by Richard O’Keef
There is a skill parents can use that will calm children down, strengthen relationships and improve cooperation. The skill is called Acknowledge Negative Feelings. Before I describe how this skill works, I would like to explain why it works.
All children have a need to be heard and understood. They cannot meet this need on their own. It requires another person. When children are in distress and their need to be heard and understood is not met, they can become frustrated and angry.
If this need continues to go unmet for a long time, the stored up emotional pain can result in defiance, depression, hostility and addictions. However, by meeting a child’s need to be heard and understood, the child is given the freedom to let go of his distressing feelings.
The way you meet this need is by acknowledging negative feelings. There are two steps: Step 1 is to meet your child’s need to be heard. When a child comes to you in distress, he doesn’t want you to agree or disagree; he doesn’t want your opinion or advice. He doesn’t want you to “fix it.” What he needs is for you to listen. Make eye contact. Give your full attention.
When you listen, let the child say whatever he wants. Give him the freedom to say all kinds of nasty, critical things, whether they are true or not. Allow him to vent. You might feel a need to interrupt him to set him straight, but don’t. Little Billy comes up to you and says, “I hate Grandma!” What is the typical parent response? “You don’t hate Grandma. You love her.” Or, “We don’t say ‘hate’ in this family.” This is not the time to correct.
Step 2 is to meet your child’s need to be understood. Showing that you understand has two parts that you can use in any order:
- Identify how the child is feeling – “That’s gotta be frustrating.” Or simply, “Ohh noo.”
- Reflect why the child is feeling that way.
The best way to explain is to just show some examples.
Child: I’d like to punch that Michael in the nose. We were playing soccer and he pushed me down.
You: “You were both going after the ball and he pushed you down. No wonder you’re so mad.”
Child: My teacher is stupid. Just because of a little rain she said we couldn’t go on our field trip.
You: “You’ve been looking forward to this field trip for weeks – how disappointing.”
Child: “Basketball sucks. Tom and Bill made the team but I didn’t.”
You: “You were cut from the team? Ohh noo.”
One day my grandchildren were visiting. 4-year old Brooklyn and her 2-year old brother, Stockton, came into the family room and spotted the spinning chair. The spinning chair is an office chair that the grandchildren love to spin around in.
Both made a dash for the chair. Stockton got there first and climbed up onto it. I could see Brooklyn fuming and I was afraid she was going to do something mean to Stockton.
The first thing that came to my mind was to say, “Brooklyn. Let Stockton have a turn and then it will be your turn.” That makes perfect sense, right? Then I remembered Brooklyn’s need to feel heard and understood in a distressful situation. And she was in distress.
I went over to Brooklyn, kneeled down so I was eye-to-eye with her and said, “Brooklyn. You are really mad. You wanted to beat Stockton to the chair and I think you even wanted him to push you around.”
She didn’t say a word, but I see her whole body relax. She turned around and off she went.
Acknowledging negative feelings is one of the most important skills a parent can have.
Richard O’Keef is a long-time resident of the Westpointe community, father of 6, and grandfather of 18. He is the author of 3-Step Parenting – How to Replace Misbehavior with Cooperation (Available on Amazon). He is the creator of a blog called: 3StepParenting.com. He is also a Fatherhood Education Coordinator for Utah State University Extension and teaches parenting classes, including classes at the Utah State Prison and Salt Lake County Jail.