Lessons From the Child-rearing Trenches You Get What You Get and You CAN Get Upset
Today’s newsletter is a bit of a rant—be forewarned. I get triggered too, and this is my attempt to turn my feelings into positive action that I hope provides useful insight to others.
Recently, I was at a preschool where I was doing an observation of a child who is exhibiting some challenging behaviors. In less than 90 minutes, I heard multiple teachers tell him and several of his peers who were unhappy with any number of life's disappointments—no pretzels for snack, not their turn to be the calendar helper, being assigned to sit on the red carpet square when their favorite is the blue: “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” I have heard this phrase hundreds of times in early care and education programs and repeated by parents who learn a lot of great strategies from their kids’ preschool teachers. But for some reason, on this occasion, it occurred to me that this is an utterly ridiculous and potentially harmful way to respond to children when they are unhappy, and I am on a mission to eradicate it from our lexicon.
Telling children (or anyone) how to feel is rarely a useful strategy. (Think about it, when has telling someone to “calm down” ever actually resulted in that person calming down?) Further, minimizing or discounting children’s emotions is insensitive and ultimately counterproductive. It doesn't toughen them up or help them cope—the presumed goal. It just sends the message that their feelings aren’t valid and that we can't tolerate them (which is really the heart of the problem). Further, it is a critical, missed opportunity to help children learn to manage their emotions which is what ultimately builds healthy functioning and resilience. The goal is not to prevent children from having difficult feelings—which of course is not possible—but to help them learn to cope with them. The more we shame them the more we shut them down with a host of adverse outcomes.
So, when your child expresses disappointment, frustration or anger at not getting something he wants, no matter how irrational it may seem, I strongly encourage responding along the lines of: “I know you were hoping for pretzels and you’re really disappointed. We’ll have those another day. (If you can specify when your child will get what he desires, that’s even better.) Today the choices are apple slices and yogurt.” If your child refuses the choices, continue with: “Ok—that’s your decision. If you change your mind, let me know.” And move on. (Remember, don’t fear the tantrum!) This approach—that validates and shows empathy for your child’s experience while maintaining important limits—is what builds resilience and flexibility, the long-term goal.
To learn more about helping children manage their emotions, check out this blog.
Claire Lerner, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE for more than 18 years, where she oversaw the development of all parenting educational content.
Claire has been a practicing clinician for over 30 years, partnering with parents to understand the behavior and development of their young children. In addition, she provides consultation and training to local preschools and pediatric residents.