“Feeling with” vs “dealing with” your child

BEING a parent of three children and working with different parents from all walks of life, parents who feel stuck with their children and unsure of what to do with them, I can confidently say that, parenting can be a daunting process, even more so when parenting children whose emotions run high. 

Most parents have the intellect to “deal” with their children, but find it hard to emotionally connect with them. Parents deeply love their children and want them to feel seen, heard and valued. But many times, some parents lack the skills to do so. Part of the reason parents struggle is essentially tied to their childhood experiences. 

Research has shown that childhood experiences affect adults in later life. For instance, if one’s childhood was mainly characterised by traumatic experiences such as, emotional neglect and abandonment, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, bullying and rejection, there is a likelihood that these traumas will manifest during adulthood in different ways. 

That being said, it is important to know that, there is hope and that parents can heal from these traumas, by stepping out of their comfort zone, create awareness of their own personal triggers while choosing to courageously show up for themselves and the next generation. 

Renowned researcher and psychologist Dr John Gottman breaks down the five key steps to being able to “feel with” your child:

1. Be aware of your child’s emotions. 
2. Recognise the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching.
3. Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings.
4. Help a child verbally label their emotions.
5. Set limits while helping the child to solve problems.

My husband and I made a commitment to go on a date night once a month. Even though our kids are aware of this, our youngest struggles to separate from us every time we step out for this date night. She cries and will say, “Mom and dad, I don’t want you to go, I want you to stay home with me”.

In the past, we would quickly try to fix her emotions and question why she had to cry each time we were stepping out. This strategy terribly failed for these reasons:

* We never took time to understand why our daughter was crying.
* We didn’t help her identify her emotions and explore why she felt the way she did. Instead, we were quick to dismiss what she was feeling.

Over the years, experience and research have taught us to “feel with” instead of “dealing with” our daughter.

Below is an illustration of a typical “feel with” conversation.

Mom: Tonight we are going out on a date.
Daughter: I don’t want you to go.
Mom: Oh you don’t want me to go? Why?
Daughter: I want to hang out and play with you mom and dad (while crying)
Mom: I see where you are coming from, Dad and I enjoy playing with you and would want to do that, unfortunately, we made a promise to each other and you don’t want to break that promise. 
Daughter: *Continues to cry* 
Mom: *Takes daughter’s hand and has her sit in her lap and soothes her*. I can see you are devastated, what are you feeling?
Daughter: Sad.
Mom: Oh I am so sorry to hear that, I can see how this can make you feel sad. Is there anything that I can do to make you feel better?
Daughter: Yes, go on a date with me tomorrow.
Mom: Hmm, that is such a brilliant idea. I would love to go on date with you, can we do this next weekend though as I have to go to work tomorrow.
Daughter: Okay mom
Mom: What would you want us to do on our date night?
Daughter: Let’s do some painting, I love painting mom. 
Mom: Sounds like a plan...

From the conversation above, you can see how this mom was able to feel with her daughter by first of all acknowledging and validating that she was devastated. Secondly, this mom was able to further explore why her daughter was crying, how she felt and why she felt the way she did. Most importantly, this mom was able to help her daughter to cross over to problem-solving which is equally important. “Feeling with” our children requires parents to be mindful of their children’s emotions while supporting them into problem-solving.

The author is a mental health and family therapist and founder and CEO of Family Life and Beyond, a non-profit organisation that helps families and individuals build strong and healthy families.


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