At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

In a recent consult, the parents of a seven-year-old, who by nature is a very big reactor, shared that after a lot of hard work managing their own emotions and being less reactive to him when he is having a difficult moment, he is now much better able to soothe himself. He will even voluntarily go into his room to take a break.

But they asked if it was OK to let him do this. They have heard so much about the importance of tuning into and acknowledging children’s feelings. They worry that he won’t know that they are there for him—that they care about his emotions—and wonder if they should follow him and get him to talk.

Here is a child who has learned an amazing skill—to regulate himself in such a healthy and positive way. He is clearly letting his parents know that this is what he needs. There will be opportunities to talk about feelings and to show that they see and feel him. But pursuing him in this moment would likely be experienced as intrusive, not respecting his boundaries.

Yes, I am a mental health professional who has dedicated over three decades to supporting children’s social and emotional well-being. And yes, I believe that tuning in to and validating feelings is critically important for children’s mental health and for healthy parent-child relationships.

But what I see happening now is that parents have been led to believe (largely via popular Instagram accounts) that leaning deep into feelings is always what kids need, when it is very dependent on context and timing. It is not helpful when:

One phenomenon I have observed in recent years is that kids as young as three have picked up on the fact that their parents are so concerned about their feelings that they will stop everything to explore them. These clever kids have figured out that if they tell their parents they are having big feelings, they will get more attention, extend bedtime, get out of doing a task or activity, be late for school, or divert their parents from setting an important limit.

Another pattern I see is that for the vast majority of the hundreds of families I see each year, the root cause of the challenge they are seeking consultation for is an absence of limits and the power struggles that flourish in this void. That is what is making everyone—parents and children—miserable. As I explore with parents what the obstacles are to implementing loving and critically important limits, getting caught up in and worried about their child’s feelings is the foundational problem.

What I find kids more often need in the heat of the difficult moment is one validating statement and then help to move on or adapt: “Going from home to school feels hard some days. I will be your helper” as you get them, as calmly as you can, into the car to move them along. Getting stuck with them—trying to process feelings when they are in this dysregulated state—often results in escalation, not calm resolution, which is what the child needs.

Then, when your child is regulated, you explore feelings more deeply and brainstorm what you might do together to make those moments more manageable.

For more on how to support children’s emotional development while also setting limits with love, see these articles.

Claire Lerner, LCSW-C, is a nationally recognized child developmental and parenting expert with over 30 years of experience collaborating with families to understand and respond most sensitively and effectively to the challenging behaviors they encounter in the early years. Claire is also the author of Why Is My Child in Charge?

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At any moment, someone’s aggravating behavior or our own bad luck can set us off on an emotional spiral that threatens to derail our entire day. Here’s how we can face our triggers with less reactivity so that we can get on with our lives.

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