Parenting

The one word you should never say when your kid is melting down

Validating your kid's feelings can stop a meltdown—but it's easier said than done. Here's how to help them recognize what they're feeling so they can move on.

Bless my book-loving kindergartener for asking me to read her favourite stories every single night before bed, but when she brings me her early readers so she can practise sounding out infantile six-word sentences? FML.

Sometimes, these reading sessions go really swell. But when she gets stumped sounding out a new word or I gently correct her after a failed attempt, the tears start to fall. She throws herself on the bed, kicking and screaming about not being able to do it right. As she starts to spiral, I try to jump in and encourage her. “It’s OK sweetie, I know reading is really, really hard, and you’re frustrated,” I say. “But once you know how to read, you can do anything you want in life. Isn’t that cool? Let’s try it again.”

I’ve read all the parenting books that say you should validate your child by mirroring their emotions, which is supposed to make them feel better, and I thought that’s what I’d been doing. But she seemed to only getting more upset. Then she’d get to full-on meltdown mode and be forced to go to bed without bedtime stories being read to her. And we both felt like miserable failures.

So what gives? Well, it turns out that validation for teaching feelings is a little trickier than I thought. And the problem lies with one particular word I was using.

“Unfortunately, it can be so easy to invalidate our kids by following it with a ‘but,’” says Tamara Aleong, a Toronto registered social worker who uses “emotion coaching” in her practice at The Healing Collective in Toronto. “It can be really difficult for us as parents to sit in the messy feelings rather than trying to make it all better.”

Take my earlier response: “I know you’re really frustrated trying to read, but we can do this.” I was trying to be encouraging, but I was really doing a lot of rationalizing and invalidating at the same time.

“Unfortunately, in our culture, we often really try to rationalize away our feelings. Our generation of parents was taught that and so that’s how we were raised. But feelings have a place along with reason,” says Aleong. “It’s like someone telling us to relax when we’re really stressed. It just has the opposite effect.”

So, what are parents supposed to do to help their kids wrangle their emotions before they’re in free-fall, or even just let them know that what they’re feeling makes sense?

Be present: “I think a lot of times we’re running around doing 20 things and we’re half validating, half paying attention to it, and it doesn’t go as far,” says Aleong. Get down on your kid’s level, (put down your phone, if necessary), look them in the eyes, and be with them in that moment.

Summarize: Try to put into words what they might be feeling by summarizing the situation. “For example, you can say, ‘You’re trying to tell me that you’re angry about X,’ or, ‘I see that you’re really upset.’”

Say this instead of “but”: One super helpful phrase you can use while validating is “And the problem is”, a tip from the book How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. For example, while waiting in a long lineup you could say, “I hear you’re really frustrated. And the problem is we need to pay for our things, so we have to stand in line,” says Aleong.

Another word you can use is “because.” For example, “You’re really frustrated because we have to wait in line.”

Get to the bottom of it: That first emotion you validate is often not the one they are really feeling. For example, an outburst about wanting a cookie before dinner may actually be some lingering stress from something that happened earlier that day.  So instead of saying “I know you want that cookie, but we’re about to eat dinner,” try “You really want that cookie, don’t you? Cookies are delicious and you’re probably starving.”

Little girl washing dishes The one parenting trick everybody needs to know“It could mean working with them to figure out what emotion or situation came first. So sort of like working backward, or peeling back the layers of an onion,” says Aleong. Once they’ve calmed down about the cookie, you may find they bring up a situation at dinner that bothered them earlier that day.

Prove that you’re really listening: Kids really just want to be taken seriously. “Write down what they’re telling you. For example, say, ‘OK, you want ice cream and we don’t have any. Let’s make a note that tomorrow we’re getting ice cream.’” suggests Aleong.

Normalize the emotions: When your kid is melting down about something, whether they’ve just dropped all their Goldfish crackers on the floor or are having trouble working on an exercise like reading, you can say, “‘Oh, when something like that happens to me, I often feel really angry,” says Aleong. Phrases like “No wonder” or “of course” are also helpful validation statements. For example, “No wonder you’re angry. You haven’t eaten since lunch and you’re hungry.”

Be genuine about your own feelings: “If my daughter doesn’t want to get out of bed, I say ‘I didn’t want to get out of bed either. This really sucks,'” says Aleong. “We don’t have to be these neutral, peaceful people. We have feelings, too, and we can demonstrate them.”

Now, when my daughter gets frustrated with a challenge, I just focus on validating and not trying to fix the situation. I might say, “I know it’s really tough when we do reading time. It’s been really hard for us the past few weeks. We’ve been really working on this and it’s still feeling pretty hard.” This way, I can tie her feelings back to what’s been going on without actually trying to solve the problem in that moment. I’ve shifted the language and it’s making a difference. She’s calmer and she looks at me with relief like I actually get it.

Read more:
After-school restraint collapse is a real thing—here’s how to deal with it
The therapy that can help with your kid’s big emotions