Don’t Take Your Child’s Feelings Personally

April 23, 2013 at 7:39 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)


Sometimes, I make decisions or set limits that my kids don’t like (OK, probably more often than sometimes). From video games, to friends coming over to play, to staying up late…there are plenty of limits on which my kids and I disagree. And I have one child in particular who makes saying no difficult. Not because he’s too cute or sweet to say no to, but because every no brings a very vocal wave of unhappiness–whining, arguments, belligerence. With this child, I totally understand the inclination to be permissive; to say Yes just to avoid the aftermath of No. It can be emotionally exhausting.

But I do say no, and I do let his feelings come. To avoid the emotional exhaustion that follows in the wake of normal parenting decisions and interactions, I try to remember three things:

  1. They’re his feelings, not mine. He is capable of handling them, just as I am capable of handling my own feelings. I do not need to try to fix them.
  2. I am not the cause of his feelings. I will take care of my kids by meeting their needs on a regular basis–this means setting limits, ensuring safety, and nourishing them physically and emotionally. I will do that, and their happiness is up to them.
  3. It’s not personal. My kids’ feelings are not a personal slight against me. I am not a bad mom if my kids are ever upset. I didn’t do anything wrong by saying No.


Remembering these things helps to put some distance between myself and my child’s emotional turmoil. Readers, you know I am all about staying connected to kids, but at times like these, I can feel too close. I take my kids’ emotions personally. Their upset feelings upset me. Their hurts are my hurts. Their frustrations make me antsy. I want to help. I want to step in and fix what’s wrong. I want to take away their problems and just make everyone happy again.

It’s this line of thinking is not entirely helpful for raising capable, confident kids. Children will often become upset by the decisions we make as parents, and you know what? That’s OK! That is the only way they will develop a sense of capability, coping, problem solving, and general resilience. A child feeling upset is not a problem for parents to solve.

Remembering this allows me to put some distance between me and the emotional meltdown. When I can distance myself, I can empathize instead of sympathize. (What’s the difference?). I can offer support instead of special services or coddling (“Oh here, I’ll do ___ for you. Does that help?”). I can trust instead of rescue. I can be a more calm, confident mom.

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That said, there are ways to  maintain a connected relationship while distancing yourself from a child’s in-the-moment feelings. Here’s how:

  1. Pause. Take a breath. Give kids give  time and space with their own feelings. This means you set the limit and accept the feelings that ensue. Don’t get angry with children for their feelings or tell them not to be upset.
  2. Check in. Periodically ask how they’re doing. This is not the time to talk about the situation, but just to let them know you understand how they feel. “I know you’re mad, and that’s OK. Would you like a hug?” Trust in their ability to handle their feelings.
  3. Follow-up. Always come back together and do something fun. You can touch base on the previous situation, or not. But do something with your child that he enjoys and will foster some connective energy between the two of you. Make cookies, play games, go for a walk, dig in the garden, ride bikes, read, go to the park, blow bubbles….pretty much anything you do together will communicate to your child that you love and accept him despite his anger at you, and you’re not holding his feelings against him.

As much as we love it when our kids are expressing their happiness, it just is not our job to ensure that they are happy all of the time. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to distance yourself from the onslaught of emotions so you are better able to respond with kindness, firmness, empathy, and trust (trust that they will survive it).

What about you? Do you ever have a hard time separating yourself from your child’s feelings? What do you find most helpful in those moments?


  1. Sleep training, self esteem and self discipline snippets | Still on my feet said,

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  2. Sue B said,

    This applies to grandparents, too! I look after my three grandkids, two days a week (girl 7, boys 5 and 3), and they all occasionally react negatively when they are told no. They have even told me that they hate me . . . I just reply that ‘sometimes I don’t like you very much, but I always love you’, and then, when things calm down, we have a discussion about using the word hate. How it is a very strong word and isn’t a good one to use. Dislike is more appropriate.

