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When Your Child Just Gets Angrier If You Try to Talk about Emotions

Scared boy hiding behind mother

Ever wonder why when one child is upset, if you offer a hug, she melts into your arms but another pushes you away?  Ask one if she’s sad and she’ll spill all her woes to you, while another snaps “I’m not sad!” Despite the fact you know she is. 

The difference in their responses is because children, like adults have a preference for “feeling” first or “thinking” first as they explore their emotions.  

 Let’s take a look at the differences.

Cason wants to wear his favorite purple jersey to school.  Trouble is, it’s in the wash and at this moment it’s soaking wet.  

His mom says to him, “You really wanted to wear your jersey.  It’s in the wash.   That’s so disappointing. Can I give you a hug?"

  • If Cason nods and accepts the hug, she will follow the feeling path and treat him as a little feeler who needs to wallow in those emotions before he’s ready to solve this problem.  The conversation continues like this.
  • “I know it’s really hard.  You love that jersey.  It’s so special to you.  I wish it wasn’t wet. You're really sad right now.”  
  • Then mom knows to PAUSE and let him be sad for a while before she asks him, “Do you want to think of some things we can do?”  If Cason still says, “No,” she’ll remind him that they are a problem-solving family and flexible thinkers.  
  • “Let’s try to think of at least 3 things we could do to make this better.”  She might continue.  
  • Together they will brainstorm possible solutions - anything is a possibility – wear it wet, put it on when he comes home from school, or find another shirt the same color to wear today.  When all of the potential solutions are on the table he can pick one and solve the problem!  

 So what are the steps if your child is the feeling mode? 

  • Stay with the feelings 
  • Give your child time and space to be sad for a while 
  • Ask if she’s ready to solve the problem 
  • Brainstorm possible solutions and choose one 
  • Only after the feeler has had an opportunity to “feel” will she be ready to solve the problem

If your child is in a thinker mode this scenario will begin the same way, but quickly needs to switch tactics.  It may sound like this.

  • “You really wanted to wear your jersey.  It’s in the wash.   That’s so disappointing. Can I give you a hug?"  
  • If instead of accepting your comfort your child pushes you away try your best not to get upset with him or attempt to convince him he’s sad.  Switch to the facts saying, “Tell me what you’re thinking. How would you like it to be?  What should we do about this?”  
  • Only after he’s had an opportunity to declare his plan and describe what’s happened, what’s unfair or unjust will he be ready to solve the problem with you. 
  • Once he’s had his opportunity to vent, you can say, “What are three things we could do to make this better?"   
  • After you’ve solved the problem together the teachable moment opens for emotion coaching.  This is where you finally can say, “That was really disappointing wasn’t it?"  Or, “You were really sad."

So what are the steps for working with a child in the thinking mode? 

  • Acknowledge the situation – state the facts
  • Allow your child to tell you what he’s thinking or what happened
  • Brainstorm and select a solution
  • Teach the name of the emotion

When your child is young, it’s not easy to identify his or her preference and to be honest he may switch depending on the day or the situation.  So begin by offering the hug.  If he takes it, odds are he’s open to the feeling strategies today and needs to express his emotions before he’s ready to solve the problem.  If on the other hand she rejects the hug, switch tactics and begin exploring the facts.  Emotions are important to everyone, but how we get to them is different.  Understanding those differences keeps us working together. 


For additional information on caring for your "Spirited" Child, check out my book "Raising Your Spirited Child".  Available on Amazon;

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