“Fixing” Kids’ Feelings

Today’s tfkahrnedi
post is excerpted from Erica Reischer’s WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive. Erica got her PhD from the University of Chicago and is now a clinical psychologist and parent educator in Oakland, CA. She’s also a former consultant with McKinsey & Company, and leads popular parenting classes and workshops at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Habitot Children’s Museum, and the University of California. Her website is here!  And I agree with her — it is hard to resist jumping in to “fix” our kids’ bad feelings.

Great parents resist the urge to “fix” feelings, by Erica Reischer

In our popular image of “helicopter parents” we imagine overeager parents hovering around their kids, ready to intervene at a moment’s notice, behavior I often call “over-functioning.”  We vow not to do that and intentionally refrain from stepping in when our kids forget their homework or have a disagreement with their teacher. 

But there’s another, more subtle kind of over-functioning that many of us are unaware of doing:  fixing feelings.

Like the helicopter urge to “fix” situations (such as forgetting homework or lunch), the urge to “fix” feelings comes from a similar place of good intentions: the desire to spare our children from discomfort, disappointment, and failure (e.g., being cold or hungry, being chastised by the teacher, getting poor grades, and so on).

In the case of fixing feelings, we are trying to spare our children from experiencing unpleasant or painful emotions, ranging from something relatively minor like boredom to something more significant like social rejection. In most cases, we are also trying to spare ourselves from the distress of seeing our children experience unpleasant or painful feelings. 

It’s no easy task, but we must learn how to tolerate our children’s discomfort, so that they can, too. I’ll repeat that since it’s such an important principle: Learn to tolerate your child’s discomfort, so she can, too.

Although it is understandable for parents to want to buffer children (and themselves) from these experiences, in so doing, parents inadvertently deprive children of the opportunity to learn and practice good coping skills, with their help and guidance.

Here are two examples illustrating what I mean by “fixing feelings”:

1. Your child comes into the room where you are working, sighs, and declares, “I’m bored.” It’s easy to reflexively respond to this complaint with a long list of potential activities. But this response encourages kids to look to you in the future to solve this “problem” instead of grappling with it themselves.

Instead, consider allowing your child to experience boredom. Why? People are inclined to avoid unpleasant experiences, so if boredom is unpleasant for your kids, they are likely to come up with their own solutions. Now they will have engaged their imaginations and also learned that they can resolve challenges.

If you feel you must help them solve their boredom “problem” (or a similar situation), resist the temptation to tell them exactly what to do in favor of talking them through how to solve their problem. Narrate the process. For example: “Well, what are some things you have enjoyed doing in the past? Let’s make a list.”

2. When you pick your child up from school, she says tearfully, “Everyone hates me.” This is a very painful thing to hear as a parent, so a common and natural response to this is, “No, they don’t, honey! What about Amanda? She’s your friend.” It’s probably true that your child’s perception of the situation is not entirely accurate, but telling her this, even nicely, may leave her feeling unheard and misunderstood.

Trying to fix her feelings may also communicate the idea that those feelings are “bad” (instead of an emotional experience that is normal and will pass) or that your child can’t handle those feelings (so you have to step in). Also, as I noted earlier, trying to fix feelings doesn’t give our children the chance to learn how to tolerate those feelings or to practice emotion regulation skills to manage them.

TRY THIS:  When you notice that your child is experiencing a feeling that you have the urge to fix (e.g., boredom, rejection, anxiety), pause and remind yourself that this is an opportunity for your child to practice some useful life skills with your guidance.

Start by acknowledging and empathizing with her feelings:  “Oh, honey, I’ll bet you feel really sad and lonely when you think that everyone hates you. That would feel really terrible to me, too.” See where this conversation starter takes you.

When the time feels right, you can step into the role of coach, using open-ended questions to elicit your child’s perspective and encouraging her to try on alternative viewpoints: “So, what happened today that makes you think everyone hates you? . . . Oh, so the other girls seemed to ignore you when you wanted to play with them? (reflection) . . . Are there any other explanations that might also explain what happened?” And so on.

Part of the goal here is to help your child look at the situation from other perspectives, and hopefully conclude (in most cases) that there are other, equally valid ways of interpreting what happened.  If the situation calls for a response of some kind, support your child by discussing her options with her and walking her through (but not dictating to her) the process for making a choice about how to respond.

With the rare exception of situations in which adults should step in immediately, such as bullying or abuse, remember that you don’t have to fix the situation or make your child feel better. Just offer your compassion and presence. Help your child learn to feel her feelings and to choose her actions. This is a critical life skill for success.  Even though we may feeling a strong emotion, such as anger or despair, we can make the choice to pause and decide how we want to respond (instead of react) to the situation.  We don’t have to say what we are thinking, or act on our feelings.

