We are so excited to introduce our guest questioner Amber Dusick, writer and illustrator of the highly successful blog Parenting. Illustrated with Crappy Pictures. Her first book, “Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures,” was recently released and is now available on Amazon. Amber is the mother of two young boys and we are thrilled to welcome her as our first celebrity contributor!
MOLLY: Amber added that her 3-and-1/2-year old says it every time he’s angry or frustrated, even when it has nothing to do with her. How can she help him learn more appropriate ways to vent his feelings?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (Molly’s Mom): This is a very common thing to see in 3-year olds. I think it’s because they’re just beginning to understand that they have emotions and they’re trying to express themselves. They don’t have all the wherewithall to do it with any finesse, but, they’re actually trying to express their feelings in words rather than in actions like hitting, biting, kicking, or other violent expressions like that. 3-year olds might say “I don’t like you,” when they’re angry or frustrated, and that is good that they are using words rather than aggression, but it becomes a big issue because the parent or other recipient takes it personally and it feels hurtful.
MOLLY: Why does it come out as “I don’t like you,” instead of “I’m mad about…” or “I don’t want to do that….”
DR. RUTHERFORD: Because they haven’t yet learned the right words to express how they feel. You can encourage a child to say, “Mommy, you hurt my feelings,” rather than, “I don’t like you,” and this will help him learn a more appropriate way to deal with it now, and it will also help him later on as he grows up to know how to express his feelings in a more appropriate way. It’s actually a good sign that kids express themselves verbally, but it can be very hard for parents to hear.
MOLLY: What’s the best way to respond?
DR. RUTHERFORD: There are a couple of ways to respond. You can encourage a child to say, “Mommy, my feelings are hurt,” rather than saying, “I hate you,” or saying other mean words. This is actually a cornerstone for good interpersonal communication skills and this technique – addressing issues with “I” phrases, as in “I feel badly when…” – will be helpful when dealing with friendships in the childhood years and adult relationships later on.
MOLLY: But how do you encourage 3-and-1/2-year olds to have the self-awareness to do that?
DR. RUTHERFORD: You tell your child that it’s not nice to say that he hates Mommy. Tell him you understand that he is feeling mad or upset about something, and give him the words to express himself: “I feel mad!”
It’s a process thing. One time is probably not going to do it. You’ll have to do it a few times before it sinks in. As a parent or caregiver, you can say to a preschooler: “I’m glad you’re expressing your feelings. Can you tell me what’s making you angry right now?”
MOLLY: Ask the child what’s making him angry?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes. Tell the kid that you’re glad that he can verbally express his feelings, and then ask him what it is that’s making him angry. Sometimes the kid can tell you and sometimes he can’t, but you have to kind of help children along with this process.
MOLLY: What about that feelings game – when you show kids pictures of different emotions? How does that work?
DR. RUTHERFORD: I think that’s very helpful. I remember doing that with your sister’s oldest child when he was very little. I drew pictures of different feelings – in a very schematic kind of way.
MOLLY: Like a happy face, sad face, mad face and scared face?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Right. And say: “What do you think this face is expressing?” “What does this face say?” And it really sticks. What my grandson did with this… he was pretty little when I did it with him. Afterward, he showed the chart to his mom and told her about the faces and described all the feelings. I think putting a picture to it is extremely helpful. There are some children’s books out there that can be helpful with this exercise.
MOLLY: So that’s another way we can teach kids to be expressive. But, as a mom, if my child said this to me, you’re saying I shouldn’t feel that this is something I did wrong, right?
DR. RUTHERFORD: No, I think that when kids say, “Mommy I don’t like you,” they don’t mean it in the same way that an adult would mean it. They’re just trying to test out how to express their feelings without biting you or kicking you or having a tantrum.
The whole idea of this strategy is that you don’t discipline a child for expressing their feelings. You don’t punish them for saying, “Mommy I don’t like you.”
This is opposed to actual bad behavior, where you deal with it differently. You really want kids to learn how to express themselves verbally but you really can’t expect a 3-year old to express himself in the most appropriate of ways. Manners are not innate; they have to be taught.
It’s actually a positive sign when a kid expresses himself verbally; not a negative sign. As the child gets a little older, you will want to help him or her differentiate between expressing feelings and actually being mean. Meanness is a behavior issue and there will be later repercussions for this in a child’s life beyond the house, beyond the relationship with the parents. With kids at school, with teachers, with co-workers…
MOLLY: If the kid doesn’t learn how to express their feelings now, as a preschooler, what kinds of behaviors might we see later on in their lives?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Obviously, as people age it gets harder to teach them new behaviors. People can continue to learn and change as they get older, but it gets harder and they can become more resistant to advice or direction. You want to start molding behavior really early on.
Really, I understand how it makes parents feel badly when they hear their kids say, “I don’t like you,” but you have to put it in perspective, and in this case, understand where the kid is coming from and that the words are not personal. Then you teach a child to express himself in different words that won’t hurt your feelings and move on from there. Remember that you are the grown-up and your job is not to take things a 3-year old says personally, but to help him learn better ways to express his emotions and communicate.
MOLLY: As an adult, if someone hasn’t learned how to express themselves appropriately, what might you see?
DR. RUTHERFORD: You probably have run into people who have said inappropriate things to you in your life. I know adults like this: they’ll say things in a very direct way that comes out as hurtful which they might not even recognize as being hurtful. No one has ever taught them how to put their feelings into different sets of words, so they offend people and then wonder why people don’t want to be around them. Adults and children who never learn this skill end up alienating people by expressing themselves in ways that we don’t consider socially acceptable.