So before I talk about what to do with feelings, what are they exactly?
"Your subconscious is like a computer—more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions—which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values." --Ayn Rand "Philosophy: Who Needs It" from Philosophy: Who Needs It
So basically, feelings are automatic physiological responses to value judgments a person has already made. Feelings can be good clues to figuring out your thinking, but feelings can never replace thinking. Feelings, as automatic responses, are neither wrong or right; only the underlying conclusions can be wrong or right.
So what does this mean about the way parents should respond to children's emotions? One more quote:
"An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception . . . .
In the field of introspection, the two guiding questions are: “What do I feel?” and “Why do I feel it?”" --Ayn Rand "Philosophical Detection" from Philosophy: Who Needs It
The correct response to an emotion is introspection, asking oneself these two questions. But small children are not yet skilled in introspection, so it should be our goal as parents to model the process for them, both in dealing with our own emotions and with their. First, an example of modeling when dealing with our own emotions.
Today, Livy was playing over at Jenn's house with Ryan, Morgan, and two neighbor boys. The kids were excited and chase each other into the street. I immediately yelled, "Out of the street!" with real fear in my voice. When they were safely in the yard, I told them how scared I was when they went into the street and why. I identified my emotion for them - yelling, big-eyed Mom equals fear - (first question - "What do I feel?"), and then I told them that a car might have hit them (Why do I feel it?). By modeling an identification of my emotion and a reason why I feel it, I am teaching them not only to stay out of the street, but how to introspect.
Now an example of dealing with a child's emotions:
Livy comes running into the house, crying. I go to her and pick her up and ask, "What is the matter, sweetie?" She launches into a story about how they were playing red light green light and Ryan did this and Morgan did this and then that happened and then this happened, etc. I listen until she is done telling me the story, and then I say, "You sound really mad. Are you mad?" Sometimes I am right, sometimes not. Let's say this time she says, "No, I am sad." Then I say, "I can see that are so so so sad." She says, "Yes. So sad. As sad as the whole universe." So now we have answered the first question: What are you feeling? Next, she might (cause she is 6) tell me why she is sad. "Ryan or Morgan or someone else or the universe hurt my feelings by doing X." But when she was smaller, I would say, "Are you sad because Ryan, Morgan, or whoever did X?" Sometimes a yes, sometimes a no, but now she is focused on the second question: Why do I feel it?
If a parent hides his own feelings and the reasons for them, he has denied the child a chance to observe introspection. If the parent tells a child in the grip of an emotion, "Don't be upset. It will be alright." or distracts the child from his emotion or tells the child his emotion is not appropriate, he has denied the child a chance to practice introspection. I believe that preventing children for experiencing, thinking about, and working through their emotions leads to repression.
So validating the child's feelings in the moment means:
1. postponing a rational discussion of the thoughts behind the emotion until the introspection is done. In other words, let people feel what they feel before you start trying to find solutions. This can be especially hard if they child's emotions seem inappropriate or are directed at you. But, emotions are valid, even if they underlying thoughts are not, and so letting the emotion happen before working on the underlying thoughts allows introspection and then problem solving.
2. "not fixing, rescuing, or trying to talk children out of their feelings." -- Jane Nelson A big emotion is a great chance for kids to introspect and to learn that they are capable. They learn that feeling sad or scared or angry won't last forever, and that they can make it through.
3. being present with the child who is in the grip of a big emotion. Emotions, for the child who is still unskilled at dealing with them, can be really scary. Their hearts may race; they may feel out of control; or they might get all sweaty or shaky. It is much easier to do the hard work of introspection when we feel safe and supported. Also, since children are not skilled introspectors, they need a parent to help them walk through the process. I am always amazed that adults expect 2 year olds in time out to "think about what you did;" it is our job as parents to teach them how to do that kind of thinking.
One final thought: I think validating feelings would work wonders for most relationships, not just those with children. How many of us have felt, after telling a friend or spouse about a problem, that we wished they had just supported us and then let us come up with our own solutions? For children, I think it is the same. When they are in the grip of an emotion, they need our support and love while they are feeling the emotion and introspecting about it, and then they can work on their own solutions (probably with our help). By jumping right in to end the emotion and get the problem solved for them, we deny them a chance to be efficacious.