All Feelings Are Allowed, Even the Bad Ones

Introduction

Children often receive both subtle and overt messages that feelings like anger, fear, and sadness are bad and should be avoided or minimised. This can have a significant impact, particularly on children who already struggle with managing these feelings and exhibit challenging behaviours.

Understanding Children’s Feelings

Imagine the impact of telling a child that their feelings are wrong or unwelcome. Children who find it challenging to manage their emotions often face double the negative feedback from adults—first for expressing anger or sadness and then for the behaviours they use to communicate these feelings.

The children’s movie Inside Out beautifully illustrates the importance of experiencing positive and negative emotions. By the film’s end, Joy, the character representing happiness, learns that her fellow emotions—Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear—are just as crucial for healthy relationships and experiences.

Embracing Challenging Emotions

It’s essential to actively let children know that feeling angry, disappointed, or anxious is okay. These feelings are often very understandable reactions to life events. Supporting children to feel these negative emotions helps them realise that while these feelings are complex, they don’t have to be overwhelming.

Allowing children to experience negative emotions is critical to their emotional development. Telling kids, “Don’t be angry,” “Stop crying,” or “Don’t be scared” denies them the opportunity to practice these feelings and work through them.

Addressing Negative Emotions

When negative emotions lead to challenging behaviour, use these moments as teaching opportunities. Help children find different ways to work through their feelings. Experiencing negative emotions is essential for children to build self-regulation skills and resilience.

Children need support in their experience of fear or anger through co-regulation and role modelling. They can learn to cope with these feelings and know what to do the next time they arise. Accepting negative feelings is different from accepting negative behaviour.

Acknowledging and Supporting Children’s Emotions

We can support children by acknowledging their feelings and recognising their experiences. Phrases like:

  • “It’s so understandable you feel disappointed; I would like to stay longer, too.”
  • “I feel nervous when I meet someone for the first time, too; it’s tricky to know what to say.”
  • “I understand why you’re feeling angry. It sucks when things don’t go our way.”

These acknowledgments can make all the difference.

Barriers and Solutions

The challenge for adults is often finding space and time for these negative feelings in children’s lives. Various pressures, such as lack of time before and after school, fear of judgment in public, and lack of energy to engage with the latest challenge, can prevent us from doing so.

Tools for Support

For children who struggle with emotional regulation, modelling helpful tools can teach them to manage their feelings without being overwhelmed. Techniques include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Positive self-talk
  • Pacing beside them
  • Asking them to talk it through without judgment
  • Interruption or problem-solving

Seeing instances of anger, sadness, or fear as opportunities to connect, co-regulate, and teach can help children build the skills they need to thrive. Permit them to practice anger, sadness, and fear without criticism.

Conclusion

All feelings must be allowed if we expect children to learn to manage their emotions. Supporting children in these challenging moments and providing them with tools to handle their emotions can significantly impact their development and resilience.