7 Tips for Caregivers - Supporting Youth and Their Feelings
Guest blog post by L. Robin
Navigating the pathways of parenthood can often feel like a maze. As caregivers, our natural instinct is to want to pave a seamless route for our children, where their moments of sadness are brief and their happiness is unending. But in this process, we may overlook the significance of accepting and understanding the many different emotions that our children experience. These feelings are an important part of the human experience as well.
In this guest blog post, Laurie Robin, a dedicated mother, educator, and author, delves into the emotional journey of parenthood and shares 7 tips for caregivers to support youth. Drawing inspiration from her personal experiences as a parent and reflecting on her awesome children's book, I Want You To Be You!, she shares about the importance of creating a safe emotional space for our children.
When I self-published the children’s book, I Want You To Be You!, the writing was primarily reflective of my own experiences as a parent. I realized in my effort to "help" my children with their feelings, I was focused on looking for ways to "solve" what I believed was the problem. In a way, I was looking to “make them happy again”. To my surprise, this wasn't helpful and almost had the opposite effect. My children seemed to be responding in frustration, rather than relief that I had "figured it out". It was during this "ah-ha" moment I simply thought about how I feel when someone tries to “fix my feelings” - it doesn't help! 😊
Most importantly, I realized my children needed a safe space to let their feelings show and to normalize the wide spectrum of emotions as part of the human experience. Sometimes this includes feeling happy, but it also means feeling mad, sad, anxious, excited, and many other feelings throughout our lives. Some of the most heartfelt moments I have with my children are being with them during their big feelings and showing them I’m there for “it all.” In our household, there is no expectation that someone must “get happy” for us to spend time together. We will be together all the time knowing our first, and greatest, family responsibility is to empathize with each other.
Of course, this does not come without challenges! I am sharing with you as someone who is on this journey with you – I am learning, open to growing, and am hopeful this mindset will follow me my entire life. Below, you will find what I believe are 7 Tips for Caregivers, who have young people in their lives, as you try to navigate the wonderful world of emotions together!
1. Listen – not only to their words, but their actions.
Youth are not always able to verbalize or articulate their feelings but may rather express their feelings in the way they know how (such as, tone of voice, body language, yelling, crying, laughing). And feel honoured! If they are showing you how they truly feel, you are their safe space! Welcoming all these feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, normalizes the wide range of feelings we all have. And this helps to build healthy emotional well-being.
As well, the child’s age and development highly affect the ability to recognize and express emotion. Melissa Heckscher shares insightful information about how child development and psychology play a major role in their expression in her article How to Help Kids Express Their Feelings at Every Age. At a young age, little ones will first learn about identifying feelings, for which Heckscher recommends reading books about emotions with children daily. Also, consider “your child may already be expressing herself. Did your child storm off to her room and slam that door? Sometimes, that says enough”, writes Heckscher.
While we may want our youth to work towards being able to express their feelings verbally, these actions tell us a lot. In calmer moments, we may be looking for ways to promote those healthy actions (temporarily leaving the room for some needed space) and setting boundaries on inappropriate actions (slamming the door).
Worth noting, a caregiver “listening” can vary from active listening to simply being attuned and present in the moment with your child as they are experiencing their emotions. Don’t ever discount the importance of solely being present.
2. Approach feelings with patience, curiosity, and empathy.
When I shifted away from trying to “fix” my children’s feelings, patience and curiosity were key. And approaching their feelings from a place of empathy was more powerful than I had expected. As I had shared on CTV Morning Live, my children and I may not get frustrated over the same situation, but we have all felt frustrated.
This is often my connecting point (“I have felt this, too”). Combining this with asking questions or allowing quiet space for them to share (curiosity), along with sharing your own stories of similar experiences (empathy), can be strong ways to create or deepen the bond. As stated by Empathic Parent Counseling, “[i]n the context of parenting, empathy plays a crucial role in building a strong emotional connection between parents and their children…essential for children’s emotional development, as well as their overall well-being and happiness.”