  3. htellesen said,

    “Don’t get angry with children for their feelings or tell them not to be upset.” This is really great. I don’t get angry at my kids when they’re upset, but I would tell them to “not” get upset. I would try and “talk them out of” being unhappy. I didn’t really see it before how dismissive that is….I didn’t see that I was doing that because I didn’t like how their emotions made me feel. UGH. Thank you.

  4. Linda said,

    What a breath of fresh air it is to read this post! Thank you for your advice and input, it’s often a challenge to not take their emotions and reactions personally. I’ve noticed that this is when I react instead of respond. Thank you again!

  5. Are You An Aspiring Parent? | About The Children LLC's Blog said,

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  6. Mary Fuller said,

    This is great info. I have let my kids know that i love them but not the choice that they made. Then we discuss what they could do differently next time to change the outcome. It is hard for them to stop and think things through but this is a learning experience for all of us.

  7. Ariadne - Positive Parenting Connection said,

    what an excellent post Kelly! sometimes when I say no I need to breathe and brace myself to accept whatever upsets may follow but even that gets better as they get older and realize that certain limits are truly going to hold. sharing this!!

  8. tg said,

    I get very frustrated by my 6 year old child’s response when I tell her no at times. Or when the whining starts… My response to her is poor and i become reactionary.. I know I am invalidating her feelings during these reactions and I don’t know how to teach her to regulate herself. Help!

    • Kelly said,

      Yes, that is so hard! When we say No, we just want our kids to accept that, right? I also get frustrated when my kids don’t accept my No and either argue or whine. What helps me is to remember that my kids don’t have to be happy. It is not my job to keep them happy, it’s my job to set limits that keep them healthy and safe. So they’re allowed to have their feelings about it. If their reaction becomes unpleasant or too much for me to bear without “losing it,” I’ll respond with kindness and firmness by inviting them to go their calm-down place to feel better. “I can see you’re upset. You wanted to ___ and I said No. It’s OK to be mad. Would it help to take a break where you can feel better?” Or sometimes, I”m the one that takes a break before I do or say anything inappropriate. “I’m feeling really frustrated about this…the whining is upsetting me and I don’t want to yell. I’m going to go lay down on my bed for a few minutes until I feel better.” Having a calm-down/ feel-better place for everyone is a huge help in teaching the regulation of feelings!

  9. Kendra Scroggin said,

    I do have this issue. However its mainly with my middle child. Male 9 yrs old. His ADHD makes his emotions over whelming and hard to cope . I hate seeing him hurt, frustrated, angry, and sometime just depressed with some of the decisions that i make that he has to accept. I feel like I’m making him “crazy” like he’ll be a horrible adult maybe do horrible things. I enjoy reading all these posts from positive parenting. Thanks this was a good one.

  10. Sharon Duarte said,

    I also think it is important to think carefully before you say no, sometimes we parents say no as a reaction rather than really thinking about whether it could have been yes. Once you have said no try and stick to it, if a child understands that he or she can make you change your mind through past successes it gets harder to have a no accepted. If you say no and a child knows you mean it his/her negative emotional response quickly dissipates.

  11. Paula S said,

    Great advice thank you. I can really relate to this. My eldest (age 11) has always ‘reacted’ to a NO and we battle. I have at times avoided the potential conflict by ‘giving in’. I have also gut reaction said no then reconsidered and changed to yes (usually when she asks to do cooking!). Both my girls know that when mum says no they can keep working on me because no doesn’t always mean definitely no!!! I take their feelings very personally and hate it when they are unhappy but I have learnt over the years that no matter how much love, support and fun you lavish on them they still get unhappy. It has frustrated me. Your advice is very welcome!

  12. Susie Allen said,

    I have a 4 year old who is very defiant , my son is very stuborn, we got him when he was 14 months old, he has been rough a lot in his little life, I think I over compensate because of that, my reaction is not good sometimes. He seems like he craves negative attention and I don’t understand that …. HELP.

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