Are Your Child’s Emotions Dictating Your Parenting?

Side view of mother and childParents in previous generations used to parent with one central theme in mind: obedience. It didn’t matter how you felt, what you thought, or what you wanted. As a child, you simply did what you were told.

As the concepts of emotional development and self-expression in children began to give kids more of a more prominent voice, we should ask, what are we doing with that voice now?

I believe parenting is entering a new generation where emotions are dictating our every move. Some examples you might recognize include:

  • Parents making decisions solely to make their child feel a different way, not necessarily what is in the child’s best interest
  • Trying to dictate the outside world for a child in order to make him or her “happy” versus helping the child learn to be resilient
  • Overreacting to a child’s emotions (as in power struggles)
  • Allowing things such as anger or anxiety to be excuses for poor behavior
  • Not allowing children to make mistakes, controlling their every move in hopes that they don’t have uncomfortable feelings (helicopter parenting)

These are some of the trends that we are seeing now, and they can be detrimental to a child’s growth. Some children are not learning to put their emotions aside. Their moods are driving their behavior, motivations, and how they treat others. If they don’t “feel” like doing something, they won’t do it. If they are angry, they lash out. Children’s emotions are officially taking over, and I don’t necessarily think that was the goal when the exercise of self-expression for children was first encouraged.

The Repercussions of ‘Emotions-First’ Parenting

Too often, the way seems to be to point the finger at something or someone else, then later wonder why so many children grow up and have difficulties with jobs or relationships. As parents, it’s often easier to point the finger at people such as teachers and accuse them of failing to do their jobs instead of helping your children adjust to an imperfect world. Children whose parents put their emotions first are navigating the world through a happiness lens, and if they are not happy, they are likely not engaging. The process of life becomes looking outward versus inward, and children may become experts at finding other people’s flaws but in the process lose the ability to process their own.

Children are learning that their moods dictate what they should do, and not the other way around. As a result, they may stop doing things when they become harder, and they may avoid social circles and relationships that don’t make them happy all the time. This can also manifest as less motivation to take risks or put themselves out there because of discomfort.

The Road Is Often Paved with Good Intentions

Where do we go from here? Most parents mean well and deeply want their children to be happy, but we as parents need to start making some serious changes. Here are 11 ways we can take our children’s emotions into account while also being the best parents we can be:

  1. If you are accepting your child’s emotions, this includes all emotions. It does not mean creating an “always make you happy” situation. You have to allow your children to process their emotions when things aren’t going their way, which will help them build resilience.
  2. Behavior and feelings are different. Your children are allowed to FEEL however they do. This does not give them a pass to BEHAVE however they want. Hold children responsible for their behavior and let them know that they have a choice in how they manage their feelings.
  3. Promote looking inward, self-regulating, and taking responsibility. Today they may have the worst math teacher on the planet, but someday your children may have the worst boss in the world. In either situation, they must learn to cope.
  4. If we cannot accept when our children are anything but happy, we are setting them up for a race they will never win.
  5. Consider using consequences instead of reward systems. Reward systems are unrealistic and confusing to children, and they do not work long-term. Consequences help develop consequential thinking, which is key to self-regulation and thinking beyond the present moment.
  6. If your child screams at you and you give in, you are teaching him or her that emotions rule. Show your child that behavior rules by remaining calm and shifting your stance only when he or she makes better choices.
  7. Allow your child to feel emotions. Sit with him or her. Explore instead of fix. Process instead of numb. Trust in your child and he or she will trust in themselves.
  8. Reframe discomfort as growth. Teach your child essential skills for coping or consider finding a therapist to help him or her learn and utilize coping skills.
  9. Let your child make mistakes, take risks, and mess up. Natural consequences are sometimes the best consequences.
  10. Put boundaries on anxiety and anger. Anxiety is at the root of many behavior issues we see, and we too often allow children to behave disastrously because of it. Anxiety is an intense emotional response and it needs boundaries.
  11. Process your own emotions. If you are unable to feel your own range of emotions, it’s going to be very difficult to be with your child as he or she is feeling his or her own. Practice sitting with your child and remind yourself that it is OK that he or she is feeling.

Parenting is by far the most difficult job, and there is no one way to do it perfectly. You will mess up, you will face all sorts of emotions, and that’s OK. It can become a beautiful model for your children to follow. The best thing we can give ourselves and to our children is the ability to self-reflect, change, and grow. Teach them to look inward instead of outward for happiness, what it means to work hard for something despite discomfort, and how to take risks doing what they love.

