The Purposeful Parent: You’re too little to have real feelings…

feelings purposeful parent

“I’m sorry honey, but you’re not real yet and so we don’t have to honor your pretend feelings.”

On many occasions I have observed adults making very callous and curt comments to children.  I’ve seen teachers and parents act out right rude to a child and then turn to extend kindness to an adult.  It makes me wonder if, in fact, they believe humans are incapable of truly feeling until the day they are fully grown.

Yes, a big bag of ‘feelings’ is dropped from on high on the 18th birthday, and unlike all the days leading up to this great day, they now deserve to be treated as a human—one with all their emotions intact. We must extend courtesy for now they are REAL!

Well, if we investigate this topic, we will quickly learn that children do indeed have the same emotional make-up as adult humans.  But, instead of citing all the research today,  I ask that you indulge me as I share a personal story from my childhood.

Stick with me, okay? I promise it is relevant!

One of my first encounters with a whole slew of emotions came in elementary school.  Although I remember feeling emotion prior, this seemingly unremarkable event stands out in my memory as one packed with strong emotion.

The first Halloween I can recall is when I was six.  All holidays were huge in our house.  Mom and Dad would make everything glorious and frequently did so ‘on a dime.’   In addition to all the grand decorations on Halloween, Dad made costumes for all six of us, usually completing them in a flurry of madness the night before the big day.  Dad’s creative juices popped and boiled when under pressure and he became a maniacal genius on the Eve of Halloween.  It was fabulous!

In first grade, my costume of choice was ‘Queen.’  The minute my request rolled off my tongue I knew I could count on my dad’s creativity to begin whirling. The finished costume was not like anything I could have imagined.  He had taken an old sheet, cardboard, and tempera paint to create the illusion of an authentic Queen’s robe, crown and staff.

Oh that robe!  He had folded the edges of both sides of the sheet over and over to form a floor length band.  Then he painted slashes of black about the band to give the illusion of winter ermine. The crown was cut with various symbolic figures and donned with 3-D paintings of gems— rubies, emeralds and diamonds.  All of this was designed to give the animated impression of the real deal.  And it was enthralling.

I was indeed a Queen, but more importantly, I was the daughter of a creative genius!

I was so dang proud.  Proud because I knew that my dad was so smart, that he had a keen eye for detail and a unique knack for creative expression.  I knew that he cared so much to do the very, very best for all of us. I can still summon the feelings of that six year old when I look at the cardboard crown that today rests on a desk in my office.

Halloween came and went that year and all my feelings of admiration for my dad were confirmed when I won first place in the costume contest. I was not prepared for a contest but enjoyed that it meant that others saw what I had seen. I felt validated.

We were always so excited when the cardboard boxes for a particular holiday would ceremonially be brought down from the attic.  And the year after the creation of the Queen, I was especially excited to see her emerge from the Halloween box again.  And my pick for costume was a no-brainer; I would don the Queen apparel once again.  It was beautiful, and I loved it! Nothing else could replace it.

As we marched around the room in our costumes in 2nd grade, I held my head high as any Queen should.  I felt just as beautiful as I did the year before and was completely absorbed in the feel and look of the costume itself. And, like the year before, amazed by the original genius of my dad.   As I corned the desks on the path that had been made for our special parade, I walked proudly right past my teacher.  I knew that she liked my costume as well.

It was then that she said those stinging words that I have never forgotten. Words that changed my view of her from that day on.  As she leaned over to another teacher she spoke with a kind of contempt in her voice and loudly enough so that I could hear, said, “Oh, she thinks she’s going to win first place again this year.”  I was shocked!  What was no doubt a flip comment shared by one teacher with another, landed on me like a ton of bricks. My internal emotional reaction was off the charts.  How could the teacher who I admired so very much and who expressed such great admiration for my dad say something so ugly.

I wanted to crawl in a hole to hide from my embarrassment. 

I wanted to scream, “No! No! You are wrong! I love my costume!” But, that would have been disrespectful. I also knew I didn’t have the words to convince her, so I remained quiet. I felt embarrassment, confusion, hurt, frustration, and even shame!  Although I don’t ever recall caring so much about the contest, in that moment I thought, “What if she was right?” I felt so ashamed! For a moment I also felt indignant.  I remember looking at her expression and thinking, “There’s something wrong with her.”  I would come to learn many years later that indeed, the teacher had some mental health issues.

But, all of these emotions were very much in tact and had all been triggered by her comment. In just seconds, this seven year old went from feelings of joy, wonder, belonging, self-love,  admiration, appreciation, and contentment— to fear, embarrassment, confusion, hurt, shame, and anger. Yes, these ‘adult’ emotions were all present and they were on fire!

Now, I do not want readers to conclude  that I perceive this event to be highly traumatic or even a ‘big deal.’ (I know many children who have undergone trauma and it is devastating.  This is obviously not an example of childhood trauma.)

I was pretty sheltered and wasn’t exposed to a lot of different view points, so this was my sort of introduction to reality. And I share it because it exemplifies maturity of emotional development in a young child. And although I felt these emotions in that moment, I was not able to express how I felt until years later.  I simply buried the feelings. And here-in lies the rub.

Children possess the ability to feel the same emotions as adults.  What they don’t have are the words to express themselves. People often confuse the two. 

Sometimes children tell us they feel icky, or they act out for seemingly no reason at all. They might also suddenly withdraw. These behaviors are often the result of an inability to express emotions. As parents we may react in a way that counters healthy development.

Sometimes we jump to discipline when what our child needs most is connection!

We all crave to have others understand our internal experience.  Children are no exception. Just as we ask children to practice being responsible, polite, independent, and kind in order to prepare for adulthood, we must also allow them to practice expressing themselves so that they can learn what works and what does not. And, we can help them by giving them words to do so.

First, we can provide an environment where feelings can be expressed. Then we can help by respecting and not dismissing what is shared.  I recommend Reflective Listening.  It is a powerful tool!  It relays that we both care, and that we honor another person’s perspective.  We don’t try to correct what is felt by another, rather we provide words that reflect what we hear.

“Oh, it sounds like you were really embarrassed!

“Did you feel like she didn’t understand you at all?”

“It sounds like you feel really disappointed.”

“Do you want to hear what I do when I feel this way?”

For children, these words are golden!  They provide language for expression and even more importantly let the child know that what they are feeling is NORMAL.

Perhaps you can recall a time in your childhood when it would have been comforting to both be allowed to express yourself and to also have the words to do so.

Children who are taught how to express themselves at a young age are less likely to express themselves inappropriately as an adult. It makes good sense, doesn’t it?  It feels good and right, doesn’t it?  And, it is a parenting tool that can be used with ease.  Reflective listening is simple and can be used anywhere at anytime!  I know a lot of you already practice this, so kudos to you.  If not, then today is a perfect day to begin!

For more information, check out Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s best-selling book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk.

All the best to you and yours, The Purposeful Parent

About the author

Kate MartinKate Martin has been a high school teacher for 27 years and retired from the Racine Unified School District in 2015. 

She taught students with special needs as well as those in general education. While working with hundreds of parents over the years, she discovered that there was a significant lack of resources and educational opportunities to help them navigate the many demands of parenting today. 

For this reason, in 2013 she founded The Purposeful Parent, offering workshops and resources for parents, teachers, and caregivers.  

Buy the Book by Kate Martin: The Best Thoughts To Think Five minutes Before Bed 

Visit my website: katemartinbestthoughts.com/purposeful-parent

Other articles by Kate Martin:

Homework vs. Home play

A Family Plan for Digital Devices

Back To School

Now I lay me down to sleep