Dear Joanna and Julie,
I’ve tried acknowledging my daughter’s feelings for over a year now (she’s three) and it consistently doesn’t work. Just today our dialogue went like this:
(She fell and hurt her knee)
Daughter: (crying) Momma!
Me: I saw that you fell. I bet that hurt.
Daughter: (crying) NO! It didn’t hurt.
Me: It’s okay if it hurts at first.
Daughter: It doesn’t hurt! I didn’t fall!
Me: Oh! You didn’t fall?
Daughter: No! I never fall.
Me: I bet you wish you never fell.
Daughter: (growing more upset): I really never fall!!
Me: Would you like a hug?
Daughter: No! Nothing!
Every time I try to talk to her by acknowledging her feelings, she denies everything and repeats the words “no, nothing, never, or no one”. Am I doing something wrong? Is it possible that this approach doesn’t work for some children? Is she too young for this strategy?
Kids are so different! My first son was a perfect illustration of the “acknowledging feeling” skills in action. No matter what tragedy befell him, from a bump on the head to a broken lego spaceship, an emphatic statement of emotion always helped. “Ouch, that must hurt! Let me give it a kiss.” “Oh, what a disappointment! You worked a long time on that.” The tears would dry, the clouds would clear, the sun would shine again, and Dan was off to his next misadventure.
I felt so sure of myself, until son number two came along with a completely different sensibility. As a toddler when he suffered a bump, he did not want to hear that “bumps can hurt.” He was so upset that adding words to the experience overloaded his system. He would scream as if I had poured salt in the wound. When something precious broke, he needed time to mourn on his own before processing any other input. Again, words of intended comfort made him scream.
I learned to minimize my responses, to make a sympathetic grunt or just a few brief words (stupid lego!) offer a quick kiss, or just leave him alone for a while, giving him time to deal with the powerful wave of emotion that overwhelmed him when he got upset. I found it helped to let him set his own timetable for when he wanted comfort. I’d say, “I’ll be in the kitchen. Come on in when you feel like it.” And then leave him to sob (against my own instincts) and to seek me out when he felt ready.
We read your story with great interest. Surely your warm and loving response to your injured child was the very textbook illustration of the skills we teach. But to your daughter it was irritating! She was too upset at the hurt and the very notion of falling to be able to take comfort from hearing those words. And yet she didn’t want to go it completely alone. She cried, “Mommy!”
What’s a “mommy” to do? We’d try following her lead. She wants comfort, but nothing explicit. Too soon! How about just an “Ugh,” and a quick kiss? Or a brief hug, combined with, “Poor little knee, do you want a bandaid?” Or just an acknowledgement with a word, “Oh, ouch!” and no touch at all.
Sometimes a child would rather hear about painful or uncomfortable subjects in the third person, through storybooks for example, rather than face them head on when experiencing them personally. She may enjoy stories of heroic characters who put up with all kinds of bumps and bruises, yet soldier on to save the town or tame the dragon.
You’ll have to experiment with minimalism and see what works. We would love to hear back from you!