Our children will meet adversity in their lives; it is inevitable. Conflict is necessary for growth and will serve as one of life’s greatest teachers.
It can be painful to support our children as they navigate life’s conflicts because we see in these reflections of our own discomfort or fear. We can begin telling ourselves the story that we have failed. Witnessing our children losing a game, being left out, being disappointed or having their heart broken can stir within us our own feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, sadness or anger.
Rather than allowing these situations to naturally unfold, we sometimes find ourselves fighting the urge to fix, dismiss or downplay the problem for them. We have the best intentions for our children but we project our own feelings and meanings onto the situation and feel the need to “do” something about it.
To do this, however, is to rob our children of the opportunity to feel the emotion, to know how to let the emotion pass through them, and to provide a healthy model for how to navigate the situation.
So what can we do to support our children in developing their emotional intelligence? What does “holding space” for their emotions entail and how can we create emotional safety in our relationship?
Here are some ways that we can begin.
Honour our own emotions
When we begin with ourselves, we create a stable foundation for our children to co-regulate with, and over time, self-regulate. Recognising, labelling, sitting with and accepting our own emotions grows our capacity to support our children. Allow your child to witness you as you guide yourself through this process.
It is not wrong or bad to be triggered by a situation involving our children. In fact, it is a natural and protective response for our nervous system to enter fight, flight, freeze or fawn when we do not feel safe. But how we respond does matter and when we gain awareness of our own triggers and emotions, we have the power to change how we respond.
“What am I feeling right now?”
“Where in my body do I feel it?”
Understand what is behind and beneath our own emotions
Often our responses have roots in previous situations or patterns that do not even seem like they are relevant to the situation. Our responses can be strongly connected to limiting beliefs we hold about ourselves or our children.
Be honest with yourself about why this may be upsetting to you.
“Why am I feeling this way?”
“Is this reminding me of a situation I encountered earlier in life?”
“Is there a pattern emerging?”
Separate your child’s emotions from your own emotions
Discerning between your emotions and your child’s emotions creates space for your child’s autonomy and untangles the complexity of the situation. It also removes the burden of responsibility from the “other person” and places it firmly within our own grasp.
Often we inadvertently cause our children to feel like they are the cause of our emotions (i.e. the classic phrase “You are making me angry!”). Or we can send our children the message that others are responsible for causing their emotions (“That person did something wrong to you. It is their fault!”).
“Am I confusing my own emotions with my child’s emotions right now?”
“Am I energetically taking on an emotion that is not mine?”
Model empathy and compassion
It may look messy and feel uncomfortable, but recognise this moment is an opportunity for intimacy. Empathy is an incredibly powerful tool for connection.
Imagine you are in your child’s position. Observe them, without trying to change anything. Allow them to express their emotion. Listen to them, without interrupting or offering advice. Through your words, mirror back their emotions by describing what you see. Help your child verbally label their emotions.
Some examples include:
“You look like you feel sad. Tell me what’s going on.”
“I bet that hurt your feelings. Is that right?”
“It’s okay to feel angry. I feel angry sometimes too.”
It can sometimes be difficult to know the right thing to say. If in doubt, repeat back to your child what you are hearing them say. This can invite further conversation as they feel deeply heard and seen by you. Or perhaps you will find they don’t feel like talking until later. Your presence, groundedness and compassion as you hold space for them may feel comforting and safe all on it’s own right now.
Setting limits while helping your child problem solve
Our role is not to curate our children’s surroundings to have an entirely smooth experience. But it is part of our role to set boundaries and limits when needed. Creating space to problem solve together strengthens your child’s sense of autonomy and enables them to experience the problem solving process.
If you’re wondering what kinds of situations require limit setting, this is an opportune time to establish (or reestablish) what your family values are, upon which you can then decide the boundaries. As a basis, limits are also required where any action takes place that causes harm to our bodies or our relationships.
It is sometimes useful to have these conversations after some time has passed and the emotion has alchemised. I find it useful to have these conversations in quiet moments, like when we are sitting together on the couch or at bedtime.
Remind your child that their feelings are completely valid and valued; it is the behaviour that needs some tweaking.
