Like many boys his age, my son is fascinated by construction equipment. They are big, noisy, and they do things. He’s particularly enamored by bulldozers. These versatile workhorses of construction sites do it all. They move things, they flatten things, and they knock things over.

Bulldozer can do a lot of good when they are part of the plan, but they can also be a destructive force when they aren’t part of the plan. And, like in this scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we don’t always share the plans with each other.

As parents, we’re often the bulldozers of our children’s emotional lives. We tell them that they shouldn’t be feeling a certain way and ask them to suppress their emotions. In many respects, when we do this, our parenting starts to mirror the historical stance of “children should be seen and not heard” which many of us would agree is not the direction that we want to head. Yet, if someone else were to negate our own emotional experience, we would be offended and insulted.

Child psychologist Haim Ginott proposed that we should never deny or negate a child’s emotions. When we do this, we are teaching him that there is something wrong about his emotional expression. How your child is feeling is simply how he is feeling in the moment. The challenge for us is helping our children channel their emotional expression and learn when they can best express themselves.

Adele Faber, a student of Ginott’s, writes that:

When we acknowledge a child’s feelings, we do him a great service. We put him in touch with his inner reality. And once he’s clear about that reality, he gathers the strength to begin to cope (Faber & Mazlish, 1980).

If we want our children to be resilient, we need to begin with acknowledging how they are feeling. Listen to her without being judgmental and help her reflect. If you can’t have the conversation right away, let her know that you know that she is having some strong feelings and set a plan for when you will address them (and, of course, follow through). These conversations will help her learn to understand why she is having these feelings and help channel the expression in the right direction.

As parents, we need to build up the structure of our children’s coping mechanisms and not be the bulldozer. Here are some helpful ways to structure these conversations:

  1. Listen – too often as adults, we want to jump in and fill all of the airspace. Give your child the space to express herself.
  2. Remember that there is a difference between feelings and behaviors. Any feeling is ok, but behaviors that hurt others are not ok. Help them see the difference between the two.
  3. Don’t dismiss, minimize, or deny the feelings by saying things like, “There’s no reason to be upset about this,” “He’s just a little kid. He doesn’t know better,” or “No, you don’t hate her.”
  4. Validate his emotion and let him know that it is ok to be feeling this way.
  5. Help them look for solutions through open ended questions instead of handing them the answer. For example,ask  “What do you want to happen?” or “What would this look like if everything was ok?” Make sure that you don’t cross the line between getting them to think and you doing it for them to help make the emotion go away.

Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York: Rawson, Wade Publishers.

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