It is an incredibly important milestone for civilization as a whole that we are allowing our children to have a say and to express themselves. Now, however, we must do the hard work of teaching them what to do with the emotions they are expressing.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tory L. Eletto, MS, LMFT, therapist in Larchmont, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 29 comments
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  • Emilia

    Emilia

    June 20th, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    Well, I see alot of myself in this article. I am always trying to do whatever I can to make things easier for the kids no matter what the cost is to me personally. I know that there are those who would then say that this is doing the kids a disservice, but look, I had a very unhappy childhood so I think that it is up to me to ensure that my own children do not have to endure the same. I don’t think that this makes them too dependent on me or whatever,, I hope that it lets them see that I am their mom and that I will always be their soft place to fall.

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:21 AM

    What a beautiful way of putting it “a soft place to fall”. I think that sentence alone captures this articles intention, it isn’t about avoiding the fall so much as it is being a soft place to fall. Thanks so much for the comment.

  • Camille

    Camille

    June 20th, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    tHat list of 11 things to do as parents right now is one of the best comprehensive lists for things to do to be a good parent that I have read in a very long time… great job!!

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    Thanks so much for the comment, it’s greatly appreciated!

  • Bret

    Bret

    June 21st, 2015 at 5:04 AM

    I definitely did not grow up in a household where what I needed or wanted came first, although I see that my wife and I do more of this than what we probably should. There are times when I will admit that it feels like my whole life is dictated more by what my kids want to do than what we want to do, but I also feel that it gives them more of a say so in the running of the household and to some extent I don’t mind that. I think that they are well aware that the final say so comes from us but that we will always look for their input on things.

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:18 AM

    Sounds like an excellent way to balance it all. And again, parenting like most things are a constant work in progress. Appreciate the comment!

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 21st, 2015 at 9:23 AM

    Camille- Thank you so much for your positive feedback and comment! Much appreciated.

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 21st, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    Emilia- Thanks so much for the comment. I think it’s a beautiful goal for your children to always have you as as a soft place to fall. That is actually the goal of this article I believe, is that we are with our children when they fall versus always trying to keep them from falling. Your input is very appreciated. Thanks!

  • drew

    drew

    June 22nd, 2015 at 9:01 AM

    I do not mean that children have to be punished for feeling what they feel but they have to learn to behave too

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    I absolutely agree. It’s having boundaries on behavior and allowing them to explore emotions, knowing they can be separate. Thanks for the comment.

  • Kristen

    Kristen

    June 22nd, 2015 at 3:29 PM

    Excellent article!! I don’t have children, but I find myself doing this a lot with my students and my husband :/ I need to keep learning how to relax and roll with others’ distress and their reactions, not absorb it and not take it personally. You’re right – kids (and some adults!) will never learn about emotional regulation and self soothing if we protect them from everything and/or rush to fix it. Must keep working on my codependent ways! #workinprogress

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:17 AM

    Thanks so much for that comment. Self awareness is always the first step- but I believe that with anything, it’s ALWAYS a work in progress. We have the choices every day, and we are all going to stumble and fall at times. It’s simply the desire to try again! Thanks again for your feedback.

  • Amy J.

    Amy J.

    June 23rd, 2015 at 6:56 AM

    Great article, modern parents need to read this article. I see so many of these kids that can’t handle disappointment or unacceptance. There is a whole society that’s growing out there because of these parenting issues. I know sometimes I want to give in to my daughter because it’s easier, but long term I know it’s only going to make things worse.

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:15 AM

    It’s absolutely the hardest thing to balance being assertive and holding your children accountable, while feeling soft and connected to them. I think it’s always a work in progress. Bravo for doing the work and thanks for the comment.

  • Sandree

    Sandree

    June 23rd, 2015 at 7:57 AM

    Is it the emotions of the children that dictates the parenting style…

    or are your own emotions getting the best of you?

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    That’s a great question. My opinion is both! If a parent struggles with their range of emotion, self soothing, etc most likely they are going to have a hard time when their child is going through their own emotions. Why? Because sitting with someone’s vulnerabilities naturally bring up your own. Therefore, I would say that in order to work on this both must be worked on. Thanks for the great question!

  • Tracee

    Tracee

    June 23rd, 2015 at 10:00 PM

    I grew up in an obedience and respect oriented home and am so thankful for the way I was raised. I have tried to do the same with my children. My youngest child is a teen girl who is struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, which in turn have caused lots of heartache on my part as a Mom because I don’t know what to do. She is in therapy, but it still affects our entire family when she has episodes of this anxiety and I just don’t know what to do to help her. She wants to be with me when she has a panic attack, but it honestly seems like nothing I say or do helps, and I’m just at the end of my rope. We have always had a loving, peaceful family and home life, so this is beyond anything I could ever imagine happening in our family. I don’t want to fix it so we don’t have to deal with it anymore or bypass her learning from it how to deal with life, I want to fix it so she can have her life back. What is a Mom to do in this situation?

