult Feelings

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Do you sometimes feel guilty after being angry? Do you become impatient with yourself for feeling unhappy?

Many people have difficulty dealing constructively with difficult feelings such as anger or unhappiness. Difficult feelings often foster more difficult feelings like guilt and impatience. For some people it may come as a surprise to learn that difficult feelings can be handled in a positive and constructive manner.


The preschool years are a good time to help your child learn how to deal constructively with difficult feelings. Before you can help your child, however, you must first examine your own attitudes toward your difficult feelings. You probably have some contradictory attitudes toward difficult feelings that make it hard for you to deal with them.

First, you need to remind yourself that no one can be happy, uplifted, and clear-headed all the time. When you feel lonely, anxious, afraid, angry, frustrated, or just low, these are normal messages from your mind that something is bothering you -- just as physical pain is a message from your body that something is wrong. You need to listen to these messages in order to resolve the problems that cause you discomfort.

Second, difficult feelings won't go away by trying to avoid them. Unless you deal with them, you can't do anything about them.

Third, it doesn't help to dwell morosely on them because then you never get beyond the immediate feelings to begin to explore different ways of looking at the problem and possible solutions to it. What is needed is a balanced attitude and approach.

Here are some ways you can help your child learn to deal constructively with difficult feelings:

Be accepting of your child's difficult feelings. Take them seriously, even when they don't seem important to you. They are important to her.

1. Be accepting of your child's difficult feelings. Take them seriously, even when they don't seem important to you. They are important to her. She will feel that you understand and care about her feelings if you treat them as seriously as you would want someone to treat your feelings. In trying to help her feel better, don't try to talk her out of her feelings. You can help most by letting her know, by your words and actions, that you understand how she feels and that it's all right to feel that way.

For example, suppose she is afraid of going in the water. You might be tempted to try to convince her that there's nothing for her to be afraid of and try to talk her into going in with you.

You could help much more by acknowledging her feelings: "You're not sure you want to go into the water just yet? That's fine. That may be because you're not used to it. If you decide you'd like to try it later, I'll stay with you and make sure nothing happens to you." Then, let her approach the feared situation at her own pace, without pushing or urging.

2. Help your child learn to express her difficult feelings in words. Often, when parents discourage their children's difficult feelings, they mean to discourage their behavioral expression rather than the feelings themselves. By the age of four or five, your child has good enough control of her actions and good enough language to learn to substitute words for actions when she feels angry, frustrated, or upset. But she needs your help.

For example, suppose her little brother scribbles in the pages of her favorite book. She has a right to be angry, but she doesn't have a right to hit or yell at him.

You can help her learn to express her feelings in an acceptable way by (a) the way you respond to her when she expresses her anger, and (b) your putting into words for her how you think she probably feels, e.g., "Are you mad because Joey scribbled in your book? Feel like talking about it?"

When she sees you correcting Joey in a firm but calm manner, she learns that it is more effective for her to express her feelings to you in words than to start a fight with Joey.

3. Help your child explore and discover what's causing her to feel bad. Sometimes when she is upset, there's a specific cause. For example, she might feel hurt because someone said something unkind to her. Other times it may be hard to pinpoint the reason for her unhappiness.


She might feel a little blue without knowing why, for example, when her older brother starts school and she's left at home with you. At other times she may be a little whiny, clingy, or cranky for no apparent reason. She may be overtired, hungry, sick, or just going through too many changes in her life. Anything that drains energy can make her feel low.

Whatever the problem is, you can help her feel better by helping her explore her feelings. If you know what the problem is, you can start the conversation by trying to put what you think her feelings are into words: "Your feelings are hurt because Dana called you a baby. Is that true?"

If you have only a general idea, you might say: "It's tough for you to have to stay at home with me when Tommy goes to school." When you really don't have any idea what the problem is, you might say: "You seem a little sad (angry, upset, etc.). Can I help? Do you want to talk about what's making you feel sad?"

You may get a little resistance at first. Be patient and don't push her to talk if she's not ready. Let her know that you're willing to listen if she wants to share her feelings with you. Later in the day -- sometimes at a most unexpected moment -- she may unload how she is feeling. Once she has started talking, use the "responsive listening" technique to help her continue exploring her feelings.

In other words, repeat what you think she has said. Try to resist giving advice or telling her how she should feel. Just listen and accept what she says. Help her express what's on her mind by showing her that you understand and care.

4. Help her try to resolve the problem that's causing her discomfort. Often by just talking aloud about what's on her mind, she will feel better about whatever is bothering her. For example, as she talks about her jealousy over the time and attention you give her baby brother, she, herself, will probably conclude that the baby really needs the special care, and she is grown up enough to take care of herself in many ways.

With this kind of problem, you can help most by being alert to her moods. Look for openings to help her talk about what's bothering her, e.g., "Sometimes the baby takes so much time, you and I don't have enough time together, do we?" This is especially important in situations in which she probably isn't sure herself why she has difficult feelings. Once she's gotten her feelings off her chest, you can help her find a solution by suggesting different ways of looking at the situation. For example: "I sure could use some help with the baby. Can you help me get him dressed?" Be specific about ways she really could help. Let her know there will be a reward for good behavior: "The more you help me, the sooner we'll get done -- and the more time you and I can spend together, just the two of us."

5. Help her generate and examine alternative ways to handle difficult feelings. Children -- and adults too -- sometimes get in the habit of repeatedly dealing with a difficult feeling in the same manner: always losing one's temper, for example, whenever one is angry without realizing that there are other alternatives. These alternative solutions often provide a more positive way to handle difficult feelings.

Telling her a story about another child's feelings is a good way to help her generate and examine alternative solutions. For example, if the story is about a little girl who gets angry at her brother, have her think of different ways in which the little girl might deal with her anger: (a) she might yell at her brother; (b) she might hit him; (c) she might just tell him she was angry, then say no more; (d) she might wait until her anger was under control before deciding what to do; or (e) she might tell her parents and ask them what she should do.

It could then be pointed out to her that (a) and (b) are not really good ways for the little girl to deal with her anger. There are other more positive ways, such as (c), (d), or (e), for dealing with those feelings.


6. Help her look for a positive lesson to learn from problems for which there is no solution. Many times in life we have problems for which there really is no solution. It still helps to talk about our feelings. Sometimes the only way we can reach some feeling of peace is by looking for something in the situation from which we can learn.

For example, suppose your child's cat has disappeared, and you've done everything you can to find it without success. This is obviously upsetting, both because of the loss of a loved pet and because of the uncertainty of the situation.

You could help her talk about her feelings by saying: "You must be pretty upset about your cat." Help her explore the positive possibilities as well as her concerns. Ask her, for example, if she can think of anything good about all this. She may reassure herself by a hope that the person who has found her cat will love him like she does. Encourage her to look for something in the situation from which she can learn. She might decide, for example, that the next cat she has should wear a collar with her name, address and telephone number. Or she might decide that she doesn't want any more pets for now. She may conclude that when we love something, even thought it's hard to lose it, it's still worth the pain. So we should appreciate what we have when we have it.

Remember to help her find her own positive perspectives on the situation, if she can, rather than trying to get her to accept your viewpoint. If you allow her to express her feelings of anger, sadness, loneliness, and other negative feelings, you'll also help her find something positive, even in a difficult situation.

Learning to deal constructively with difficult feelings is not easy. It is the task of a lifetime. With your help, your child can lead a happier life as she learns to handle difficult feelings in a positive manner.

This article appears courtesy of the Growing Child newsletter (www.growingchild.com)

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 May 2011 09:09
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