(Excerpted from WHAT GREAT PARENTS DO: 75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive by Erica Reischer, Ph.D. © 2016 by Erica Reischer. TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.)

.reischer book

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32 Responses to “Fixing” Kids’ Feelings

  1. Tabitha August 16, 2016 at 12:16 pm #

    All summer long, as a response to the “I’m bored” whine from my daughter I’ve said, “Experts say boredom is good for your neuro-cognitive development.” She rarely says that anymore. 😉

  2. angeleyes1307 August 16, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    My kids have learned that telling Mommy, “I’m bored” results in assigning of extra chores – there is always something that needs done around the house…

  3. Jana August 16, 2016 at 12:33 pm #

    My mother and father always used to tell me how I should feel. When I was scared or sad, they laughed and insisted that my fear or sadness were irrational, crazy, “minimal” etc. I doubt that they did it because they wanted to “spare me”. They just wanted their peace… So, as a very young child, I made my vows that I would never ever do the same to my kids. And you know what? I did not! I always respected their feelings, no matter what, and had been giving them a lot of hugs and support. Just ask them… Happy parenting!

  4. Jennifer August 16, 2016 at 12:42 pm #

    I am constantly reminding myself to “validate” and not “fix.” It’s especially hard when you grew up completely the opposite. It really takes work. This is a great reminder. Thank you!

  5. JulieH August 16, 2016 at 12:54 pm #

    Good stuff, yet so hard. Where is the line between coaching and fixing? I think that there is a grey area where the two meet.

    I can see “over-functioning” in my aunt and uncle with their kids that are now 17-19yo. Aunt so hated seeing them upset that they never have to deal with being upset. The 19 went off to college last fall, 2 hours away. She moved to campus and before classes had even started she withdrew herself from the college and called them to come get her. Makes me sad for them.

    But then I look over the experience with my oldest this past weekend and wonder, did I do any better? Oldest started high school. Thursday was orientation, Friday was the first day. Didn’t even occur to us that, because of where she went to middle school and where we live (people don’t lock up their bikes around town), she had never encountered a combination lock before. The high school gave them the 3 number combination without any of the “details” to go along with it – they assumed the kids had them in middle school (her’s didn’t). She mentioned Friday after school that she was really having trouble with the lock. By Sunday she looked miserable and ill – turns out she wasn’t sleeping because she was so stressed about not being able to get into her locker and worried about being tardy to classes.

    I helped her figure out the root of the problem was that she didn’t know how to work one properly and that there wasn’t enough time before/after/during school for her to work with a teacher on it due to the bus schedule. So we stopped after church and bought a cheap combo lock for her to work on the technique (and I tricked her into taking a nap), and I slightly rearranged my work schedule so that we could driver her to school early on Monday so that she could have 15-20 minutes to work on it and get help.

    I guess the question I have is – how far does one let the “uncomfortable” feeling go before stepping in? Where is the line between coaching (helping them think through to a solution – being loving and supportive as we would to a friend) and fixing?

    This isn’t a rhetorical question. I am really interested in everyone’s thoughts on those questions…

  6. WendyW August 16, 2016 at 1:08 pm #

    Julie H, I would say that the situation you described was NOT “fixing” her feelings, but getting to the root problem and fixing THAT. The feelings “fixed” themselves when the problem itself was dealt with. It’s not a failure on anyone’s part when our children find themselves in unfamiliar territory, it’s just life.

    I think the response of your daughter is a reflection of her budding independence- she wanted to deal with it herself- and her lack of experience in knowing which situations actually do require outside help. Kids that age want to be so grown up and are loathe to admit that they don’t know something. Asking for help when they really do need it is often viewed as a failure.

    You’ve done right by instilling that independence in her, now she has to gain the experience to judge when she truly does need help. That’s just part of growing up and gaining wisdom.

  7. Muriel Strand, P.E. August 16, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

    when i complained of boredom, the list of activities was all chores. i soon learned to tolerate boredom on my own.

  8. Papilio August 16, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    Julie H: “there wasn’t enough time before/after/during school for her to work with a teacher”
    Teacher? Why didn’t she ask help from her classmates? Weren’t they standing next to her when she was having trouble with her locker?

  9. Ben in RI August 16, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

    My soon-to-be-6-year-old often complains to me that he’s bored. My response is usually some variation of “Man, I remember being bored as a kid. That was awesome, I miss it. That was always when I figured out what I liked to do.” And that’s true. Pretty much all of my favorite hobbies all sprang from stuff I tried out when I was bored during summers out of school. I wish I had the time to be bored now.

