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Acknowledge Negative Feelings

There is a simple skill that parents can use with their children that will help them calm down, feel better, and behave better. It is called Acknowledge Negative Feelings.

In order to understand HOW it works, it’s helpful to first understand WHY it works.

Every child is born with the need: to feel heard and understood. Their brains are hard wired to meet this need. They long to feel heard and understood. If this need is met, then there is more cooperation, more respect, and a stronger relationship. If this need goes unmet, frustration results. And a frustrated child is a misbehaving child.

Also, a child is drawn toward someone who helps them meet this need. If this someone is not their parents, they can be drawn AWAY from their parents.

That brings us to our skill and how we can help our children meet this need.

Acknowledging Negative Feelings is best understood by first looking at its opposite: Denying Negative Feelings. Your little boy, Billy, comes up to you and says, “I hate grandma.” What is a typical parent’s response? “You don’t hate grandma, you love her.” Or, “I don’t want to hear words like that coming out or your mouth, mister!”

In these cases, the parent is denying the child’s negative feelings and I believe that most parents do this. Let’s contrast this with Acknowledging Negative Feelings. When we acknowledge negative feelings, we:

  1. Let the child say whatever he or she wants.
  2. We give the child the freedom to say all kinds of nasty, critical things, whether they are true or not.
  3. We allow the child to Vent.

And while this is happening we let the child know we understand how they feel.

This skill has 2 steps:

  1. Show that you are listening. You can do so by: Giving your full attention, listening and not speaking, nodding, and saying, "uh-huh", "Ohhh?", "Hmmm", and "I see". This helps them to feel heard.
  2. Show that you understand. Use words like: “That must be frustrating”, “Boy, you are really mad.” That can be really upsetting.” “That’s gotta be tough.” Other words could be, “Oh, man.” “Wow.” “Oh my gosh,” and “Duuude.” There is also a second part to this step: Letting the child know that you understand how they came to feel that way. This involves reflecting what they said and usually takes the form of a story: “So, you went to sit by your best friend on the bus and he put his backpack down where you were going to sit, and you didn’t know why. Oh my gosh, that must have been upsetting. This step helps the child to feel understood.

Let’s do a demonstration.

You are the parent. I am the child. Do only step 1.

Child: “Stacy pushed me.

You: “Ohhh?”

Child: We were running to get the ball and she pushed me so I wouldn’t get it.”

You: “Hmmm”.

Child: “And I fell down and hurt my knee.”

You: “I see.”

Child: “I’m not going to play with Stacy any more. I’m going to play with Brook. Bye.”

Sometimes it can be just that easy. When children feel heard and understood it helps them to LET GO of their negative feelings and that gives them the freedom to solve the problem themselves.

Let’s put steps 1 and 2 together. Here is an example where a dad has a conversation with his son who is in distress. The dad could give his opinion, advice or criticize. But he doesn't. Watch how he uses listening words and feeling words.

Dad: “Hi son. How was your day?”

Son: “It sucked! And I don’t want to talk about it.”

Dad: “Sounds like it must have been disappointing.”

Son: “It was worse than that. It was terrible.”

Dad: “Why? What happened?”

Son: “The coach posted a list of everyone who was on the team. I wasn’t on it. I was cut from the team. I thought I’d be first string. I didn’t even make second string and I’m better than most of the guys that tried out.”

Dad: “You were cut from the team? Oh my gosh, what a shock.”

Son: “That’s not the worst of it. Mike and Joe made the cut. They’re on the team and I’m not. They’re going to be at practice while I’m going to be… I don’t know. I hate it!”

Dad: “Hmmm.”

Dad will keep listening until his son has had time to vent. He’ll refrain from giving advice unless his son asks for it. He will show that he is listening with “Oh”, “Mmm”, and “I see”.

What if you notice your child is sad or upset about something? How would you initiate the conversation? I’m going to suggest against saying, “What’s eating you?” Instead, I’m going to recommend something better. Describe what you see. “I see something is making you sad.” Or, “you really seem upset.”

You'll find that when you acknowledge negative feelings, you will see positive results immediately. I think you’ll discover, as I did, that you will have many opportunities to acknowledge negative feelings, and that this skill will become one of your favorites.

Let me end with this question:

Can you use this skill with a spouse?



When children feel heard and understood it helps them to LET GO of their negative feelings and that gives them the freedom to solve the problem themselves.