A Unique Child

Why We Mustn’t Trivialise Young Children’s Feelings

  • Why We Mustn’t Trivialise Young Children’s Feelings

When you’re speaking with your charges, take care not to dismiss their emotions, says Nikky Smedley…

What annoys you about how adults speak to you?

“When I’m crying and they say, ‘You’re just tired.’”
- G (female)

During this little girl’s short interview, she mentioned this issue twice in slightly different ways. No doubt something had happened recently that made this perceived injustice so fresh and raw, but what lies underneath is a common source of upset.

It comes down to point of view. We adults can see the bigger picture – our greater life experience allows us to understand that several factors can be at play in any single event – but for a child, what they are feeling in the moment is the be-all and end-all. The perspectives are completely different.

The fact that G may have been tired, and this may have contributed to her being more sensitive, does not mitigate her upset. To then have her emotions dismissed by someone she loves and from whom she is used to accessing comfort, clearly hurt.

Later on in life, this pattern plays out with teenage heartbreak. The adult knows that the pain will pass, the broken heart will mend and a new love will come along to command the affections of the aggrieved, but this will always come across as ‘just not understanding’. Very young children experience the same intensity of emotion over what even to teens might seem incredibly trivial incidents.

Children’s sense of injustice is very powerful – you may well have childhood memories of your own that back this up (I’m hoping you can see the funny side now!) – and you may find that if you give in to the desire to dismiss, or even laugh at, a child’s heartfelt emotions, they might not forgive you very readily.

We all need to have our feelings acknowledged and in fact, this is the first step to dealing with them more objectively.

So when you see that your child is upset, take it seriously, let them know that you appreciate the severity of the situation, allow them to share the hurt, then gently guide them through to the other side.

Helpful strategies

Phrases such as, “I can see you’re really upset” can be surprisingly effective in calming down a child. Ask them to talk to you about the problem, and while they do, let them know that you recognise what they are feeling, with words, “I see… Mmm… I understand… Aha.” It can also be useful to give the emotion a name: “How frustrating!” “What a disappointment.” It’s always easier to conquer a foe when you know what to call it.

Children need to have their feelings accepted and respected, and it’s possible to do this whilst also letting them know that certain actions related to those feelings must be limited – no hitting, for example.

Once the storm of passion has passed, humour can be a valuable tool to help children process and move on from any emotional outburst. A tiny toddler in the nursery playground tripped and fell, landing with her face in a puddle. She was shocked, her pride was wounded and her confidence bruised, but after the initial tears, we decided that she’d been unlucky enough to come across an especially naughty puddle, and once we’d given it a good telling off, she was free to move on with her life.

Our feelings betray the more vulnerable side of us all; extra care needs to be taken to ensure that our children grow up to form a healthy relationship with their entire emotional landscape.

Nikky Smedley is a writer, educator and passionate advocate for the child. Her book Create, Perform, Teach! (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £14.99) is out now.