  10. Nicole August 16, 2016 at 3:27 pm #

    Quoting from a book that includes “75 Simple Strategies for Raising Kids Who Thrive” does not seem very free range to me 🙂

  11. Sarah Williams August 16, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Love this. And I love one of those facebook posts that went around with an Acronym for BORED.:

    Been creative;
    Opted for outside time;
    Read a book;
    Done something helpful?

    After the initial discussion with my kids about the neurological benefits of boredom, I now just point to the poster on the fridge and remind them they have better options than complaining to me. I’m too busy to help out, and I’ll likely just give them a house project they don’t want to do anyway. It’s been a more peaceful summer with these tools in my kit.

  12. EricS August 16, 2016 at 4:12 pm #

    “Although it is understandable for parents to want to buffer children (and themselves) from these experiences, in so doing, parents inadvertently deprive children of the opportunity to learn and practice good coping skills, with their help and guidance.”

    It’s reassuring that even child psychologists agree with the “Free-Range” mentality. Or what I’ve always known as the “old school way of parenting”. It’s simple common sense and logic. You teach your children these things, it’s these things they will learn. You teach them something else, that’s what they will learn. Basically, how do you want your children to be when they are adults? Then work at that goal, starting at a young age. Parents aren’t there to make our children feel better whenever they feel bad. Our main job is to guide them to learn to deal with the situations they face. Because it’s the same things they will face as adults, sometimes even more so. If children don’t learn to fend for themselves, they will have a hard time doing it when they are adults. And as adults, we all know how rough life can be. Sometimes unforgiving. And such as life is, we are not guaranteed to be around till they are adults. It’s our job to prepare them to be on their own. The sooner, the better.

  13. EricS August 16, 2016 at 4:29 pm #

    @JulieH: I only step in with mine, after they’ve TRIED. When it first comes up, I get them to tell me in detail the situation. Then I ask them, what they think they should do. Or if it’s something really insignificant, I ask them why they are crying over it. Most times they really don’t know. So when you make that clear, they tend to understand, but sometimes still make an issue of it. Just guide them through that process. Basically, I get them to answer their own questions. If I think it’s the wrong move, I veer them into a different way of thinking, by establishing scenarios based on their views. Asking them questions again. Usually they understand why it would be a bad idea. So they think of another way. And so fourth. Once they tell me something that I think would be good for them to do, I just give them a nod of acknowledgement, and say, “sounds like a plan, see how that works out”. One thing I always instill in my kids, is to be true to themselves. Don’t do things you don’t feel comfortable doing, just to impress others. That people they really want in their lives (even if they don’t know it yet), are the ones that won’t make them do things they don’t want to. And vice-versa. Over the years, they’ve become strong willed and headed. But in a good way. Sometimes stubborness is a good thing. 😉 Every now and then, the oldest will turn the tables on me with my own logic. When he does, he gets props. And whenever he shows this progress, I give him a little more to be responsible for. Just like I was raised. The youngest is a follower (which we are working on). But it’s good that he follows his brother. The big brother is a good example. And like a lot of kids, they enjoy solving problems. Especially when they know they are pretty much doing it on their own. It’s a good idea to remind them that they are solving things on their own, and doing a good job. You’re just there to steer them in the right direction.

  14. JulieH August 16, 2016 at 5:04 pm #

    @WendyW – I think you are right regarding the independence thing. Since she didn’t know what she didn’t know, I don’t think that it occurred to her that she could practice on a different lock. And she had been part of the conversations as to how important it was going to be to the family for there to be bus service to her school because of my current work schedule – I don’t think she wanted to even ask to disrupt my schedule. Thanks for the supportive words.

    @Papilio – I know that she did ask a few classmates, but she said she didn’t want to run the risk of making THEM late to class too – plus the teachers had made a big deal about not sharing your combination with other students. The teachers were out flitting about since it was the freshman hallway. She felt very comfortable asking the adults for help – she feels comfortable with adults. The kids made her a little nervous because she didn’t know anyone (literally) in that area. Only 3 kids from her middle school chose to go to this high school this year, so it is a pretty big adjustment. She also mentioned that she is at the end of a group of lockers with broken ones on each side of her. Regardless, kids or teacher help, the big issue was time. 🙂

    @EricS – Thanks for the validation! Sounds in general like what I try to do. She had tried getting help onsite, but it was always too rushed for everyone to figure out the problem.

