Parents often want their kids to feel differently about something. Their kids dislike a family member they’re supposed to love. They don’t enjoy an activity their parents want them to enjoy. They have an aversion to certain foods, a hatred of certain school subjects, and various fears that make day-to-day life more difficult.
A common response from parents is: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
Often, parents will present their kids with a different option: “You should feel happy. You should love your uncle (or grandma, or whoever it is the child dislikes). You shouldn’t be afraid.” Parents may also make unhelpful comparisons. “I never felt like that when I was your age! Your brother likes playing sports, so why don’t you?”
Telling kids how they should feel usually isn’t helpful. The emotion doesn’t simply vanish because you want it to. At best, kids may temporarily suppress it. Over time, they may also learn that it’s pointless to share their feelings with you, because what you’re interested in are the right emotions felt at the right time – not the inconvenient or upsetting emotions your kids actually experience.
What’s a more helpful response to children’s unwanted feelings?
Figuring out why they feel a certain way
Sometimes, the reason is silly or not deeply meaningful. It could be that they’re tired at the end of the day or grumpy because they haven’t eaten. Other times, they have a legitimate reason for not liking someone or not wanting to go somewhere; it may even be a matter of personal safety.
Children’s emotions are also shaped by their social circle. How other people treat them and what their friends say about them will have an impact on their own feelings, including insecurities and self-loathing.
Working with them on how to express emotions
Instead of wishing the emotion away or attempting to suppress it, children need to know how they can deal with it. For instance, what are good ways to express anger without destroying a relationship or inflicting harm on other people or on yourself?
Focusing on behavior
Appropriate behaviors are more important than appropriate emotions. Kids need to know when and how to ask for help, especially in dangerous situations. Many times, they need to achieve a workable compromise, such as treating someone they dislike with politeness, but without a fake show of friendship or love.
In other situations, they may simply want to stop doing something – and it’s not the end of the world. For example, even if you have your heart set on your kid playing football or basketball, they may have zero interest in either sport. Instead of repeatedly dragging them to games and shaming them for their lack of enthusiasm, help them explore other interests.
Remembering that emotions aren’t permanent
Keeping a sense of perspective about emotions is also important. Feelings and attitudes can change – sometimes within hours, and sometimes after several years. Kids may feel quite differently about something at different points in their childhood and adolescence. Emotions are important signals, worth paying attention to, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of an unchanging truth.
Berating kids about what they feel usually causes them to bottle things up or lie about their emotions. It also makes you less trustworthy to them, because they can’t open up to you. The focus instead should be more practical – which circumstances evoke certain emotions, how do we deal with emotions in non-destructive ways, and what are reasonable behaviors for different situations?