Organising feelings – “being with”

Imagine the following scenario…

You like to collect things or grow things or build things. It’s an interest of yours, and it makes you feel happy.

But this hobby of yours is not compatible with growing, rambunctious children.

During one vigorous play session, your children break one of your things.

You are upset. It cost a lot of money or took a long time to acquire. It was one of your favourites.

After grumbling at the kids, your partner/mother/friend tells you how futile your hobby is, how it shouldn’t have been in that place where the kids could wreck it, and s/he starts giving you lots of advice. So you grumble at him or her as well.

You don’t want the advice or the criticism. You want someone to listen to you. You want someone to acknowledge your feelings, to empathise, and to hear you.  You want someone to tell you how much it sucks that your thing was broken, and how disappointed you must be. It would feel good for someone to kneel beside you and help you pick up the broken pieces.

And, so it is with children.

Acknowledging your child’s feelings won’t make them soft or sooks or cry babies. It will make them feel understood. They will feel seen and heard, valued and loved. And they will get over their hurt quicker with less resentment because meeting the need extinguishes the need. It will help them bounce back from disappointment, because life can be full of hurt and disappointment and it’s nice to be able to have someone to talk to about it. A child that experiences empathy will become empathic.

Organising feelings or “being with” is taught in the Circle of Security parenting course. “Being with” is like riding the wave of emotion with the child rather than butting up against it. You do this by:

  • reflecting what the child is saying or the sounds she is making;
  • mirroring the child’s facial expressions;
  • observing and describing what you see the child doing;
  • and labelling the emotions that you think the child is feeling.

You can do this with children of any age, even newborns. You don’t hush them or try to make them feel happy or distract them from what they are feeling. Through co-regulation they learn self regulation.

pushing against

Pushing against your child’s emotions is represented by the above graphic. Everything your child says and does, you try to push it another way or you say something to counter it.

being with

In “being with”, you go with your child’s feelings until they hit the bottom and then when your child starts to come back up you follow his lead.

You start by saying what you think your child is feeling and describing what you are observing. Something like this “you look so mad, your face is red, and you are stamping your feet, it’s such a big, big feeling”. And then you wait. Sometimes the child will say something like “Not mad, I’m sad”. Great! Don’t ask any questions just keep acknowledging the feelings. It’s kind of like a running commentary but it’s in a kind, wondering, gentle, quiet kind of way.

Breathe the way the child is breathing, follow his lead. As his breaths get calmer. breathe those too. If he sighs, you sigh. If he has a sad face you mirror his sad face. When he smiles, you smile back. Acknowledge how hard it is depending on the circumstance, “it’s hard when you are little and you want to do something that isn’t safe”. Keep riding the wave, don’t push against it. Trust that your child is processing the emotions the way she needs to.

A parent that I worked with a few years ago, had a child who was regularly having tantrums that were four hours long. She was able to do this “being with” process for one of those tantrums, and it was his last.  She said that by the end of the four hours, they were both a sweaty mess and completely exhausted. The next tantrum he had, lasted ten minutes and she sent me a message on my mobile phone saying “thank you”. Four hours is a champion effort. The more often you follow this process with the child, the smaller the upsets become because your child internalises how to soothe herself.

In order to do “being with” effectively, there are a few things that you must be able to do:

  •  Be calm. You cannot calm a child unless you are calm. If you are not calm, take some time out to calm yourself first.
  • Make sure you have time to follow the whole process from start to finish. It could take a while, and you don’t want to start a process that you can’t finish. So, five minutes before school starts may not be the best option.
  • Stay with the process. If you jump out of the process and yell at your child or send him to his room, he will find it difficult to trust you the next time you try to help him to organise his feelings.

Notice how in this process, there is not a barrage of questions, advice, or moral reasoning. The parent does not dismiss or deny how the child is feeling or try to distract him from his feelings.  The parent does not tell him to “get over it” or “get on with it” or “don’t worry, it could be worse”. The parent does not jump into solving the problem or talking about what happened to her once upon a time. The parent does not lecture. The parent does not take  another person’s side.

