When your child is sad, you make her feel better, right? A good parent accepts a child’s feelings and then tries to fix it. But do you know that’s not enough if you want your child to be emotionally healthy? We are often missing a crucial step in between.

Last night as I was lying in bed with my eight year old daughter, she said “Mama, I have to ask you something and I want you to tell me the truth. Is Santa real?”  WHOA. I could tell this was different from the other times she has asked me about Santa- when I could casually give my standard answer: “Well, is it more fun to believe in Santa or not believe in Santa?”

I answered her honestly and she broke down in hot tears of anger and disappointment and sadness. (FYI- She gave me permission to write about this here.) I bit my tongue and didn’t do what I would have normally done- which was to accept her emotions unconditionally and then try to make her feel better.

As parents we have such a strong drive to take away the hurt! But if we do that without letting our children process their emotions we rob them of the chance to both fully feel their feelings and to learn the skills to make themselves feel better.

So what did I do? I held her while she cried. I offered soothing words of understanding as best as I could. I empathized when she expressed how sad she was. “I can understand why you are so disappointed. You wish Santa was real.” I listened while she expressed how angry she was- both that I hadn’t told her the truth before and that I did tell her the truth now. “You’re having really mixed feelings about this. Maybe you feel kind of tricked but also disappointed because you want to keep believing. Also maybe you are angry that I lied to you.I think I would feel that way too.” I tried to just be there with her with her feelings without interfering.

What didn’t I do? Over and over I had to resist my urge to try to make her feel better by moving on or distracting her or just telling her everything would be all right. And I resisted the urge to make myself feel better in the face of her anger: I didn’t try to explain WHY I lied about Santa or why it was justified. This was about her- not me.

I mostly just stayed with her in her bad feelings and rubbed her back and held her as she processed her emotions. I offered soothing words, validated her feelings, and helped her name them. I didn’t offer my opinion about her feelings or try to tell her to stop feeling sad/mad/disappointed. I didn’t say “It’s okay.”

After a while, she quieted and I could feel a sense of peace around her. I felt that she was done. I hadn’t done anything but hold that space for her while she worked through her range of difficult emotions and try to stay out of the way. My daughter moved into problem-solving mode completely on her own. “Mama- can we pretend Santa is still real?” Absolutely, darling.

I felt great about myself as mama for supporting her as she moved through her feelings unimpeded. I felt really connected with my daughter and so grateful that she shared all those hard feelings with me. And I was so happy that she did indeed feel better!

How was I able to recognize that I needed some work in helping my children with emotions? I just finished reading John Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Healthy Child. In it he describes different parenting styles when it comes to emotion. An Emotion Coached child has high EQ (emotional intelligence) and will be able to make her way in the world with great success because of her ability to respond to and recover from emotional stress.

If you had asked me before I read the book I would have said “Oh for sure- I already do that!” But I learned that I was missing a big piece of Emotion Coaching. I am often too quick to move from unconditionally accepting my children’s emotions to trying to make them feel better. (There’s actually a quiz in the book!)

Here are Gottman’s 5 Steps For Emotion Coaching. I highly recommend you read the book- he explains them very well in his book and provides lots of examples.

  1. Be aware of the child’s emotions
  2. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings
  4. Help child verbally label emotions
  5. Set limits while helping the child problem-solve

As caring parents we try to help our children the best we can. We accept their emotions and try to make them feel better. But really your child needs to be able to do this on her own. We can help her get there. Sit with your child and her emotions. Don’t do anything but empathize and soothe.

How do you know when to move on to problem solving? Wait for the peace. If you’re quiet and patient- you’ll feel it.

Do you find it hard or easy to help your child with his emotions? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

  1. Jill says:

    Beautiful experience being with your daughters emotions. Her solution was something I never would have thought of, which is another great reason not to lead your child to your solution.

  2. Jill says:

    When my daughter is really angry or frustrated I want her to process the emotions and learn how to manage them but there are times I feel I do need to step in and help guide her. Any suggestions how to keep a distance especially when another person is involved?

    • Sarah says:

      Hi Jill! For sure you need to step in sometimes to keep everyone safe. If your daughter is angry there is often something underneath the anger she needs to get at. Being with her and letting her express that while are present can help. By keep a distance I wonder if you mean stay uninvolved? Sometimes you do need to step in though which is what I think you’re getting at. If for example she is having an argument with a friend, you can say “This is what I hear you saying…” with each of them and help them work it out without getting involved! Let me know if that answers your question! 🙂

    • Jenifer says:

      I love this 5 tips!! And it’s true that it’s a big opportunity for intimacy and teaching it strengthens the bonding with our children and it has changed my life completely!!thank you!!!

  3. amy says:

    The urge to distract or “move on” from tough feelings still catches me by surprise!

  4. Sev says:

    I have a 4 yr old boy and i am getting better at helping him with his emotions. It really is something i have to be more mindful and take the time to talk to him about it. Common emotions nowadays are his anger and frustration at classmates for pushing him/scratching him/not sharing the crayon, etc. Huge to him. I try to listen to the story, although i can’t help asking questions as to why the other boy (usually) did that….sometimes i wonder what did MY son do to provoke the other child and i want to get to the bottom of that.
    Or sometimed my son will say someone pushed him when later i hear from the teacher that HE pushed someone. Sighhhh

  5. Susie says:

    very enlightening

  6. Jennifer Lozon says:

    I feel like I do my best parenting here, but I also am a ‘fixer’, a problem solver. I feel great anxiety when something’s ‘wrong’ and feel a real need to fix it. I feel sad when they are hurting. I will continue with my empathic strategies to help them through their emotions- but less fixing- more listening and be patient to get to the next level on their cue.
    Thank you

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