But What about Behaviour?

October 23, 2019

This is the second post in our series about emotions. Click here if you’d like to read our first post, “All Feelings Are Valid”.

If it’s alright to feel upset, is it okay to throw a tantrum in a crowded supermarket?

If it’s acceptable to feel angry, are we allowed to hit people who make us feel that way?

If frustration is valid, is it permissible for kids to roll their eyes and speak rudely to their parents?

We easily associate different types of behaviours with the feelings that drive them, since these behaviours are the most obvious expressions of their underlying emotions. However, there is a key difference between our feelings and the actions we take as a result of them.

Our feelings live inside of us and are immediate sensations that arise in response to the things around us. They’re part and parcel of being human, and no feelings are better or worse than any others. On the other hand, our behaviour is the outward expression of the thoughts and feelings in our minds. Although our actions are often connected to how we feel, regardless of what feelings they came from, some behaviours are desirable, while others are plain unacceptable. The distinction is this:

All feelings are valid, but not all behaviours are permissible.

Dr. Haim Ginott writes in his book, Between Parent and Child, that children “cannot be held responsible for their feelings but only for their behaviour”. That is to say, parents should not punish children for their feelings, but should set clear boundaries and rules for their behaviour.

What can parents say to let their kids know that their feelings are valid but their behaviour was not?

Step 1: Acknowledge the feeling.

“It sounds like you’re feeling extremely angry.”

It takes a great deal of restraint for parents to respond to the feeling before the behaviour! This first step is about acknowledging might seem “obvious” — the very fact of how your child feels. You can read more about neutral ways to acknowledge your child’s feelings in our previous post, All Feelings Are Valid.

Step 2: Empathise with the feeling.

“I would be furious too if my friend called me that horrible name.”

Addressing your child’s feelings first serves to establish an emotional connection between the two of you, which makes all the difference in how willing they are to talk about what just happened.

Step 3: Address the misbehaviour.

“You punched your friend because you were angry. No matter how angry you are, it is never okay to hit anyone or resort to violence.”

Notice that while addressing the behaviour, you should be very firm about what behaviours, actions, or ways of speaking are strictly off-limits and unacceptable. At the same time, you are not casting any judgement on your child’s character by calling them mean or rude, or saying things like “How on earth could you do that?”

Step 4: Set limits and think of other solutions.

“The next time you feel angry, even if you wish you could just hit someone, what is something else you can do?”

Nobody enjoys feeling upset, angry, or afraid. When your child has these feelings, you can show them that you are drawing the rules but also rooting for them to follow them by coming up with different ways to manage their feelings when they do come up.

This week, if you notice your child acting or speaking in a way that you disapprove of, take a moment to go through these steps with them, starting with their feelings. With time, you’ll begin to see how your child learns the difference between their feelings and their actions too.