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Take a Closer Look

Promoting children’s emotional intelligence, including how to trust their own feelings, sometimes requires us to supportively acknowledge their emotions when, in the moment, their behaviors are unacceptable. It’s not an easy thing to do; misbehavior tends to steal the show. In Feelings Don’t Make It Okay, the mother wisely chooses to highlight the difference between her daughter’s emotion (anger), which is valid, and her behavior (shoving), which is not acceptable. Here are some key ingredients of the mother’s response:  

Affirm Emotions, Challenge Behavior

Responding to being shoved, mom scolds the girl for the physical aggression. “Hey, you can’t push me!” she declares, quickly adding that it’s fine for the girl to feel angry. Why is this an important addition? So often, the behavior we reprimand is tied, in our children’s minds, to the emotions they are feeling in the moment. For them, the feeling and the action are so closely and quickly linked that they seem one in the same. I felt angry so I pushed my mother. I was upset so I hit my brother. I felt angry so I grabbed the toy from my friend. Children may think that their emotions are the cause of their unacceptable behavior — the emotions “made” them act as they did. This mother wants her daughter to recognize the difference: “Your feelings are always okay but behaviors are not always okay,” she says. It’s a distinction that supports the girl’s growing ability to regulate her emotions and exercise self-control.

Encourage Words to Express Emotions

Mom promotes a valuable life skill when she stresses the importance of her daughter expressing her feelings through words, not actions. “Next time, if you’re angry with me, just say ‘Mom, I’m angry with you.’” This is particularly important when the emotion being felt is anger, as the behavioral acting out of anger tends to be more destructive than the acting out of other human emotions. Children benefit when they know they have our permission to give voice to all the variations on the theme of anger: I’m annoyed. I’m irritated. I’m frustrated. I’m angry.

One lesson at a time

That’s the philosophy mom embraces when it comes to teaching her kids right and wrong. When she leaves the room at the end, she makes a mental note to circle back later to two aspects of their encounter that troubled her: snacking in the living room, which she has previously asked the girl not to do, and limiting one’s consumption of snack foods so there’s something left for the rest of the family. Mom decided not to make an issue of either of those concerns once the daughter’s egregious act of physical aggression unexpectedly occurred, demanding top priority.

Watch the video without narration

Talking to Kids You Love is written and created by Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., in collaboration with Marina Eovaldi, Ph.D., and Benjamin Rosen, Ph.D. The project is made possible by a generous grant from The Golub Family Foundation.