  15. hineata August 16, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    @Papilio – can only speak for myself, but at that age, unless it was a really close friend, I certainly wouldn’t have asked the kids around me for help. Who wants to look like they don’t know something. …even if it is a silly something ☺. Even when I left home and encountered automatic washing machines for the first time (I was about 16 I guess), I stood back and watched a few people before having a go myself ☺.

    As for fixing kids’ feelings, I suck at this. I often find myself telling kids how to get themselves feeling better. However I don’t actually feel too guilty about this – kids also have to learn that not everything some idiot teacher, or even their own parent, tells them or does to them is perfect, and life goes on anyway. I am a bit sick of the pressure to get it right all the time as a parent, or as a human being. Think I’ll stop reading right now and go find some junk food ☺.

  16. Beth August 16, 2016 at 5:31 pm #

    Julie H, off-topic, but where do you live that school has already started? My inquiring mind wants to know!!

  17. Papilio August 16, 2016 at 5:46 pm #

    @Julie H: Okay, that somewhat explains it. My secondary school had so many students that in the later grades we had to share a locker with a friend, so no way they’d leave broken lockers broken, and we had a 30 minute first break and 20 minute second break, so plenty of time for something like this, I guess, except that we just had keys instead of combinations.

    @Hineata: I went to another secondary school between 7th and 8th grade, so all my classmates already knew the building and the names of the teachers etc, and I was dead scared I’d get lost because everyone would just assume that 8th graders know their way by then. The first day, my French teacher started chatting with me just after the bell, while the others were leaving. She knew I was new and it was very nice of her to ask how I was doing and what school I was from, but after that I had lost my classmates and I sort of panicked, knowing what the number of the room was where I was supposed to be next, but having no clue as to where that was and how to get there fast. So I rushed through the corridors, just asking random people to point me toward room 0.50… And then I realized just how full the corridors were. That French had been the THIRD period. That, in short, it was the first break and I looked like an idiot trying to find 0.50 in such a hurry. Heh heh.
    But whatever, being the new kid was a good excuse, they didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and it all worked out in the end 🙂

  18. Donald Christensen August 16, 2016 at 6:06 pm #

    ”….the desire to spare our children from discomfort, disappointment, and failure (e.g., being cold or hungry, being chastised by the teacher, getting poor grades, and so on)”.

    This is what I meant yesterday when I said that children need to be able to experience a skinned knee. I was so busy ranting that I didn’t explain it very well.

    Actions have consequences. We all know that. However if children are protected from experiencing consequences, they don’t actually learn this until a later age. They can become so focus on rebelling, outsmarting mom, or escaping her relentless smothering that the child can’t imagine the pain of being a mom at age 16.

  19. Donald Christensen August 16, 2016 at 6:14 pm #

    On another note

    My son invited me over to his house for dinner. When I got there, I told him how I fantasized about this day for years. Now I can break all his things, make a huge mess, and complain that I’m bored! : )

  20. Shawn August 16, 2016 at 6:16 pm #

    Good advice, good examples.

    I especially like the bored example, as I believe that out of boredom comes creativity. How many great things were invented, and ideas flourished, due to boredom, which the lack of external stimuli.

    I will add one caveat to the ‘I’m bored’ situation though. The internet must be disconnected (and the cable as well), for the person to truly experience the benefits of boredom. Tablets, smart phones, computers all alleviate boredom, but not in an optimally creative way.

    I’m sure others may disagree with the above. It can be pointed out the internet may be used to learn a language, study a coarse, learn music, etc. I know. But my observation is that 98% of the time it’s not, and boredom itself would be more fruitful and a better learning experience.

  21. Warren August 16, 2016 at 6:33 pm #

    Only other advice to give parents of small kids is to call their parents like I did.
    Mom answered : Hello

    Me : Hi mom it’s me.

    Mom : What’s up?

    Me : Just wanted to say I’m sorry.

    Mom : For what?

    Me : Everything.

    I was lucky. My folks set a great example for me to follow as a parent. And it wasn’t until I had kids that I figured out why my mom was always saying “You’ll understand one day. And when you do you’ll be sorry. “

  22. diane August 16, 2016 at 11:12 pm #

    I have a hard time with this as well. Not so much wanting to alleviate their boredom, but it’s difficult for me to fully confront and respond to their deeper “negative” feelings, such as anger, anxiety, and at times, with my preteen, moments of despair. But every time I try fixing, I think I’m sending the message that HE needs fixing. Which is very unproductive and harmful.
    I’m getting better.