Some examples include:
“It’s ok to feel jealous, but it’s not ok to hit your friend. What can you do instead?”
“I know that you lied. I believe you are an honest person. I want you to know that when you are ready to tell me the truth, I am here to listen”.
“It doesn’t feel good when someone else wins the game, but it’s not kind to call them names. Can you think of a different way to show that you feel disappointed?”
Sometimes you may find your child is overwhelmed by your questions. In these cases, it is helpful to step back and model instead.
Possible sentence starters:
“How about we…”
“Next time we feel ____, let’s ____”
“I think it would be helpful to ____”
And you can check in with their thoughts by asking, “What do you think?”
It may seem easier to filter our children’s experiences when they are younger, but as their connection to the world expands, so too does their exposure to a variety of experiences that can lead to uncomfortable emotions. By honouring our children’s emotions, we help them expand their capacity to do the same for themselves and others, having a beautiful ripple effect. Each time we hold space for our children, we are laying down strong foundations for emotional health for our future generations.
Attuning to our child’s needs through play
“Every time you hear yourself say, that kid is “attention seeking”, replace it with that kid is “connection seeking”, and watch your perspective change”.⠀
- Dr. Jody Carrington
We have been living in a noisy, overstimulated world. Even for those of us who have been incorporating elements of simplicity and slow living into our daily practices, it can be exhausting to realise the full spectrum of what demands our attention. The pandemic has certainly challenged us to hit the brakes on using distraction as a tool and required us to face ourselves.
One aspect that I have seen fellow parents struggle with in this arena is play. We know that play has a myriad of purposes for our children’s development and enjoyment. One of their deepest needs is to connect with us - to touch base, check in, fulfill their need to be seen and heard. Though needs vary from child to child, and over time the intensity of their needs taper and the nature of their needs change, play continues to be a powerful way for our children to recharge, learn and rest in our company.
And the benefits are two-way. For the parent, a few focused minutes each day of play can nourish our own need for connection. Dropping into the present moment with our child may also be one of the few areas in our life where we can authentically enjoy playfulness and fun. It is a space in which we can observe ourselves and nurture our inner child too.
More time in authentic connection together will usually see a natural decline in some behaviours that are usually considered “attention-seeking”. When our children feel seen by us, and feel a strong attachment with us, they are less likely to feel the need to compete for our attention.
Surrendering to play can allow us to attune to presence and allow us to connect more deeply with our children. Here are some simple ideas for consciously engaging in play with your child:
- Invite yourself into your child’s play - not what you have created for them, but something they are doing already.
- Allow your child to guide play without judgements, fixing or doing. Just observe, just follow, just be.
- Give yourself permission to play! How does it feel in your body to be fully immersed in presence? Does it feel safe? Do you feel like you need to be somewhere else right now?
- If you feel resistance to play (i.e. feelings of boredom, annoyance and frustration are coming up for you) ask yourself why. What are you feeling? Where in your body do you feel it? What are you believing about yourself in this moment? What are you believing about your child?
- Creatively problem solve! What can you do together that allows your child’s cup to be filled, but does not infringe on your boundaries and leave you feeling depleted? My personal favourites are reading a new book together, drawing together or looking at old photos together or going on a walk in nature and collecting interesting specimens (rocks, sticks, leaves).
If we can welcome these uncomfortable feelings as opportunities to practice mindfulness and to expand our awareness, we can open ourselves to the realm of possibilities and a deeper connection with our children, and ourselves.
Michelle Diasinos is a Conscious Parent coach, advocate, writer, podcast host and mother of two. After a decade of working with families and educators as a teacher and occupational therapist, she recognised the immense impact of the conditioned self on our ability to connect with our children when she became a mother and met herself for the first time. Her journey inwards sparked a deep calling to support fellow mothers as they navigate their unique healing
Michelle lives in Sydney, Australia with her husband Phill and their son and daughter. Woven into her days, she enjoys reading, nature walks, yoga, deep conversations and thunderstorms.
To connect with Michelle, find her at:
Instagram & Facebook: @michelle.diasinos and @themothersroundtable