10 Things All Kids (And Parents) Need To Understand About Feelings

I was out with my toddler when we both saw a big cake. He asked, I said no, he cried and threw himself to the ground. I picked him up, telling him, “I see how disappointed you are because I said ‘no cake.’ Cake will make us feel sick when we haven't had our meal, though, so we can't have it.” Just then, a passing stranger shook her head, muttering that I was making my son “soft.” I rolled my eyes, then turned back to him. There are things kids need to understand about feelings, especially before they become adults, and it's important to me to teach them, even if strangers think I'm being “soft” on my kid (or whatever.)

The thing was, he wasn’t misbehaving. He was having a normal toddler response to a disappointment, and I didn’t need to punish him for that. Acknowledging his feelings isn’t making him “soft” (whatever that means), it’s giving him language to describe how he feels so, someday, he won’t have to throw himself on the ground (or worse) to express himself. It’s also me showing him that I understand where he’s coming from, and that his feelings are normal, even as I hold the boundary that I’ve set. It’s giving him the chance to see that he can feel bad one moment, be comforted, and then move on and be OK, without having to stifle or judge his feelings.

I talk a lot about feelings with our kids, because I've seen (and lived) what happens to people when we don't. I don't want my son to be shamed into stuffing his feelings, only to violently lash out when he can no longer bear the pain of denying his own experiences. I don't want my stepdaughter to learn to dismiss her feelings as “overreacting,” and then second-guess her instincts when someone attempts to lead her into a situation where she's unsafe. Unfortunately, folks in our society are often pretty hostile to the idea of taking feelings seriously, so I know we're fighting an uphill battle. But as parents, I strongly believe that we have to do something differently if we don't want our kids to become part of our society’s awful statistics related to bullying, harassment, violence, addiction, suicide, and more.

Though the following are ten understandings kids eventually need to know about their own feelings, I'm explaining them in language for myself and other parents, because we can't help them learn these things until we understand them ourselves. If we want our kids to be smart about their feelings, that means we need make sure we understand the following things:

Everyone Has Feelings

Feelings are a normal part of being human. We all feel happy, sad, excited, disappointed, angry, grateful, hurt, loved, lonely, and more throughout our lives. We may have different ways of expressing our feelings, and may feel differently about different things, but we all have them. It's not weird, and it's not a problem. It's just part of life.

Acknowledging Difficult Feelings Isn't Weak Or Frivolous

We have to acknowledge our feelings so we can deal with them effectively. Being honest with ourselves about how we feel is one of the bravest things we can do, and it's a basic part of being a healthy, safe person.

Feelings Have Nothing To Do With Gender

Contrary to common stereotypes, it's simply not true that feminine people have more feelings and masculine people have less, or that certain feelings are off limits for certain people depending on their gender. All people can feel all feelings when they're in situations that elicit those feelings.

Feelings Have Nothing To Do With Age

It's also untrue that having feelings makes someone “a baby,” or that expressing feelings is automatically “childish.” Likewise, it's not true that very young children can't experience stress, anxiety, or other emotions people tend to associate with adults. All people of all ages can experience all feelings, and shaming them by suggesting they're not acting their age for having them usually just makes the situation more painful and more confusing.

We Have Feelings For A Reason

If we didn’t feel sad when we see other people suffering, there’d be little to stop us from causing other people harm. If we didn’t feel happy and proud when we do something good for our friends and family, we wouldn’t be as motivated to be contributing members of our families and communities. Our feelings are an important part of our decision-making processes, so we need to understand and respect them.

Feelings Aren't Behavior

There's a difference between feeling angry, for example, and hurting other people. One is a feeling, the other is a behavior. As parents, we have to help our kids understand that while it's OK to feel however they feel, it's not OK to be hurtful.

We also need to understand that our kids simply feeling sad, or angry, or frustrated is not an affront to us, and it's not our right to try to distract, bribe, or coerce them into feeling differently because certain emotions make us uncomfortable.

It's normal to feel uncomfortable, or even upset, when we see someone else crying or otherwise expressing difficult emotions like disappointment, sadness, and frustration. That discomfort is part of what motivates us to avoid intentionally hurting other people. But it's our responsibility to manage our own emotions, not other people’s. That includes our kids.

We Can Deal With Difficult Feelings…

Our feelings can be confusing, overwhelming, and painful at times, but we are capable of dealing with them. We can let ourselves experience whatever feelings we feel; feelings themselves (as opposed to behaviors associated with those feelings) aren't dangerous to us. It's important for us to be able to feel and identify difficult feelings, so we can figure out how to deal with the situations that caused them, and avoid problematic or dangerous situations in the future.

...Without Distracting Ourselves Or Pretending Everything Is OK When It Isn't

When we deny or distract our kids (or ourselves) from difficult situations or feelings, we send the message that it's bad or dangerous to feel them, and we rob them of the opportunity to learn how to process them (and that they're capable of doing so). That sets them up for problems later on.

Different People Can Feel Differently About The Same Thing, And That's OK

Just like I can find a joke funny that my husband doesn't, my son can find a decision I make (like not having cake for dinner) disappointing, even if I believe it's also important for his overall wellbeing. My feelings, or the “rightness” of my choice, don't negate his feelings, and I can respect his feelings without changing my mind about the decision I made.

Interactions with other people aren't a competition, where the winner gets to tell everyone else how they're “allowed” to feel about the situation. Understanding that other people can and do see things differently from us is a crucial part of developing social awareness and empathy, and avoiding unnecessarily destructive conflicts.

We're All Entitled To Our Feelings, Even If Other People Don't Understand Or Agree With Them

We don't need other people to feel the same way we do about something, in order to be justified in feeling how we feel. We don't need to poll the crowd, to determine if our feelings are justified. If someone is feeling upset because their understanding of a given situation is off-base, we can acknowledge their feelings even as we attempt to correct the misunderstandings that caused them. But we don't get to tell them how to feel.

We're allowed to feel however we want about whatever happens to us. We're not necessarily entitled to act however we want in response to those feelings, but the feelings themselves are what they are. Understanding and accepting our own feelings is crucial for standing up for ourselves, so it's critical that we learn to identify them, and protect our perceptions against other people's attempts to pressure us to feel differently.