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:12 AM

    Thanks for the comment, and I totally understand your frustration. Growing up in a loving home doesn’t necessarily mean our children won’t struggle, so be kind to yourself. Awesome that she is getting therapy on her own. Sometimes family therapy or therapy for the parents on how to manage a child’s anxiety can be super helpful. Whenever I work with a child or teen, I always include this in the work as you are right- it has an effect on the whole family. I don’t quite know your daughters situation so I don’t want to impose ideas that may not be best for your family, but I would suggest doing some work surrounding how to manage it. A great book I would recommend to parents is “parenting with presence”. Remember you are always growing along side your child. Best of luck to you!

  • Jennifer O'Neill

    Jennifer O'Neill

    June 24th, 2015 at 6:36 AM

    This is fantastic! Spot on. Sharing it!

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 24th, 2015 at 9:06 AM

    Thanks so much! Appreciate the comment.

  • luca

    luca

    June 24th, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    hTe days of the parents being in control are definitely over.

    I see my little nephews and they totally rule the roost. I know my sister is probably going insane, but I have to say that she created the madness by leaving them to do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to.

  • Michele

    Michele

    June 25th, 2015 at 2:56 AM

    What a great article! Being a parent is the most difficult and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. My 9 year old daughter will cry often when I reprimand her about something and say there is really something else bothering her. This is very frustrating because I know that she is trying to redirect me but I still have to comfort her until she gets through it. Once she is calm, I tell her I know what she did as I was a kid once too. We go over what she was initially reprimanded for and explain why it was inappropriate behavior and unacceptable. She completely understands and apologizes for both. I wish there was a way to keep her on track with the issue at hand. I stay calm even though I want to yell at her. Any suggestions?

  • Michele

    Michele

    June 25th, 2015 at 2:57 AM

    Will I receive feedback via my email as well?

  • Tory

    Tory

    June 25th, 2015 at 8:33 AM

    Thanks for the comment. You are mentioning a great point- here is a suggestion. Set up a behavior contract one where behaviors and consequences are specific and directly connected. Have each of you sign it and stick to it. I think what you are doing makes sense but you want to reverse the order a bit. When the negative behavior happens, immediately follow through with the consequence. If she tries to talk about other things or starts crying tell her you are sticking to the contract and give her “reflection time” and disengage. After whatever you set up is followed through, it’s a good time to discuss her emotions or whatever is on her mind. But by doing it in this order you are separating them which is key. The goal is for her to connect that behavior to the consequence so that she is motivated to self regulate. I am sure it pulls on your heart strings but it’s a huge teaching moment and remind yourself that you aren’t ignoring whatever is upsetting her, you are teaching her how she is responsible for her behavior. You are also showing her after how to appropriately connect to you after to manage her feelings. Hope this helps! Best of luck.

  • Kelly

    Kelly

    June 25th, 2015 at 11:41 AM

    I want my kids to have a chance to have it all but not at the expense of my marriage and my life you know? I see too many couples who let kids rule exactly what they do every moment and now they are divorced.

  • Otis

    Otis

    June 26th, 2015 at 7:21 AM

    Your children need to see that you have some balance, that you can rule with both your head and your heart. That can be a good lesson for them to take with them throughout life.You just have to show them that there can be a time for both and that there can be a way to balance both as long as you don’t let one rule over the other.

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    July 1st, 2015 at 9:30 AM

    This is good post to read good guidelines for parents.

  • Anonymous please

    Anonymous please

    September 5th, 2017 at 3:33 AM

    My grandchildren 13 and 10 are being brought up this way. It is very upsetting to see. The 10 year old gets anxious going to school so his mum keeps him home, hes been home for nearly 2 months as he refuses to go to school. The 13 year old who has aspergers gets her way all the time. She stays on her bed 24/7 when shes not at school with 0 exercise, and has no life skills whatsoever.

  • Marge F. (paternal grandmother of 2)

    Marge F. (paternal grandmother of 2)

    November 6th, 2017 at 5:20 PM

    This article gives very good pointers for young parents today, as they appear to frequently try to be a best friend instead of a parent. We would hope the permissive approach that began in the 60’s and 70’s would have been dropped by now but it still seems prevalent for many families. When attending larger group activities it is also obvious that many children feel a need to be very dramatic as if they are all trying for attention of peers and adults that demonstrate the more present anxiety you describe.
    Hopefully you will continue to see feedback and opportunities to advise. Parenting seems more difficult today to me, with so many social and work stressors. Many families find it difficult to set reasonable limits for not only their child but also themselves. Supporting childrn’s Education takes just as much parental interaction as teacher interaction to give children a deep awareness that their education is actually their job, even when it can be fun.

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