Demonstrating Understanding: Naming Your Child’s Feelings

daughter-talks-to-dadWhen someone understands us, we really appreciate it. It makes us feel positively toward our listener, even close. It gives us a chance to clarify our own thoughts and feelings as the other person reflects them back to us––we feel better. When parents understand their kids, these same benefits occur: the child feels closer to the parent and more emotionally settled from being heard. Listening is a gift we can give our kids-–-when we know how.

When We’re Misunderstood

Being misunderstood, on the other hand, feels awful; we experience a “disconnect”—our listener “doesn’t get us.” We don’t want to open up again to whoever misunderstands us because it is so unpleasant. When parents misunderstand their kids, it’s the same thing: it feels awful for the child and the youngster often withdraws, preferring to keep future thoughts and feelings to him or herself. By the time a youngster reaches the teen years he or she may have concluded that being understood by parents is out of reach, leaving no point in trying to communicate.

However, parents don’t intentionally misunderstand their kids. They love their kids and try to help them. In fact, the “misunderstanding” often comes about precisely because of this love. All too often, parents want to skip the understanding step and go right to the advice step: “Do your homework if you want to get good grades-–-you shouldn’t be on the phone so much.” “You need to pick better friends.” “You should make more of an effort to make plans for the weekend.” And so on and so forth. While parental advice is often valid and important to offer our kids, timing is everything. Advice comes after understanding in any conversation.

Recognize Feelings

Understanding involves naming a child’s feelings. Suppose a child has accidentally dropped a plate on the floor, smashing it to tiny bits. A good first understanding response could be something like “Oh my! What a loud crash! That’s scary.” If a child gets a poor mark on a test that he or she studied hard for, an understanding response might be, “Oh, that’s frustrating, isn’t it?” If a child expresses upset to a parent by saying, “You’re so mean!” the parent can reflect back, “I know you’re very mad at me. I know you don’t think I’m being fair.” After naming such feelings, the parent can teach the child a better, more respectful way to express emotions. The naming of feelings forges a close bond between parent and child and helps the child accept guidance more easily.

When naming feelings, refrain from using the word “but” in the same sentence. Just name the feeling and then put a period at the end. Start a new sentence when you want to give information. For instance, “I know you don’t want to go to swimming lessons today. The lesson starts in half an hour, so we have to leave quickly,” or “I know it’s frustrating to have to wait your turn. He’ll be off the computer in a few minutes and then you can go on.” In other words, it’s fine to acknowledge a child’s feelings without changing what you plan to do. It is still valuable for the child to feel understood even when she doesn’t get her way.

Consistently naming a child’s feelings before doing or saying anything else is a powerful way to help build a child’s emotional intelligence. It helps reduce conflict and forge a strong parent-child bond. Showing understanding is an act of love that parents can generously offer their kids. Both child and parent will benefit.

© Copyright 2009 by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, MEd, CPsych. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Will Meek PhD

    December 28th, 2009 at 9:43 PM

    It’s mindblowing sometimes how much we can learn just by listening. In doing couples therapy the number 1 thing I try to help people do is listen, and when they do, it’s amazing what can happen.

  • gilbert

    December 29th, 2009 at 2:05 AM

    This is exactly how I feel about my parents…when they think something I did or said is wrong, they proceed to the advice part, skipping the understanding part altogether. This has definitely distanced me from them. I wish they could read this…I don’t even feel like telling them about this article, they just don’t listen. If I tell them about this article, they will say-So now you want to tell us how to behave with our children?! :(

  • Ellie

    December 29th, 2009 at 7:19 AM

    I don’t even want to get to this point with my daughter! I know that when she gets to be a teenager things are going to get tough but I have always tried to listen to herb thoughts and feelings without shutting her out because I know that if I don’t do that now then eventually she is going to completely shut down and never want to share anything with me. Everyone with older kids has made me scared about kids not talking to them, etc and I just do not want to have that kind of closed relationship with her. There is so much I have to tell her and so much that I want to know about her that I think it is a real shame when families let these relationships break down this way.

  • fredrick jones

    December 29th, 2009 at 10:31 AM

    Not many people follow this approach of trying to understand and asses the situation before giving their customary ‘advice’, and it is really annoying to the other person because they just give advice without getting the point or trying to see from the other person’s perspective…

  • erica

    December 29th, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    If a child has done a mistake, trying to understand the situation and his/her position will not only give us an opportunity to asses the situation but also makes us calm down and prevents us from bursting out at the poor kid.

    This is very important because little children pick up what their parents do very easily and it can have major effects on theior future well-being.

  • beth A.

    December 29th, 2009 at 4:10 PM

    Imagine a scenario wherein a student starts answering the questions without comprehening or understanding the questions or without even going through his books clearly… obviously his answers will be wrong. This is exactly the same case when a person speaks without understanding the matter or situation.

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