From the psychologists’ couch

The importance of acknowledging children’s feelings.

BY CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST TANJA SMUTS

BEING ATTENTIVE TO CHILDREN’S FEELINGS IS ONE WAY to help build good self-esteem, self-control and promote healthy emotional development. In children’s early years they find it hard to understand their feelings, which often result in easily feeling overwhelmed. If a significant other consistently recognises and names feeling states, the feelings become more digestible and manageable to the child. In this way parents act as mirrors to children’s emotional worlds: if a parent can accurately recognise and verbally reflect feelings without judgement, the child feels understood, contained and accepted. In this way children become more and more able to see their own inner worlds accurately and accept and understand themselves. On the other hand, if feelings are not acknowledged or are judged, the child may grow up feeling uncomfortable with
aspects of themselves, sometimes to the extent of feeling confused, ‘wrong’ or fragmented.

So what does this mean in practice? The challenge is to develop a ‘feeling ear’ and name feelings such as happiness, excitement, love, pride, sadness,
disappointment, frustration and anger when you notice it in your child. For example, when your child comes home from school and excitedly talks about an upcoming project, a genuine reflection and sharing of her excitement could boost her motivation. Another example may be to reflect your child’s disappointment when a good play date comes to an end. It’s also helpful to talk to your child about feelings in general, about your own feelings and to point out how other people are feeling. It is never too early to start. Being attuned to babies’ feelings in conjunction with their physical needs helps to create an empathic and supportive environment.

For further reading, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish explain in their book ‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk’, how acknowledgement of feelings forms part of effective parenting. There are also different series’ of children’s books available on feelings which can be read with your child, for example the series by Trace Moroney (e.g. ‘I feel angry’).

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