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Children Solve Problems By Putting Feelings Into Words

"Sara said she won't play with me anymore, " sobbed five-year-old Katie, tears streaming down her cheeks. "She's mad at me and I didn't do anything!"

What can a parent do when her child comes home hurt and angry? There is a temptation to rush in and try to fix the situation by giving advice, distracting children from their feelings or consoling them with expressions like, "Now, now, it isn't the end of the world." However, one of the most effective ways to help children cope with painful situations is to encourage them to talk about their feelings.

It is important to help children become aware of and recognize their feelings and to develop a vocabulary to express them. When a child can express her emotions and know that her parent understands, she develops the confidence to move ahead and solve her own problems.

Avoiding the temptation to take over is difficult for many parents. Parents naturally want their children to be happy and some cannot handle their children's pain or distress. Instead of automatically responding with statements like, "It's going to be all right," "Why don't you do this," or "There's no reason to feel that way," parents are advised to take an active listening approach.

To be an active listener means to listen attentively then reflect back to the child what you are hearing. Active listening focuses both on the content of the message and the feelings that underlie it. Here is an example of active listening.

Child: "I wish I never had to see Mary ever again."
Parent: "It sounds like you're so mad at Mary you don't want to see her anymore."
Child: "Yeah. I hate her."
Parent: "Hmmmm. You hate Mary."
Child: "Well, I hate her when she plays with the other kids at school and doesn't play with me."
Parent: "I see. You hate her when she doesn't play with you."
Child: "Yeah. I wish she would only play with me."
Parent: "So you like playing with Mary?"
Child: "Yes, we have fun together."
Parent: "So you would probably like to play with Mary again?"
Child: "Yes."
Parent: "What do you think would make you feel better about this situation?"
Child: "Can I invite Mary over my house to play with me sometime?"
Parent: "That sounds like a good idea."

A conversation like this helps children to identify their feelings and to think about what they really want to do next. It is sometimes helpful when parents can relate similar experiences and feelings. In this way, children learn that their feelings are not unusual.

It is important that children have a sufficient vocabulary to express their many emotions. The development of this vocabulary begins when the young child first learns to talk. Start by observing the toddler's behavior in different situations, then ask how he's feeling. The first words he uses can be simply "good" or "bad." Teach the young child other words for his feelings. For example, you may observe that he is "angry" or "annoyed" or "frustrated."

As the child grows, review his daily experiences at bedtime. Start by asking an open-ended question such as, "How did this day go for you?" Talking together about the child's experiences lets the child put his sensations into words and demonstrates that you can be an attentive listener.

Teach children that other people have feelings too. Be a role model for expressing strong emotions appropriately. For example, you may say, "When you act like this, I feel very angry."

When your children successfully express their feelings, help them discuss or rehearse problem-solving approaches. Ask them what they would change or what they would do to make themselves feel better. Help them evaluate each of the options they propose.

Avoiding or denying feelings is not helpful. It is more helpful to become aware of and accept your feelings and use effective problem-solving to make constructive changes. You can help your children develop skills for expressing their emotions and solving their problems by being a good listener and role model.

Source: Sue West, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 46


Anna Steinkraus
Family & Community Development Program Coordinator
(607) 272-2292 ext. 145

Last updated August 8, 2015