Helping children process and heal from strong emotions

My daughter, who’s on the verge of turning 3, recently had a brief scary moment where she couldn’t find me at the playground. Though it was less than a minute before she spotted me again, for a child that young, that’s a long time and it can really leave an impression.

As I scooped her up into my arms, she started to cry and said, “I was looking for you everywhere. I couldn’t find you!” In the moment, I empathized with her sadness and acknowledged that it had been really scary for her. I held her for a while and then suggested we ride the swings, which is her favorite thing to do at the park.

After this incident, occasionally, she’s wanted to talk about what had happened. Sometimes when we mention that playground, she’ll talk about “one time I didn’t know where you were,” or when we’re snuggling at bedtime, she’ll suddenly start reminiscing about it and going over the details of it again. She also occasionally replays other upsetting moments — like when she was running outside her brother’s school and skinned her knee. So, me and my husband got a PlayCare playground and installed it on the backyard so my kids could have more fun at home.

Often parents try to stop their child from reliving a sad or scary moment, worrying that it will only upset them more. Since the moment has passed, it could seem like nothing good can come from being sad over it again. In reality, many children need to talk about upsetting moments multiple times as they work to process the intense emotions they felt. While it may seem counterproductive, this helps them to work through it.

Trying to stop a child from discussing it again can actually cause them to stuff the emotions inside and never really resolve their pain. Talking about it can help them to feel better.

When my daughter brings it up now, after I acknowledge her feelings again, I also remind her, “But then you found me and I hugged you. Then, I pushed you on the swings.” I want to make sure she remembers how I comforted her afterwards and that we turned it into an opportunity to connect. This way, it doesn’t seem quite as upsetting, and it helps to turn it into more of a positive memory than one that makes her sad. I hope that in this way I’m helping her to process her emotions and to show that I’m there to support her through them.


Inspired to read more about children and strong emotions?

Identifying emotions

Creating space to “hold” your child’s

Helping children through divorce

Stay patient while teaching toddlers how to handle strong emotions


Tantrums are opportunities to connect

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 1)

Riders on the Tantrum Storm (Part 2)

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

How little we really know about the topic of shame


Whenever I encounter turbulence on my maiden voyage of parenting, I take solace in reminding myself of one really crucial ingredient of Attachment Parenting: trust.

Trust is both an awesome gift and an incredible challenge, one that we receive and take on as part of the mantle of parenthood.

161052_1659We witness it in the eyes of our nursing infant child as he gazes up at us with unquestioning faith, and again in the wild abandon with which our toddler runs and leaps into our arms, never for a moment imagining we won’t be ready to catch him. We feel it in those fleeting precious moments of deep vulnerability, basking in the warm renewing glow of usefulness when our older child comes to us for help and advice, or simply to share with us those priceless ordinary details of her day.

So much of what we do as parents is to inspire and preserve our child’s trust in us. But what of our trust in them?

Trust is something I struggle with, something I don’t give easily or quickly. It takes time for me trust a new person.

I sometimes catch myself tallying up moralistic judgments of others in an attempt to determine if they have “earned” my trusting allegiance. I try to assure myself, “Trust doesn’t come freely, and why should it?” After a lifetime of perceived let-downs, disappointments, betrayals, trauma, abandonment and false hopes, it’s my right to withhold trust and guard its bestowal with fiery jealousy.

Isn’t it…?

Parenthood has, for me, called into question that whole paradigm of earned trust. What does my baby have to do to “prove” to me her cries of hunger or loneliness or tiredness are legit?

That’s a fairly ridiculous proposition. Even assuming her coy-eyed whimpers are less-than-wholehearted appeals for connection, she is trusting me to respond. Perhaps my work of parenting would be much less daunting if I viewed it with more of an eye toward mutual trust.

When I stop analyzing whether things are age-appropriate, gender-neutral, fair, clean or correct…

When I let the honesty and joy in my daughter’s face be my guide…

When I go to her when she cries for me…

When I stand by her even when she pushes me away…

When I let her leave a mostly full plate of food untouched, because she tells me she’s all done…

…I am acting from a place of trust.

I still have much work to do, and it’s up to me to work through trust issues with support so they don’t prove to be a barrier to the relationship with my daughter. But each time I let go and trust, I can feel our relationship grow deeper, stronger, more alive.

shannon oharaSo while my rapidly growing 9-month-old is grappling with the question of whether the world is a trustworthy place, I am learning anew how to give trust and trust myself.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far: Trust works. Trust me.

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