But don’t let me lead you to believe I think this is so easily done. Patience can be tough to muster in the heat of the moment, especially if you are also experiencing intense emotion. Which leads me to point 3…
3. Be aware of your own emotional triggers.
These triggers may be situations occurring in the present that spark feelings from your past, such as previous childhood or relationship experiences. I have found the value in looking into and identifying my own triggers for the benefit of parenting at my best and fostering a healthy relationship with my children. Experts, such as Jennifer Kolari, child and family therapist and author, don’t necessarily attribute triggers to deep routed past experiences, but do value the benefit of recognizing your triggers, as she spoke to in the article, This Might Be Why You’re Getting So Mad At Your Kids, "There could be little things that are deeply triggering because of your own childhood trauma or issues that touch a deeper nerve,” she says. “But parents can find their kid’s behaviour really triggering without it necessarily touching these deep issues. Nobody likes not being listened to. Nobody likes doing something for somebody and then never getting a thank you. There are universal behaviours that would drive everyone crazy.”
As a way of tapping into my emotional triggers, I have learned to self-reflect as a way of getting to know myself and to promote self-growth. I am working hard to avoid toxic self-judgment, rather focusing on self-regulating my own emotions, and investing in my own self-care.
*Please note: I have found mental health professionals to be pivotal in emotional self-care and parenting support. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, especially if you have a history of trauma.
4. Be open to learning and growing on this journey.
How we were brought up is not inherently right or wrong. But how we were parented influences our own role as parents, intentionally or not. As stated in the article, 7 Ways Your Childhood Affects How You'll Parent...and how you can break the cycle, it is worth understanding how our own childhood experiences impact us in our role as parents. “This process isn’t about blaming our parents…Yet recognizing the ways our parents or other influential caretakers affected us is part of growing up and becoming our own person.”
We are always able to work on and learn about how we see ourselves as parents with the information we know today. This includes how we view feelings and how we present feelings to our children.
5. Refrain from judgment – on them and on yourself!
Start with avoiding labels on feelings, such as “good” or “bad” feelings. These judgments can dissuade children from sharing certain feelings and develop associations of shame that lead to suppressing feelings.
The other area, to be conscious of judgment, is how we perceive management of feelings. Having feelings, learning to regulate feelings, and helping your children with their feelings is hard work! But it is important work. Dr. Becky Kennedy, a psychologist and founder of Good Inside, reminds us, “There is no such thing as a perfect parent!...Mistakes and struggles, they come with the job…get good at repair!” In her recent TED Talks: The Single Most Important Parenting Strategy, she elaborates on the idea of repair between child and caregiver by providing practical advice for reconnecting within the relationship and normalizing the entire experience, while addressing the guilt and shame parents can feel when they “don’t get it right”.
6. The power of validating feelings – I believe emotions are primal – they happen, and they just are.
This doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to learn to regulate feelings or that all behaviours are appropriate. But validation of emotions, especially for youth, is extremely important to feeling heard and moving through emotions. Phrases like “don’t be frustrated” or “you’re fine” are not helpful to moving forward. Imagine how you feel as an adult hearing those words? You may intend them to be words of comfort but be careful these words aren’t used dismissively. Validating phrases can be powerful to feeling heard and assist in processing feelings. Dr. Becky has some valuable and practical advice for validating feelings before aiming for understanding, such as her Game-Changing Parenting Phrase, “There’s something about this that…doesn't feel good to you, isn't how you wanted it to be, isn't going the way you had imagined, you wish were different. Then after that, tell your child, ‘I believe you.’…it validates that we see our child's discomfort, that we believe there's some explanation for it ... and yet it takes away our need to "fix" AND to even understand exactly what is so upsetting in the first place.
7. Regulating feelings and appropriate behaviour must be learned.
Caregivers are pivotal in helping kids explore ways to regulate feelings and understand what behaviour is appropriate and healthy – and which behaviours are not. Kids will not get it right the first time! And many adults won’t either! It is a life journey and shouldn’t be judged to have a level of mastery. We do the best we can in each moment and we, as caregivers, may not fully understand how to teach emotional regulation.
