Empathetic Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Negative Emotions


Guest blogger Donna Jones is a national speaker, author, and pastor’s wife with over three decades of ministry experience. A graduate of UCLA, she’s spoken in twenty-six states and on four continents.

Navigating a child’s negative emotions with both grace and truth is challenging. On one hand, we can’t permit our child’s negative emotions to run rampant, creating conflict and chaos that takes our family’s happiness hostage; on the other hand, we don’t want an environment where our child can’t express feelings. So, what’s a parent to do?

Understanding the Root of Negative Emotions

In my book, Healthy Conflict, Peaceful Life, I tackle the tough topic of dealing with messy emotions and the role listening plays in decreasing drama, conflict, and tension in our homes.

When a child or adult expresses emotion, but doesn’t feel like they’re being understood, (read: listened to) they respond in one of two ways:

  1. They escalate the conversation.
  2. They end the conversation.

It works like this: Your child feels angry, disappointed, or frustrated. These negative feelings manifest themselves in negative behaviors, attitudes, or words. Since negativity is difficult to deal with, most of us try to squelch it, fix it, or dismiss it.

The Escalation Process

Consider this conversation between a mom and child driving home after school:

  • “I’m never going to school again!”
  • “That’s ridiculous. You have to go to school.”
  • “No. I’m not. I hate school.”
  • “You do not hate school. Don’t be so dramatic.”
  • “I hate school and I hate my stupid teacher.”
  • “Don’t say stupid. And don’t say hate. Jesus doesn’t want us to hate.”
  • “Well, I do hate her. And I’m never, ever going back. You can’t make me.”
  • “Oh yes I can! Now stop with the attitude or you’ll be grounded. Do you understand me, mister?”
  • “Forget it. You never understand anyway.”

The child crosses his arms, looks out the window, and stomps up the stairs the minute they get home, slamming his bedroom door for effect. Mom is frazzled, her child is frustrated, and the relationship between mother and son is frayed.

If we try to stop emotions before we discover what’s driving them, the other person escalates the negative behavior. This is our natural inclination, because, really, who wants to deal with a surly child/teenager/spouse/human?

People escalate because they’re screaming to be understood. The more we fail to understand, the more they escalate. Subconsciously they think, If I yell louder, cry harder, look madder, or use the silent treatment longer, surely the other person will see why I’m frustrated, angry, or hurt and will seek to understand me.

If we continue to fail to listen and understand, eventually they’ll say something like, “You just don’t get it!” “You don’t care!” Or, worse, they’ll clam up, which is code for “This conversation is over, and nothing will get me to open up now.”

The Solution: Empathetic Listening

Escalate or end. Doesn’t sound very hopeful, does it? So, what do we do? How do we handle difficult, negative emotions when, honestly, we’d like them to simply disappear?

We handle day-in, day-out drama by first addressing the internal issue—what’s going on in the heart—before we address the external issue—the resulting words or behavior. We do this by listening with empathy.

James 1:19 instructs, “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” We don’t typically consider this verse as it relates to our parenting, but perhaps we should, because the instructions here can help us exchange chaos and conflict with calm and correction.

Empathetic Listening in Action

Let’s go back to our mother/son carpool conversation and add empathic listening to the mix.

  • “I’m never going to school again!”
  • “Wow, honey. What happened today?”
  • “That stupid teacher gave me a D.”
  • “I’m so sorry you got a D. No wonder you’re upset. What grade did you think you would get?”
  • “I don’t know. I studied hard and thought I did good on the test.”
  • “Oh, honey, it’s disappointing to expect one thing and get another, isn’t it? Is there some way I can help you do better next time?”
  • “I don’t know. Probably nothing (short pause). Maybe you could quiz me?”
  • “Great idea! I’d love to help. And sweetheart, let’s not call the teacher stupid, ok?”
  • “Ok, mom.”

Turning Conflict into Connection

When we lead with empathetic listening (What happened? What were your expectations? I’m so sorry. That’s disappointing.) it diminishes drama so our child can process disappointment without defeat. And, listening does something more; it helps us discover the underlying issues behind behavior. When the carpool mom listened, she uncovered her child’s real source of frustration, and she was able to be a real source of help. Additionally—and this is key–she was able to correct her child’s behavior in a way that was received rather than ignored.

Conflict is part of life—especially as we parent. But, when handled wisely, conflict can create an opportunity for children to feel cared for, receive necessary correction, and experience closeness with us and with God.

Donna’s WebsiteInstagram, & Facebook.

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