It’s a process of delving down into the child’s feelings and emotions with him and coming out the other side together. If you do this often enough, your child will learn to accept and manage her own strong emotions, learn how to solve problems, and learn to know when she is coping well or when she needs to get help. This is emotional intelligence. this is what you want.

Example of “being with”

My youngest son (7 years) was upset that he didn’t get to see the giant wombat display at the Australian Museum. He had run ahead of his carer and missed out on seeing the display. After he returned from the excursion, he was whingeing and grumbling about not seeing the giant wombat and making demands of me to take him back to the Museum the next weekend. I gently reminded him that he should not have been running ahead of his carer. This, of course, did nothing to quell the whingeing.

When he got into the car he refused to put on his seat belt. I calmly told him that I could wait as long as it needed to take. Eventually, he relented and put on his seat belt.

Then he started again with the incident over the wombat. He’s a very persistent lad this one.

I said, in my most empathic voice…

“You sound so sad that you missed seeing the wombat”.

“You really wanted to see it, and feel like the day was spoilt by not seeing it.”

“You really want to go back to the Museum to see it.”

With everything I said, he came up with another protest, which I simply reflected, both his feelings and what he was telling me. And then the flood gates opened, he sobbed wholeheartedly. He went to the depths of his despair. I was driving at the time so I could only use my words and I reflected “you are so very sad, you’re letting all of your sadness out now”.

After he stopped crying, he started coming out of the despair and cheerfully talked about other things he saw and did at the Museum.

This exchange, where I helped to organise his feelings, took no more than three minutes. If I hadn’t acknowledged his feelings about the incident, he would still be harbouring resentment over the incident, I assure you. The mistaken behaviour two weeks down the track would still be related to not seeing the wombat. By organising his feelings and truly listening to him his upset was processed within minutes, and he hasn’t mentioned it since.

However, I really don’t think it was about the wombat. He had a long tiring day where his excitement was at its peak, and at the end of the day he was crashing. He would also have been secretly upset that he had disappointed his carer.

Testimonial from a parent

My 4 year-old son has been fighting bedtime and not sleeping until 10.30-11pm each night all week. He would sleep-in to catch the needed sleep but not this morning as I needed to wake him for daycare. He spent the day at daycare, no nap. After daycare, it was off to the babysitters as I attend night school. After night school I pick him up, leaving at 9.30pm. It’s a long day.

On the way home my son completely cracks into full tantrum mode when I refuse to let him use my mobile phone in the car. Screaming and crying. Nothing I say settles him. We get home and I am tired and cranky. I’m finding it so hard to stick to my ‘no’ when he is sobbing and using his manners to try to get the phone. Now, before Circle of Security, my response was usually one of two things: either give in to what he wanted to avoid the tantrum, or get frustrated, yell and then feel bad that I lost my cool (and cranky at myself because it never actually helped the situation anyway!).

My child was in full meltdown. Would not let me anywhere near him. He was crying on the bed, facing away from me. So I used ‘Being With’. I sat a bit away from him and started to just breathe with him. I mirrored his body language and facial expressions, and labelled his feelings. He eventually turned towards me. We went through a few cycles of starting to calm and then frustration at still not getting the phone, but eventually he was able to regain control of his emotions and was able to be calm and settled. We got a bedtime book and then after a story and a cuddle he fell asleep.

I feel like it was such a success! Through ‘being with’ I was able to help him, and be with him, rather than push against him and keep pushing until it ended up in a big mess, and a lot of hurt.


Narelle Smith

“When you know better, you do better.” Maya Angelou


Related Articles

Giving your children the brush-off – Janet Lansbury

The right way to respond to failure – Peter Bregman

Training wheels for toddler negotiations – Nathan McTague




Categories: Managing Emotions


5 replies

  1. As I was reading this, I thought of an incident with a family member that I haven’t been able to shake. I wondered if I wanted that person, who had always been supportive and kind, to acknowledge how what they did hurt my feelings. I’m not sure — will have to think about it more.

    • Hi Marcia

      Not being heard or acknowledged can cause resentment. When children live in an environment where their feeling and pain are discounted or dismissed it can affect whether they reach out to others in the future or not. Alternatively they may amplify their distress to force their carers to respond, in either a positive or negative way.

      Thank you for your comment.


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