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Formerly St. Louis Center for Family Development
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How to Communicate with Your Child About Hurt Feelings

Becoming a parent is a life-changing experience. From the long newborn days to the teenage phase and beyond, it may seem like the changes never end!

As your child grows and matures, they will encounter new challenges that bring up big emotions and complicated feelings. When you add hormones, societal pressures and the inevitable conflicts with family and friends to the mix, your child’s emotional outbursts can even be directed where you least expect it: Towards yourself.

It can be difficult for parents to grapple with the experience of having their feelings hurt by their own child. The experience can be even more painful for parents of children with intense emotions and frequent outbursts — and parents who are already feeling stressed or fatigued by work, bills, global health issues and the responsibility of caring for others.

Find the tips you need to have a healthy conversation with your child after your feelings have been hurt.

The Importance of Validating Feelings

First things first: Your feelings are valid! Sometimes people can be tempted to dismiss feelings of sadness as being “sensitive” or “overreacting.” This can also be true for parents, who may have grown accustomed to putting the wants and needs of others before themselves.

It’s okay if you are feeling hurt and if you are concerned about your child.

The key to moving forward to a more peaceful place is finding a healthy way to express those feelings. Remember, you are your child’s greatest teacher. By modeling healthy behaviors and expressing your own emotions in a positive way, your child will learn how to manage their emotions. Having discussions about feelings with your child can also help build empathy and compassion and help bring you closer as a family.

Although you, as a parent, have had more time to develop skills your child is still learning, parents are not expected to be perfect. Acknowledging your feelings and treating them with respect is important — and can help you communicate your emotions more effectively.

How to Express Your Feelings in a Helpful Way

Words are powerful and we have all probably been on the receiving end of a hurtful comment at some point in our lives. But you are in complete control of your words and how they affect your children and loved ones. This is especially important in moments of conflict.

When initiating a conversation about your feelings, it can be helpful to use “I feel” statements.

“I feel” statements help keep the conversation grounded in the roots of your feelings, rather than making accusations or placing blame. Think about the difference between “I feel sad when you ignore my questions about your day at school,” and “The way you’ve been acting really makes me feel sad and upset.” The first statement is inviting a conversation, whereas the second is much more likely to cause the listener to feel defensive.

When using “I feel” statements, try to avoid these common pitfalls:

  • Mistake #1: “I feel that . . .”
    : “I feel that you have been very angry and confrontational lately.”

    Your child’s feelings also deserve to be validated, which means it is important to avoid making statements that sound like you might be judging or assuming how they feel. Focus on your feelings and allow your child to speak for theirs.

  • Mistake #2: “You make me feel . . .”
    : “You make me feel horrible when you yell at me like that.”

    Avoid making statements that could be interpreted as placing blame on your child. This is much more likely to cause a reaction of anger or self-defense.

  • Mistake #3: “I feel . . . but.”
    : “I feel terrible about the argument we had yesterday, but I don’t think it would have happened if you would have just listened to me.”

    No “buts” about it: If your “I feel” statement includes “but,” it is likely that your focus will turn away from your feelings. Keep the conversation centered by avoiding this word.

Tips for Parents to Have a Conversation about Hurt Feelings:

1. Take the time to clearly identify your feeling(s).

In the midst of a heated argument, it is very difficult to make sound judgments and solve problems. Walking away from the situation is often the best move.

The tension after a conflict or emotional outburst can be uncomfortable, but it is typically better to wait to have a conversation with your child until you can both speak about the incident calmly. In the interim, reflect on your feelings and try to identify them by name: Exhaustion. Disappointment.

To start a reflection or meditation on your feelings, consider journaling, going on a mindful walk, or practicing a guided meditation, such as yoga.

2. Create a safe space.

A safe space is one where all participants in a conversation feel comfortable and respected. To create a safe space, try to:

  • Approach your child when you are feeling calm and collected.
  • Use a calm, nonthreatening tone of voice.
  • Choose a neutral but private space, such as the family room or outdoor patio.
  • Minimize distractions, such as TV and smartphones.
  • Have a clear understanding of your “I feel” statements.

Most importantly: be prepared to listen and apologize for any of your own indiscretions. Taking responsibility for mistakes is a very important skill to model for your child and can also help communicate that imperfection and learning are ongoing and acceptable.

3. Do not lead with feelings of anger.

The goal of this conversation, and anything else you do as a parent, is grounded in love. When sharing your “I feel” statements, it will probably be more helpful to lead with feelings that do not fall in the category of “synonyms for ‘anger.’”

Anger is a powerful and intense emotion. Even just hearing “I feel angry” could send your child in a more defensive and confrontational direction. Instead, initiate the conversation with feelings that are more likely to inspire your child’s compassion.

4. Monitor the progress of your conversation.

Be an active listener and watch for any signs that your conversation is headed in the wrong direction. It can be helpful to identify:

  • Inability to validate your child’s feelings, such as being unable to apologize.
  • A lack of response or “silent treatment” from your child.
  • Changing pace or tone of voice, particularly if faster and louder.
  • Decreasing interest in the conversation.
  • Hostile nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions or posture.

If you observe any of these behaviors in yourself or your child, it will probably be best to end the conversation peacefully and revisit your feelings at another time.

5. Work together to identify a solution.

The purpose of this discussion is not to identify who was right or wrong, but instead to identify the path to healing. Your child should be an active participant in finding a solution.

Ask them, “How do you think we should move forward from this?” and then show your respect by listening thoughtfully to their answer.

Sometimes the best answer is to seek help from a mental health professional who specializes in family conflicts and intense emotions.

Sparlin Mental Health Provides Help to St. Louis-Area Families

Sparlin Mental Health in St. Louis offers family and individual therapy for anyone who may be struggling to manage conflict with their loved ones. Our licensed therapists and mental health professionals will introduce new skills to help identify negative emotions and response cycles, and provide compassionate, nonjudgmental support as these skills are developed.

Sometimes, finding effective help for extreme emotional challenges and disruptive behaviors means going beyond traditional outpatient therapy. Sparlin@Home is an intensive, in-home therapy program designed to stabilize crises in children and young adults ages 5 to 25 years old. Learn more about Sparlin@Home or contact us to schedule a free consultation.

For more information about Sparlin’s therapy services for families and individuals, please contact us online or call our office at (314) 531-1155.