A soft heart

So the last condition needed for attachments to develop naturally and spontaneously is what Gordon Neufeld calls a soft heart.  What he means is that we must allow our children to feel all of their emotions in order to keep their heart soft. Emotion is the driver of development yet somewhere along the way, for many of us, emotions have been side-lined in favour of logic and reason. (You can read about the other 2 conditions needed for the development of healthy attachments here: http://talknua.com/sowing-the-seeds-of-love-or-three-ways-to-grow-your-plant/


As parents, we need to help our children learn to deal with their feelings. Not always easy! In general we can find it hard to allow feelings in our children that were not allowed in us as children. So for example, in my house, it was my mother who did anger. Sadness was allowed but not too much of it! And subsequently, I find it easy to accept sadness in my daughter but I struggle to allow anger or dissatisfaction. And as for lack of gratitude or appreciation- don’t get me started!


To get a bit of perspective on this here are some very useful questions that I came across recently when listening to a thought provoking interview with Tony Robbins. (You can watch the whole interview here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuFysBXxMUw )

These were the questions he asked:

  1. Whose love did you crave most as a child?
  2. What did you have to be for that person?
  3. What could you never be?

The answers are SO revealing and so useful in getting to know yourself as a person, what emotions were allowed in you and which ones weren’t allowed. They are also great questions to think about as a parent because the answers help you understand what you feel comfortable allowing in your child and maybe more importantly, what you struggle to allow.

Back to helping our children deal with their feelings. It’s easy enough to do when your own stuff isn’t being triggered so it’s probably easiest to start there! And it’s also helpful to know that there is a direct connection between how children are feeling and how they are behaving. (When you think about it we’re all pretty much like that only as adults of course, we have more control over how we behave- thankfully!!) The best thing we can do for them is acknowledge their feelings. The first chapter in my favourite parenting book is all about helping children with their feelings and I’m summarising that chapter here for you with my own twists on it. (The book is How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and I love it- so practical and easy to read.)

First off, here’s what to avoid saying. Things like:  

You’re just saying that because you’re tired.

There’s no reason to be so upset.

Stop crying. 

Just cut it out…

When we repeatedly fail to acknowledge the emotion or allow our children to feel their emotions, it can escalate the intensity of the situation. But worse than that, it can teach them not to trust their feelings. And it can stop them from knowing what their feelings are. It can also teach them that as their parents , we know best about them and that they should rely on our perceptions as more accurate. Ultimately we are all emotional creatures 1st; not rational or logical. The parts of our brain that manage emotions are the oldest parts of the brain, logic and reason came later. Think of something you bought recently. Dresses by Carousel are my own personal weakness! So did reason enter into the picture before or after the purchase?! Usually what happens is we see the thing, we feel something like excitement or delight or anticipation. We buy it because of the feelings we believe it will give us and then after the fact we justify or rationalise it- I haven’t bought anything in ages, I deserve a treat, I gave away 2 bags of clothes last week etc.!


Another thing to try is to put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to imagine what it feels like from their perspective. This might lead you to say things like:  I feel cold but for you it’s hot; or You feel tired even though you just woke up. (Watch your tone of voice here though!! You want to keep it neutral!) We are separate people having 2 sets of feelings; neither is right or wrong; we just feel what we feel. Mother does not always know best!

Here are 7 unhelpful responses. When you read through them, see if you can identify which ones you recognise!

#1 Denial of feelings

There’s no reason to be so upset. It’s foolish to feel that way. You’re probably just tired & blowing the whole thing out of proportion. It can’t be as bad as all that. Come on, give me a smile.

 # 2 The philosophical response

You can’t always get what you want. That’s life. Life’s not like that.

 #3 Unsolicited Advice (I particularly hate this one myself- It makes me feel like the person believes I’m not competent to work out a solution myself! )

You know what I think you should do……….

 #4 Questions

What did you do? How did that happen? Has this ever happened before? Why didn’t you……?

 # 5 Defence of the other person (Oh I do this one and have to really work hard not to do it!)

I can understand her reaction. Maybe she…….

 #6 Pity ( I hate being at the receiving end of this one too!)

Oh you poor thing! That’s terrible. I feel so sorry for you.

 #7 Amateur Psychoanalysis

Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you’re feeling like this is because of how you were parented yourself?

 The most helpful response is an empathic response that tries to genuinely tune into the feelings of the other person. So what would that look like? Something along these lines:

That sounds rough. To be subjected to an attack like that in front of other people, especially after being under so much pressure, must have been pretty hard to take.

 How does that feel? Calming, supportive?

To help with feelings, here’s what Faber and Mazlish recommend:

  1. Listen with full attention
  2. Acknowledge the child’s feelings with a word: Mhmm, Oh, I see. (Doesn’t have to be anything complicated or philosophical!)
  3. Give their feelings a name: that sounds frustrating!
  4. Give them their wishes in fantasy: I wish I could make that banana ripe for you right now. (This fantasy one really works! You might think ‘Oh no, let’s just move on from it’ but it works a treat and you can turn a stressful situation into a fun conversation with surprising ease.)

Giving your child’s feelings a name might be the hardest thing to do because it takes concentration and practice to go beyond what they’re saying so that you can identify what they might be feeling. But it is important to give them the vocabulary for their inner reality so that once they have the words for what they’re experiencing they can begin to help themselves. I remember feeling so delighted the day I overheard my little girl saying to her father in furious tones: I’m SO annoyed with you! She had learned to verbalise the feelings rather than lash out by kicking or hitting like she had in the past. Here are some other examples of what to say when you want to give your child a name for their feelings. Again it’s important that you say these kinds of things with genuine interest and sincerity- if they feel it, it’s real to them, just like it is to us!

That must have been embarrassing

Sounds as if that was embarrassing

Sounds as if it really hurts

That must be a big disappointment for you. You were really looking forward to it.

That bad huh?

Sounds like the kind of pain you’d like to wish on your worst enemy

It’s not easy to get these shots week after week. I bet you’ll be glad when they’re over.

Sounds as if you really resent all that homework!

Oh that must have been so frustrating!

As for the fantasy conversation, one day when my little girl was nearly 3 she was determined to fit into this pink fluffy jumper that was way too small. She started to get annoyed and then of her own accord said something like ‘I wish we had a big pink fluffy jumper the size of the room’! And then we had great fun thinking of the biggest jumper we could imagine. This works a treat too when you hear ‘I don’t want to go to school’. You can respond with a ‘Hmm’, wait a little and then say ‘What would you do if you didn’t go to school?’ and let your imagination take flight. You have nothing to lose because logic won’t make it better!

 And of course it’s the challenging feelings where they need our support most and the times when we have to work hard to overcome our tendency to use logic and reason to talk them out of how they are feeling. By acknowledging their feelings, you’re not saying you agree with them but by accepting the feelings, it allows the child to think constructively about the situation in question. And it’s never too early to start giving names for children’s feelings.

So the bottom line is all feelings are acceptable but not all behaviours. So you can say things like: I can see how angry you are with your brother. Tell him what you want with words not fists.

Okay, so what about when it’s you who’s feeling the challenging emotions? Frustrated over the mess left all over the sofa again so there’s nowhere for you to sit? (That’s me by the way!) Dirty fingerprints on your freshly painted wall? Hearing your name being called what feels like every 30 seconds when you have just sat down with a cup of tea? (Me again!) It’s no joke being a parent! In my next post I’m going to cover what you can do and say in these situations that honour your feelings in a diplomatic way!

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