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Parenting

Small Problems, Big Feelings

Children need empathy for big emotions, even when they're "out of proportion."

Key points

  • Children are not being naughty or manipulative when they have oversized feelings about trivial matters.
  • Their emotional brains are wired for maximum impact, while their cognitive brains are not fully developed.
  • The best response to "excessive" emotion is caring empathy.

Children often become very upset over things that seem insignificant to adults, such as not being the one to press the elevator button, not having their favorite shirt because it is in the laundry, or being told they can’t have any more cookies. Parents may label these outsized emotions as inappropriate, unacceptable, or naughty.

The message to children is that they should only have little feelings about little things, and save big feelings for big things.

That is not how emotions work. Adults experience big feelings about little things all the time, like when a boss or spouse offers a criticism, the car in front of us is driving too slowly, or a loud noise makes us jump.

These reactions are intense because the emotional part of the brain is wired for instant action, not subtle appraisals. The emotional brain activates a feeling—often a big one—no matter what size the triggering event may be. Some time later the cerebral cortex kicks in to evaluate the situation.

If the process works smoothly, the big emotion will pass quickly if the cortex recognizes that the situation does not call for such intensity. The foot comes off the emotional gas pedal and eases onto the brake pedal.

This second step of evaluation and braking is slower—or absent—in children. (Of course, it can be absent in adults too.) A child’s cognitive brain is not as well-developed as their emotional brain. Therefore a big emotion about a small thing can continue, and even increase in intensity. There isn’t the mature and thoughtful cerebral cortex braking action.

In these moments parents naturally want to teach children to have perspective, to not over-react. But dismissing a feeling doesn’t nurture perspective, it usually triggers an even bigger emotional reaction. What children really need in response to their excessive emotion is our calm, warm, empathic presence.

Pretexts

Another reason children have big feelings about small things is that a minor incident can be a pretext to release a large amount of emotion about something else, something bigger. The source of the intense emotion is too complex or overwhelming to face directly, so the child finds a small upset to open up a back door, so that some of the large reservoir of emotion can be released.

Imagine a child who pitches a giant fit about their favorite shirt being in the laundry. The parents reject the validity of that feeling because they don’t realize that underneath this “ridiculous” tantrum, the child has “legitimate” feelings that can’t be put into words. Perhaps the child senses tension between the parents or has friendship difficulties or academic struggles at school. The child can’t articulate these intense and inner feelings, but they can pitch a fit about the shirt.

This is normal, but confusing. Usually, neither the child nor the parent realizes that the big emotion has been displaced from something truly important—but unspeakable—onto something tiny—but speakable. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as an unjustified or inappropriate emotion. It just may be displaced from another source, so it needs to be treated gently, with respect and validation.

A friend told me about his son, who seemed not to be affected when his beloved cat passed away. A few months later, however, when his grandmother had to cancel plans for a visit, the boy cried for hours, even though this was something he usually accepted calmly.

Was he “faking” his screams about Grandma? No, he was probably crying about the earlier loss of his cat, a pain that was too overwhelming for him at the time. The little event of Grandma’s canceled visit opened the door to those backed-up feelings. There was no need for his parents to say, “You are really crying about the cat.” No, pretext feelings can be accepted with empathy at face value: “You’re really sad Grandma’s not coming this week. I understand.”

When this boy’s parents listened and held him, his tears about Grandma’s visit flowed until they were completed. He then said, “Grandma really loved the cat,” and he was ready to share happy memories about the cat, which he had avoided doing before when his grief was buried.

Children often use minor physical injuries as pretexts for deeper feelings they pushed down or could not express. That’s because adults often treat injuries as an “acceptable” reason to cry. Unfortunately, the child may still be met with scorn or dismissal, because the size of the emotion does not match the size of the injury: “You’re not really hurt, stop being a baby.” But a big feeling is always a real feeling, even if we don’t know the real reason.

Respect for children’s grief and anger

Children need empathy for the true depth of their emotions, no matter the size of the trigger. Children do not need rejection for an outburst that is bigger than we think it should be. Children naturally feel hurt when their big emotions are ignored, dismissed, or punished. They may escalate their emotional expression even more until we understand what they are telling us, or they may shut down and refuse to share important things with us because we didn’t let them know we care.

Lawrence Cohen
A statue in Warsaw, Poland of Janusz Korczak
Lawrence Cohen

Janusz Korczak understood this better than anyone I have ever known about. He was a Polish Jewish pediatrician, author, educator, fearless advocate of children’s rights, and one of my great heroes for the courageous way he lived his life and faced his death. He deeply remembered what it was like to be a child, as evident in his delightful children's book, King Matt the First, and his profound book of educational philosophy, When I Was Little Again. He wrote something that I always try to remember whenever a child is very sad, angry, or scared about a small thing: “The child has the right to respect for his grief, even though it be for the loss of a pebble.”

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