  23. Elin Hagberg August 17, 2016 at 7:12 am #

    I don’t think it is always a bad thing to suggest activities to children but I am not against children being bored either. I have been pregnant this summer and I had to sleep at least once a day to be able to function at all and my 4-year old was at home with me so she was awake and I was sleeping. I know, some are probably shocked just by this but she can handle this very well but at times she was of course really bored. I did let her watch tv during this time but if she was bored of this she started little craft projects from things that she got hold of, everything from different craft papers and stickers to old popped balloons and candy wrappers. She made herself a hamster from a rock and a old pink balloon. It certainly does not look like a hamster but she says it is one and I believe her. She also spent a lot of time playing intricate games involving my little ponies, dolls and toy cars that I didn’t understand at all but they seemed to give her a lot of enjoyment and that is all that matters, right?

    A couple of times during this summer she complained that she was bored and sure, if I was not too tired I took the chance to do fun stuff with her but when I couldn’t I would suggest she could clean her room. That was usually met by a high pitched scream of anger and she ran away from me and quickly occupied herself…

    I think too much sheltering from real feelings can be dangerous for kids. Their first year I get being extremely responsive due to the immaturity of a baby’s brain but as the child gets older they should get a chance to deal with bad emotions. For example, I was shocked to hear from a friend that she had said that moms can’t die when her child asked her about death. While I don’t think you should make a child too scared about death moms do die sometimes and what would her child feel if that does indeed happen? “Mom promised she would not die and she did?”. When my daughter asked her I told her that it is not likely to happen for many years, probably not until you are an adult like me or even much older but sometimes moms do die and there is nothing we can do about that other than try to not do stupid things that increase the risk. I then talked about how I try to eat healthy things, that I am careful in traffic and go to the doctor if I am too sick to get well on my own.

  24. BL August 17, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    It’s hard to blame modern kids for being bored. I had the run of a large suburban neighborhood by age 7 and a whole small town (we moved) by the time I was nearly 9.

    Under a stay-where-I-can-see-you regime, I’d have been bored too.

  25. SanityAnyone? August 17, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    Sounds a lot like “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”, a classic book I recommend to everyone.

    The best thing about this method is that it’s really interesting to see the creative solutions your child will offer that you never would have considered.

  26. Rhonda August 17, 2016 at 10:39 am #

    Only boring people get bored.

  27. lollipoplover August 17, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    “Only boring people get bored.”

    I say this all the time. Love it!

    If one of my kids complains of boredom, they are handed the leashes for our dogs.
    Dog walking cures boredom- true fact.

  28. K2 August 17, 2016 at 11:16 am #

    If my kids forget their homework I don’t want them to learn to cope with the negative feelings. I want them to learn to do the homework so that they will in the future avoid the negative feelings. Coping skills are great, but I really believe that kids can avoid the need to a great extent and that is one of the reasons childhood should be one of the best times in a persons life.

  29. JulieH August 17, 2016 at 12:21 pm #

    @Beth – We are in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area (in Huntington County). One of the VERY nice things in our region is that the start of the school year is selected so that the first semester ends the day before Christmas break. No more of those pesky teachers that say – since you have all this free time, here is a big project. Also, the momentum leading up to final exams is not disrupted. The Christmas break is actually a break. It seems like my nieces in Michigan end up spending a good part of their break studying for finals and working on projects. 🙁

    Now, Huntington county public schools decided to start shifting to a more “balanced” calendar…so they have added longer breaks here and there during the school year (like a full week in October) – they started on August 5th. The Catholic grade school my younger daughter attends, after polling parents, opted not to follow the public school calendar exactly – they started on August 10th – which is about the earliest schools around here have started with a more traditional calendar.

    Older daughter is going to a Catholic high school in Fort Wayne. They had freshman/new student orientations on August 11th and first day on August 12th (starting on a Friday actually works great for them). It seems that the largest public school districts in Fort Wayne started August 15th.

  30. Beth August 18, 2016 at 8:31 am #

    @Julie, very interesting. I live in Wisconsin, and we, by law, can’t start school until early September because of tourism! (Wisconsin Dells employs A LOT of kids.)

    I love the idea of a real break at Christmas time, like college. I wish all schools figured out a way to do that instead of, as you said, piling on the homework.

  31. JulieH August 18, 2016 at 1:10 pm #

    @Beth – Michigan has a similar law – can’t start until after Labor Day. We may start in August, but we get out in May, often before Memorial Day! It is nice to get a vacation in before the weather gets *too* hot and before the tourist places get *too* busy.

  32. Leigh August 22, 2016 at 1:27 pm #

    Haha. When my kids tell me they are bored I respond, “Only boring people are bored. Find something to do!” Now of course, everyone gets bored sometimes, so I’m not being completely honest when I say that, but after rolling their eyes at me they do usually find something to do, and it’s usually messy or loud.