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Feb 17, 2017

by Julie McGowan, LMSW, Family Counseling Supervisor and Therapist, Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, Holland

As a family counselor, I see parent-child interactions that are very intuitive and natural, yet fail to de-escalate a child with big emotions:

Child: “You love Dad more than me.”

Mom: “That’s not true. I love you just as much.”

Child: “I hate you!”

Dad: “You don’t really mean that.”  


Parents should respond to their children in reassuring ways, right? But in both of these situations, and many others like them, I have seen these types of responses further escalate the child.

Children, especially those who come from hard places, need to have their feelings heard, understood, and validated. When we disagree with their feelings, try to fix them, or try to rationalize them, we are not validating what the child is saying and feeling.

When we respond as the parents did above, intending to reassure, our child hears, “Your feeling is wrong, and you shouldn’t feel that way.”

Try these three responses when your child expresses big emotions:  

  1. Reflect back what you hear or see, without judgement. Repeat back what the child says they are feeling, point out what they are doing or saying that shows how they feel, and let them know they are being heard.
    1. “That must make you feel sad when you think that I love Daddy more.”
    2. “I hear in your voice that you are really mad at me right now.” 
  1. Be a thermostat, not a thermometer. Validation is not effective if given when the parent is also upset. Parents must set the emotional temperature of the room, not rise to meet the child at their elevated emotional temperature. If you want your house to stay at a nice 70 degree emotional temperature, set your emotional thermostat at 50!
    1. Take deep breaths.
    2. Use a calm, soft, slow voice.
    3. Take a break, if you need to, in order to reset yourself to the right temperature.
    4. Be playful when appropriate. 
  1. Remember that no emotion is wrong or bad. If your child feels like they hate you in the moment, that is okay. Is it okay for them to feel furious, ecstatic, angry, loving, and any other emotion they have. The behavior may not be okay, but the emotion itself always is. Never tell a child to not feel the way they feel.

Validating emotions strengthens the bond between parent and child, teaches the child to appropriately identify and express emotions, and can help to more quickly de-escalate tough situations.


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