How to Give Your Children What They Need Emotionally

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

Even though every child is different, all children are also the same in one very important way. In order to thrive, children require emotional attention, validation, and responsiveness from their parents. 

Knowing that you need to provide this to your child gives you a tremendous leg up on parenting. But knowing how to provide it is another thing altogether.

Think of parenting as a process of teaching your children how to manage their emotions. The better you handle your children’s emotions, the better they will be at managing them throughout their lives.

The 3 Essential Emotion Skills for Parenting:

  1. The parent feels an emotional connection to the child
  2. The parent pays attention to the child and sees the child as a unique and separate person, rather than, say, an extension of the parent, a possession, or a burden.
  3. Using that emotional connection and paying attention, the parent responds competently to the child’s emotional needs.

Although these skills sound simple, in combination they are a powerful tool for helping children learn about and manage their own nature, for creating a secure emotional bond that carries the children into adulthood, so that they may face the world with the emotional health to achieve happy adulthood.

In short, when parents are mindful of their children’s unique emotional nature, they raise emotionally strong adults. Some parents are able to do this intuitively, but others can learn the skills. Either way, the child will learn them.

Zach

Zach is a precocious and hyperactive third-grader, the youngest of three children in a laid-back and loving family. Lately, he has gotten into trouble at school for “talking back.” On one such day, he brings a note home from the teacher describing his infraction by stating, “Zach was disrespectful today.”

Zach’s mother sits him down and asks him what happened. In an exasperated tone, he tells her that when he was in the recess line Mrs. Rollo told him to stop trying to balance a pencil on his finger, point-side-up because he might “stab himself in the face.” He frowned and snapped back at Mrs. Rollo by telling her that he would have to bend “alllll the way over the pencil like this” (demonstrating) to stab himself in the face and that he isn’t “that stupid.” In response, Mrs. Rollo confiscated his pencil, wrote his name on the board, and sent him home with a note.

Before describing how Zach’s mother actually responded, let’s figure out what Zach needs to get from the coming parent-child interaction: he is upset by the incident with his teacher, whom he generally likes, so he needs empathy; on the other hand, he also needs to learn what is expected of him by his teachers in order to succeed at school. Finally, it would help if his mother has noticed (emotional attentiveness) that lately, he is very sensitive to “being treated like a baby” because his older brother and sister leave him out a lot due to his age. Zach’s mother needs the three skills: feeling a connection, paying attention, and responding competently, in order to help Zach with his problem.

Here is how the conversation went between mother and son:

Mother: “Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed by her thinking you could be stupid enough to poke your eye out with a pencil. But when teachers ask you to stop doing something, the reason doesn’t matter. It’s your job to stop.”

Zach: “I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”

Mother: “Yes, I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk. Mrs. Rollo doesn’t know that you’re dealing with your brother and sister not listening to you much lately.”

Zach relaxes a little in response to his mother’s understanding: “Yeah, she got me so frustrated, and then she took my pencil.”

Mother: “It must’ve been hard for you. But, you see, Mrs. Rollo’s class is very big and she doesn’t have time to talk things over like we are right now. It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away. Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zach?”

Zach: “Yeah, Mom.”

Mother: “Good! If you do what Mrs. Rollo asks, you’ll never get in trouble. Then you can come home and complain to us if you think something is unfair. That’s fine. But as a student, respect means cooperating with your teacher’s requests.”

This mother’s intuitive responses in the above conversation provide us with a complex example of the healthy, emotionally attuned parenting that leads to the sane, happy adult whom Winnicott describes. What exactly did she do?

-First, she connected with her son emotionally by asking him to tell her what happened before she reacted. No shaming.

-Then she listened carefully to him. When she first spoke, she provided him with a simple rule that an eight-year-old can understand: “When a teacher asks you to do something, you do it right away.” Here Zach’s mother is instinctively attuned to his stage of cognitive development, providing him with a general rule to use at school.

-She immediately follows the rule with empathy and naming his feeling (“Mrs. Rollo didn’t understand that you were embarrassed…”). Hearing his mom name the feeling, Zach is able to express more of his emotion to his mother (“I know! I was trying to say that to her and she wouldn’t listen!”).

-Again, his mother responds to Zach by naming or labeling the emotion that drove Zach’s rude behavior towards his teacher, the behavior of contradicting the teacher that was viewed as disrespectful (“Yes. I know how frustrated you get when people don’t let you talk…”).

-Zach, feeling understood, responds by repeating this emotion word for himself, “Yeah, she got me so frustrated, and then she took my pencil.”

