Speak a Child’s Language: Emotions

June 28, 2012 at 5:23 am (Positive Discipline)

When we set limits for our kids, we do so with the best of intentions. We see all the logical reasons for our limit, usually issues of safety, manners, and other logistics of daily life. Meanwhile, as our child has a fit about the limit we’ve set, they’re seeing their joy come to a screeching halt. They feel all of the emotions surrounding that limit.

Parent: [As child digs hands into bowl of pasta] You may not eat with your hands.

Child:  [Whining] But I want to!

Parent: It gets your hands too messy. Use a fork.

Child: [Angry] I don’t want to use a fork!

Parent: It’s rude to eat with your hands.

Child: [Crying] I like doing it this way!

Parent: It’s not how people eat.

Child: Noooooo! I wanna eat with my hands!

Parent: But you get to use your special frog fork that Grandma bought you!

This could go on and on, as long as we can come up with more reasons why our child should use a fork, and as long as we can present them in different logical and enticing ways. It’s easy to reason like this for far too long….and eventually get upset that our child is conintually “not listening” to our logical explanations and requests. But while our arguments are based on what makes sense, a child’s arguments are based on how they feel; I like, I want, sadness, anger. Here’s another example:

Parent: It’s time to turn the TV off.

Child: Aw, I don’t want to!

Parent: Yes. It’s time need to get ready for bed.

Child: But I want to keep watching!

Parent: Well, you’ve had enough tv time…that was 30 minutes.

Child: I like this movie!

Parent: If we stop the movie now, we’ll have it to watch tomorrow night.

Child: Noooooo!

Parent: It’s getting late and you won’t be able to finish it by bedtime anyway.

Back and forth, until we become increasingly irritated, lose it and say something regrettable. Limits like these in our daily lives are not meant to be a debate. And they’re definitely not meant to be  debate that occurs in two different languages. We know the reasons for our limits, and the’re all great. Very responsible. Children don’t understand the validity behind our reasons, and no matter how many we list or how we try to convice them that our limit makes sense, they just don’t care! Until a child’s frontal cortex starts developing, they will always respond from a place of emotion. Next time, try responding in their language.

Parent: It’s time to turn off the TV.

Child: Aw, I don’t want to!

Parent: You’re having fun. You’re enjoying this movie.

Child: Yes, and I just want to keep watching!

Parent: [Turns TV off] You’re mad that it’s time to stop.

Child: [Crying] Yes! Turn it back on!

Parent: Yeah, that’s OK. It’s OK to be mad about that.

Child: Noooooooo!

Parent: I’m sorry you’re upset. I’d love to help you feel better. Let me know when you’re ready for a hug.

That’s it. Set the limit, let kids have their feelings, and be available for comforting when they’re ready. Not too complicated, but not too easy either.

We adults think so rationally, that it just makes sense to turn the TV off right then. There are so many reasons why, and we feel the need to list or expain them all. But it’s too much for young kids. Too much for their brains to handle when they’re being overrun with the emotions of the limit. No amount of rationalizing will make sense when those emotions are so present.

So let them be present. Let the limit stand, let the child’s feelings be acceptable, and skip the rationalizing. We want to teach them that limits exist and their feelings are OK. The older kids get, the more you will be able to use logic and reasoning in setting limits. (But it will help if you can still empathize then, too.) For now, focus on the emotional aspect of limit setting. The emotions are what will get you and your child on the same wavelength.


  1. Sundari said,

    Thanks for this, Kelly. I love the TV example. Can I ask… How would you deal with the first example (eating pasta with a fork)? With the TV, it seems easy for the parent to impose the limit (and then empathize) by simply turning the TV off. But how would you “make” a child use silverware?

    • Kelly said,

      Sundari, that’s a great question, thank you for bringing that up. I would make it clear that pasta is available to eat with silverware. There are other foods that are acceptable to eat with hands, so if my child would rather do that, I’d be happy to give her some finger foods. Our conversation might go something like this:

      Me: You may not eat with your hands.
      Her: But I want to!
      Me: It’s really fun, isn’t it? I can see you’re really enjoying yourself!
      Her: Yeah!
      Me: We eat pasta with forks. You may use your fork, or just eat your carrot sticks. It’s OK to eat carrot sticks with your hands.

      At that point, if she still didn’t want to use a fork, I would move the pasta aside so she wouldn’t be tempted to stick her hands in it again. She can eat any other finger foods that are available When she’s ready with a fork, I’d be happy to bring her bowl back over.

      • Sundari said,

        Thank you, Kelly!

  2. Gina said,

    I love this post, Kelly. What I have found is that early I on I had such a need to make sure my children were happy and I would just so desperately want them to understand WHY I was setting a limit that I would over-explain things. This almost invariably led to my daughter (particularly) trying to out-negotiate me and me losing my temper.

    Once I stopped talking so much and stopped trying to connect with their brains and realized, as you point out, that they just needed to express their emotions and feel “felt”, everything got so much easier. For all of us.

    Thanks for the reminder! I wish I had learned this lesson early on!
    – Gina

    • Kelly said,

      Thanks, Gina! That’s such a good point that we often want to keep our kids happy, even in situations they might not like. When I can remember this, I do much better at setting limits with kindness and firmness…keeping my kids happy is just not as important as hearing and accepting their feelings.

  3. Ellen said,

    I needed this! I have been experiencing very emotional conflicts with my 2 year old surrounding limits and I think I have been going about it all wrong! Thank you for this post (and all your other posts).

  4. Cathy said,

    Thank you for this! Is there a way you can email this to me so that I can have it for reference 🙂 My 5 year old and 2 year old are both going through this and I have been struggling with this day in and out. I am going to try this approach tomorrow and see how it works! If I can remember that is 🙂

  5. Mudpiemama said,

    Such a wonderful post, I love how you distinguish the two different languages. We had an ice cube incident the other night and it was similar, had to just sit there with love and open arms and let the storm pass…shared this on my facebook page 🙂

  6. Link Love 6.29.12 and Giveaway! said,

    […]  this post from one of my favorite parenting […]

  7. Yarah said,

    This is a great post! I love the examples you use as well. Thank you for sharing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: