Every parent, caregiver and teacher has heard (and probably used) the adage: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” The idea is to express to the child that they must learn how to handle disappointment and not getting their way, which we can all agree is a critical lesson for their healthy development. As therapists, we disagree, however, with the message that the child can’t get upset. The child might get upset. They might feel disappointed, angry, sad and hurt. And that is ok. In fact, it makes sense and is normal. As adults, we also get upset when we cannot have things are way. We have just learned how to manage our disappointment, which is our job as adults to teach children to do.
The first step to helping children manage their feelings is to accept and validate them. Feelings are not right or wrong, they just are. Telling a child they don’t or shouldn’t feel a certain way leads to confusion, sadness, anger and typically an increase in unwanted behaviors. Think about how you feel when someone tells you not to be mad or it isn’t a big deal. You likely feel even more furious and want to convince the person you have a right to be upset.
When you validate the child’s feelings, it is important to label them so they can develop a language to describe and understand their experience. “Oh, you are feeling disappointed. You couldn’t have that train and you really wanted it. Bobby is playing with it right now. You can play with this truck while you are waiting for the train or come to do a puzzle with me.” Naming the feeling and giving them choices of how they can manage it will help them develop their own ability to manage feelings over time.
Knowing that your child’s emotions are normal and valid can also help diffuse parents’ worry and reactivity to their children. Parents do not need to convince children that they “don’t get upset,” a futile, frustrating job. Instead, parents can acknowledge that sometimes you do get upset, and you will be there to support them through it.