-But the mother isn’t finished yet. She has, in this conversation, demonstrated to Zach that she understands him and feels for him by demonstrating that she sees his behavior differently than his teacher does. However, she can’t stop there, because his tendency to debate (the likely result of having two highly verbal older siblings) will continue to be a problem for Zach at school unless he can correct it. So his mom says, “It’s so important that when any grownup at school asks you to do something, you do it right away.”

-Finally, she holds her son accountable for his behavior, setting the stage for future check-ins on his feisty nature by asking him, “Will you try to do as asked without saying anything back, Zach?”

In a conversation that appears deceptively simple, Zach’s mother has avoided shaming him for a mistake and named his feelings, creating the emotional learning that will allow Zach to sort his feelings out on his own in the future. She has also supported him emotionally, given him a social rule, and asked him to be accountable for following it. And, in the event that Zach repeats this behavior at school, she will adjust her message and her actions to adapt to the difficulty he is having in the classroom.

One of the biggest challenges for most parents in this area comes from their own lack of skills for managing their own emotions. It’s hard to give your children something that you don’t have yourself.

If this sounds like you, never fear. It’s not your fault. Most likely your parents didn’t teach you the skills because they didn’t have them. And the best part: you can learn the skills!

To find out how to learn the skills for yourself, see the bestselling books, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

This blog is adapted from the book: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. It was originally published on psychcentral.com as The 3 Essential Emotion Skills For Parenting. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Mari - July 13, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much for this guidance! I did not have this knowledge while raising my children and I see how it has affected them. But I can be a better support to my grandchildren. It’s never too late to make a change! Your contribution to CEN has provided many of us with hope and gave me an answer to why I was “different.”

Dave - July 13, 2020 Reply

Great article, thanks. I am a single parent living in a foreign country raising my 8yr old daughter by myself. I go to great lengths to be open and express the importance of sharing out feelings and emotions.

I agree with everything in the article, but for one part. When Zach’s mum tells him the importance of doing exactly what a teacher asks of him straight away at school. I do get it. I am also a teacher, but something I also try and teach my daughter is that not everyone is right, including teachers. Therefore, if you feel you arw right you should express that to the teacher in a polite way. Never be rude, or bad mannered. But stand up for what you believe.

Thanks again,

Dave

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dave, we have a small child in a classroom of peers with a single teacher in charge. When that small child engages in an activity that endangers himself should he be encouraged to listen to the teacher who is responsible for keeping everyone safe? If teachers must explain all of their rules and limits to each child, each of whom has different thoughts about it, those children are not learning how the world really works, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Jessica - July 12, 2020 Reply

I’m not sure I would consider this the best way to handle this interaction.
Let’s say Zach understands he is supposed to “do as he’s asked without saying anything back” but he encounters a teacher who is asking him to do something inappropriate, disrespectful, etc.? Where does teaching him this encourage him to speak up if something isn’t right, when dealing with people in positions of “authority”?
I could also see a child internalizing this interaction as “mom is on my teacher’s side, and not mine” and that harming the connection. I can see this element in both my own childhood self (and now significantly in adulthood) as well as with my own son, who would be considered a teachers dream student because he is so compliant. I want my child to know how to use his voice respectfully and not feel his only option is to quietly follow orders. This would suit him for his life, as he encounters many situations where he is required to respectfully speak up, doing so with kindness and gentleness – but that is far different from “do as you’re asked without saying anything back.”

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Jessica, life is indeed complicated and there is no one solution that fits every situation. In general, it’s vital to teach children how to control their impulses and why they must do so, as well as proper respect for teachers and people in authority. This in no way subtracts from the love of a parent. In fact, clear limits delivered with understanding and love but also seriousness are a most loving way a parent can interact with their child.

Calliope - July 12, 2020 Reply

Love your work and it’s been very helpful for me. This is a good article but I have one gripe with it. Part of my childhood emotional abuse came from teachers. It’s dangerous to tell children teachers are always right and to be obeyed. Sometimes teachers are abusers. Please consider this.

    Jonice - July 13, 2020 Reply

    Dear Calliope, all children should be protected from abuse, no doubt. But this is separate from teaching them about respecting authority. They are two different conversations, both very important.

      Angie - July 24, 2020 Reply

      I have had similar experiences as Calliope. Unfortunately, I could not turn to my parents for help, as they were abusers as well. Kids should be taught to respect authority, but they should also know that there are bad people in the world who do not have the child’s best interests in mind and should not be followed blindly. I think the most important feature of good parenting is creating a safe space where children can approach the parents to talk about anything that concerns them, while also providing guidance and discipline.

        Jonice - July 27, 2020 Reply

        Agreed, Angie. That is a good description of good parenting.

Leave a Comment: