How to teach a child to manage their feelings

I recently happened to see a little YouTube film of a young child who was crying and upset and her father was calmly telling her to stop crying and smile and she tried her level best to swallow down her crying and choke back her tears. She then put on a fake smile on for her dad, saying “I’m smiling now.” I was so sad to see this as it would have been a great opportunity for him to teach his child to manage her feelings.

“I want another biscuit!”

So when your three year old child asks for another biscuit and you firmly move the tin up onto the top shelf and she lies on the floor and screams what should you do?  Give her another biscuit after all? Send her away to the other room? Tell her to be quiet? If you don’t know what to do it’s difficult to stay calm.

This is not about bad behaviour but about feelings

Firstly, this is not bad behaviour – it is natural to want more biscuits.  How many adults are able to limit themselves to two cigarettes or two glasses of wine, or two grapes or two…well you get the picture.  Yes!  I know I hear you – this is not everyone—but it is many of us.  Imagine if a person twice as tall as you hid the packet or the bottle and said, “No.”

How would you feel? Angry, frustrated? You probably wouldn’t lie on the flow and scream but you might do an adult version of that to demonstrate your feelings. But you might also self-soothe saying to yourself , “It’s OK, it’s probably for the best for my health. She/he means to take care of me by moving the bottle.”

So your child is understandably angry and upset and might even kick you or shout, “I hate you!”. So you are maybe going to feel a bit stressed out now! In my experience the thing that stresses us the most is not having a strategy to deal with a situation we find ourselves in.  This is when we end up shouting at our children then feeling terrible. However, the reality is that this is a brilliant opportunity to teach your child about her feelings.

So what can you do when your three year old is screaming for another biscuit?

You may be tempted to send her to her room or put her on the “naughty step” or some such. Then she will feel angry, sad and abandoned and very likely will scream some more. Or, worryingly from my perspective, she will swallow her feelings down and pretend to be calm now so that she can at least get off the step in 3 minutes.

You might be tempted to give her another biscuit after all —perhaps training her to ask nicely in an effort to convince yourself that having the biscuit is now is OK if she says “Please may I”. Well, you probably know that, whilst this might seem to be an improvement, this isn’t really the best plan as you had already decided she has had enough.

Respond to her feelings…and still say “No” to the biscuit

What your child needs is to be soothed. She doesn’t know how to self-sooth so you can take this opportunity to teach her.  So you sit on the floor near her and speak calmly to her, “You sound very angry and sad that you can’t have another biscuit.” …”And you actually can’t have another biscuit….I am so sorry you are feeling bad….and…no, you still cant have another one.”…”Would you like a cuddle until you stop feeling angry and sad.” Fabulous TV nanny, Jo Frost, says, “Parents should respond but not react.”

So you are not abandoning her. Instead you are offering comfort and you are using the language of feelings and you are still keeping your boundary. She will learn from this.

You can teach your child to manage her feelings

The intention is that next time I or perhaps realistically a few times later!) she will be able to tell you.  “I am angry and sad because I really want another biscuit.” And you will be able to hug her and tell her that you understand how she feels. Make sure you stay with her available to hug and cuddle her until she gets fed up with it. Only then would distraction be a good idea, such as reading a book or finding her something to do.

So the brilliant thing is that you have set and kept a healthy boundary around your daughter’s diet, taught her about her feelings and kept calm yourself. now you can look forward to her next tantrum so that you can practise again!

Do let me know if you try out this strategy. I would love to hear how it goes.

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