Annie Keeling: Parents, use your kind words |

Annie Keeling: Parents, use your kind words

Annie Keeling

Parents are often heard asking children to use their kind words. What about parents?

Think of a time when you were surprised by your child’s intense emotions or disruptive behavior. When our kids are upset, we might be triggered into our own upset. The less resourced we are – tired, sad, emotional, stressed – the easier it is to get upset ourselves.

One defensive response might be to dismiss our child’s emotions with such statements as, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” “Buck up,” “Calm down,” or “You’re okay.” Other responses might be to react with an anger snap, resort to threats, or enact a harmful punishment.

Parents tell me that it’s in these triggered moments – and when our kids need us most – that respectful words fail.

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Stay the Course

One suggestion is to de-personalize the behavior. Don’t take your child’s words, emotions or actions personally. Easier said than done! Yet, that’s our job — to be accepting of the emotions while at the same time teaching our child how to handle those emotions.

My father, Gailen Keeling, wrote in his parenting manual, “The 3Rs of Behavior Education,” “Do not let your child’s storm blow you off course.”

One way to stay the course is to commit to using positive parenting phrases and actions that build up the child rather than tear them down. This encourages self-regulation and emotional intelligence. These phrases take practice to use so that they come out more easily when we are upset, triggered, or in our survival brain.

Here are eight phrases to help build emotional intelligence and regulation in your child.

1. Validation

Emotions need to be felt and experienced. Teach your child that all emotions are okay. Acknowledge how your child feels and validate the feelings.

“I understand that’s really upsetting. It’s good to let that anger come out.” “It’s okay to be upset. It’s healthy to express it.”

2. Support

The best gift you can give your child is to be there for them in their emotional upset. As part of the detachment practice, stay with them and create a safe space. Simply be there for them.

“I am here for you. I’ll stay. I’ll listen.” “You are upset. Let’s sit here for a minute. It’s okay to feel _____. I won’t leave you.”

3. A Breath Break

We can let our kids know that it’s a hard thing to sit with the discomfort of an intense emotion. If we do allow ourselves to be in the moment with our emotions, then we can let them go more easily. The other option of stuffing them down into denial will likely culminate in an explosive reaction at some later time.

“Let’s take a breath (take a break, sit down, pause for a minute…).”

4. How it Feels

Describe how feelings feel to you. This increases your child’s emotional understanding and allows him to realize it is normal to feel such big feelings.

“When I’m mad, it feels like I can’t catch my breath.” “This sadness feels like a knot in my stomach.”

5. Learning Limits

When behaviors go against rules or are not appropriate, use a statement that sets clear limits. This lets children know that it isn’t the emotion itself that needs to change, but they need to find another way to express it. In addition, walking away for a moment is actually a good way of regulating anger.

“It’s okay to be angry. It is not okay to hit. Let’s go over here together and you can be angry.”

6. This Will Pass

Your upset child may feel or act as if the entire world is ending. Children’s emotions are big and overpowering and it can seem as if they will never feel better again — which only compounds how they feel. It will help them to remember that their emotions will pass.

“How you feel right now won’t last forever. It’s okay to feel how you are feeling. It will pass and you will feel better again soon.”

7. Good and Kind

Children can become easily dysregulated. They often have little control over their emotions. It is important to help them see that they are not “bad” because of this. Even as adults, when we are emotional, we don’t always make the best choices. While that is how we act, it is not who we are. Research shows that telling children they are kind leads to more generosity. We want our kids to know that no matter how they are feeling, they are good and kind.

“You are good and kind.”

“You were angry. You didn’t mean those unkind words about your brother. Sometimes we say things we don’t mean when we are mad. You are a kind boy. What do you think would make your brother feel better?”

8. Play the Violin

It’s important to validate and acknowledge children’s emotions, but sometimes kids escalate their emotions for attention. You know when it’s an escalation if the child refuses a hug of comfort or cries harder. Giving unending validation and acknowledgment at times like this can backfire, potentially even enable the tantrum or escalation of emotion.

The key is to acknowledge your child’s emotion and still give them a chance to regulate themselves. The parent can hang out nearby – doing dishes, reading, playing the violin, etc. While this might feel like abandoning your child, you are trusting them to use previously learned strategies. Your job is then to give the child that needed attention by connecting later in the day with some special time.

“I can see you’re really upset. It doesn’t seem like what I’m saying is helping. You remember what do when you’re upset, and you remember how to calm down. I’ll be over here when you need me.”

Using these suggestions, you are teaching your child to give themselves some space to breathe and time to gain perspective, all with the support of a loving adult.

Annie Keeling, MFA, is the Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. She teaches parenting classes throughout the year. Contact Annie to find the next class near you: or 530-268-5086.

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