A great resource for parents to check out is Skills for Big Feelings by Casey O’Brien Martin. In Skills for BIG Feelings: An Interview with Casey O’Brien Martin, O’Brien Martin recognizes that “[a] lot of kids are just lacking the social-emotional skills they need to succeed…They need to be taught coping and emotional regulation skills”. In addition to her amazing workbook for young people, O’Brien Martin also has many online resources for caregivers.
And remember, regulating feelings isn’t about shutting down feelings or moving out of uncomfortable feelings quickly. It is about healthy acceptance of feelings, understanding why or where feelings are coming from, developing our awareness to process our feelings, and learning self-care to promote emotional well-being.
As a caregiver, I believe my job is to offer my children the safe place to share how they are feeling. Sometimes they will be able to articulate their feelings, sometimes they will show me how they feel – but, in either case, I want them to know I will be there for them. I might offer a listening ear, or I might sit alongside them to help regulate their intense feelings, or I might be in another room where they know they can come to me or invite me in. I am hopeful they will sense my patience and potentially feel connection in my curiosity and empathy. I want them to know that whatever they feel is accepted without judgment. And how they feel will not scare me away. My hope is this will encourage sharing and communication that can be nurtured long into the teenage years.
The expression “I want you to be happy” was the other inspiration for my book. As a parent, I considered what this expression really means. And, although we generally wish people well, a life only “full of happy” doesn’t exist. Upon deeper reflection, I realized I wanted my children to be themselves – and this includes all their feelings. While the popular expression has good intentions, it fails to capture the whole message we really want our kids to know, I Want You To Be You.
About the Author
Laurie Robin is a mother of two, an educator for nearly two decades, and self-published author of I Want You To Be You living in Manitoba, Canada. Written in rhyming verse with colourful, endearing illustrations, this book will offer another opportunity to sit with your young one and talk about all feelings. The book includes colouring pages at the back and a complimentary resource package is in the works!
L. Robin Books donates 25% of proceeds of each book sold throughout 2023 to Kids Help Phone, who do amazing work supporting and advocating for youth everyday. Find out more at www.lrobinbooks.com.
Read the full article here: How to help kids express their feelings at every age, by Melissa Heckscher, tinybeans (June 12, 2023) https://tinybeans.com/how-to-get-kids-to-express-feelings
Watch the full interview here: CTV Morning Live Winnipeg: Book encouraging kids to share their feelings, by Rachelle Legacy, CTV (May 4, 2023) https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=2681372
Read the full article here: The heart of parenting: exploring the power of empathy in parent-child relationships, by Empathic Parenting Counseling (June 3, 2023) https://empathicparentingcounseling.com/bonding/empathic-parenting/#The_Importance_of_Empathy
Read the full article here: This might be why you're getting so mad at your kids, by Claire Sibonney, Today’s Parent (Mar 17, 2023) https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/parenting-triggers/
Read the full article: 7 ways your childhood affects how you'll parent...and how you can break the cycle, by Lisa Firestone Ph.D. of Compassion Matters, Psychology Today (July 30, 2015) https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/compassion-matters/201507/7-ways-your-childhood-affects-how-youll-parent
Watch the full talk: TED: The Single Most Important Parenting Strategy, by Dr. Becky Kennedy, TED (Sept 14, 2023) https://youtu.be/PHpPtdk9rco
Read the full Facebook post: Dr. Becky Kennedy at Good Inside (Jan 19, 2021) https://www.facebook.com/drbeckyatgoodinside/posts/validate-before-you-understand-this-is-a-game-changing-parenting-idea-heres-why-/231482801805276/
Read the full interview here: Skills for BIG Feelings: An interview with Casey O’Brien Martin, by Dr. Amy Marschall, Licensed Psychologist, Resiliency Mental Health (Dec 19, 2020) https://resiliencymentalhealth.com/2020/12/19/skills-for-big-feelings-an-interview-with-case-obrien-martin/