“When you were growing up, were there any feelings that you just knew weren’t okay or accepted in your home?”
When I ask this question to a group of parents, almost every hand goes up. And when I ask them to name the shunned emotions, the list looks something like this: anger, frustration, sadness.
One of the most fundamental emotional literacy lessons we try to teach kids is that their feelings are okay — all of them. Even those uncomfortable emotions. Emotions are a normal, natural part of being human. And learning how to notice and name our emotions can help us navigate them in healthier ways. As psychologist Susan David reminds us, “Emotions are data, not directions.”
But that’s not a message many of us grew up with.
So is it any wonder that we are triggered by our kids’ big, uncomfortable feelings? In the face of children’s anger or frustration or sadness or worry, we often revert to old patterns: threatening them (“If you don’t stop right now, then…“), sending them away from us (“Go to your room until you’ve pulled it together”), or dismissing their feelings (“Why are you crying? It’s silly to get upset about xyz”).
Parenting is beautiful, messy, vulnerable work. Parenting also offers us the chance to reflect on our own emotional scripts as we try to support our children. And maybe offer them just a little more than we got as children.
I’ve spent the last 24 years as a teacher, school administrator, parent educator, education journalist, and parenting columnist for PBS KIDS. In other words, I’m steeped in all the child development research. But that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with this stuff, too.
So when I set out to finally write a parenting book, I wrote four of them. And they are all picture books. Picture books aimed at preschoolers.
Let me explain.
You know how Daniel Tiger is a great kids show, but sometimes it seems like a parenting show in disguise? I mean, if you have children of a certain age, chances are you can finish this jingle “If you need to go potty . . . “
Some of my most profound parenting moments have come while snuggling with my kids before bed, reading them stories and talking about them together. My most successful, helpful articles seem to be those that give parents practical language to use with kids when emotions run high.
So that’s what these books do. For example, “I Love You All The Time” begins with a refrain that I’ve used with my kids since they were toddlers:
I love you when you’re happy.
I love you when you’re sad.
I love you when you’re feeling scared.
I love you when you’re mad.
I love you all the time.
Because that’s a question kids sometimes have when they lose control or see us lose control: Does my grown-up still love me?
The second book, “You Have Feelings All the Time,” helps kids build their emotional vocabulary. Big feelings, small feelings, warm feelings, uncomfortable feelings, mixed feelings — these are all part of growing up. You have feelings all the time, and that’s okay.
As I write in my Letter to Caregivers at the end of the book:
Toddlers and preschoolers have limited (but growing!) expressive language skills. Caregivers can “listen” to children’s behavior — be it yelling, pushing, crying, or withdrawing — and help them put a name to what they are feeling. Sometimes we want to jump to a solution, but it’s important to first acknowledge the emotion. This might sound like:
“You look mad. Your friend scribbled on your picture, and that doesn’t feel good.”
“You look sad. You forgot to bring your stuffy for naptime, and I know how much you love that stuffy. It’s okay to feel sad.”
As children mature, you can use this strategy to introduce more nuanced feelings to build their emotional vocabulary: “You sound frustrated. Your tower fell down and you worked hard to make it tall! That’s disappointing.” Or, “You look startled. That thunder was really loud, and it surprised you.”
Sometimes you will get it wrong! And as children get better at understanding and expressing emotions, that can be a great conversation starter. As my eight-year-old daughter told me the other day, “I’m not mad, Mom, I’m nervous. Sometimes when I’m nervous, I act mad.” Me too!
(Later this year, “You Wonder All the Time” and “You Are Growing All The Time” will also be available.)
You are loved, your emotions are valid, your questions are beautiful, and adults are here to support you as you grow: these are words kids need to hear over and over again. I’m sending these books into the world in hopes that they offer parents one more small way to share these messages: to remind kids that they are seen, they are known, and they are loved. All the time.