Raising Children with Emotional Health Part 2 – by Moshe Norman

moshe normanIn our previous article we noted that since parents feel responsible to protect their child from discomfort, they often either dismiss their child’s complaints, or they will try to pacify the child. Our goal in this article is to learn an alternative response.

Take, for instance, a child who comes in crying that he fell and scraped his elbow or banged his foot. A typical response might be, “Oy, do you need a Band-Aid to make it feel better?” Pacified. Another response, “Oh, it doesn’t look too bad, I think you’ll be ok.” Dismissed. Sometimes, parents will try to dismiss with humor, “Oy vey, maybe we should call Hatzola!”

We want to help our children develop in a way that fosters stable, healthy emotions. We want them to develop tolerance. Tolerance to distress. Tolerance to disappointment. Tolerance to pain and to discomfort. We want them to learn how to not get their way, yet not fly off the handle. WE know that life is not fair. The rich kid at school IS treated preferentially, and always will be. The Rebbe DOES make mistakes and blame the wrong child. Adults sometimes make poor judgments, and the morning school bus does come too early here and there. And parents do NOT count pieces of Shabbos cereal. But as parents we are discovering that by merely trying to convince our children that life is not fair is not effectively getting the message accross. How can we respond in a way that works?

Just validate, nothing else. No reason to add, “but that’s life” (dismissed). No, “since he got a lollipop, you’ll can have cookies instead” (pacified). Here’s what it sounds like:

“Oy, that scrape looks like it really hurts!”

“It sounds like Rebbe may have blamed the wrong kid. It’s pretty upsetting when that happens.”

“Did Zalmen get more shabbos cereal? Oh, That’s disappointing!”

“Yeah, It’s pretty frustrating that the rich kid gets preferential treatment, isn’t it?”

But, you ask, what about solving the problem? How does agreeing and validating solve the problem? Let’s explain.

To begin, we all learn from our life experiences. They wire our brain. We learn to react calmly from observing people react calmly. We learn to become anxious around certain people and in specific circumstances. We learn to feel angered when we witness an injustice by observing others become angry. Certain times of the year just breed jubilation. We don’t do anything to make it happen; it is just the experience itself. The association. Those are learned experiences. They actually develop our neurological makeup, the way our brain appears. And we react and respond based on that. Our brains are molded through our experiences. People who lived for months or years under severe stress will have a different neurological makeup on a PET scan than those who were in a less intense environment.

Now, let’s understand. There are two parts to a complaint. There is the content of the complaint, and the emotion within the complaint. When a child complains that his brother got a lollipop, the content is the lollipop, and the emotion is jealousy. Had his brother not gotten the lollipop, would he have asked for one? If not, the content is hardly relevant. It’s not about the lollipop. It’s about the emotion. He’s jealous, and rightfully so; he wants to have what his brother has. So if we give him the pop, his brain develops a response to dealing with “jealousy.” In order to get rid of that yucky feeling, it must to be pacified.

As parents, our goal is to train our child’s brain to develop the ability to feel and yet tolerate jealousy. We want to help him simply allow the feeling to exist and to be ok with it. To feel valid about his feeling needy when someone has an item he wants. To forgive himself for feeling the emotion, without feeling ashamed for having experienced it. We want him to experience anger and embrace the feeling without trying to “push it away.” If we can help our child do that, he won’t need to fly off the handle. He’ll be able to tolerate the experience and move on. To become frustrated and be able to stay calm through the experience. To feel hurt and insulted, and not need to take revenge. That’s a healthy child.

When a child’s negative emotions are constantly dismissed, he interprets those emotions as “bad.” When he experiences jealousy, he now has an agenda to rid himself of it. He can’t. He wants the lollipop. He now feels ashamed. The shame grows, and the self-worth withers. On the other hand, if the emotions are pacified, he interprets the emotions as “intolerable.” When he experiences them, they “must” be done away with. If nobody pacifies him, we might see explosive behavior. And yes, even when he is grown.

Validation allows the negative emotion to exist without doing anything to change it. It simply agrees that his current jealousy or anger is legitimate, or at least that we can understand that he is feeling that way. The neurological interpretation is merely, “I guess I am jealous because he has the lollipop.” There is no judgment, no guilt, no pacification. It is simply an observation. And that is how a child learns to tolerate an emotion. When the sub-emotion is emotionless. There is no guilt or shame for feeling upset or jealous; it just coexists with the child. Use validation with anger, guilt, frustration, despair and the whole gamut of emotions, and your children will turn out emotionally resilient.

So, dear readers, the next article will iy”H put some emphasis on HOW to validate. How to properly provide your children with the tools they need to be happy and healthy. And how to do it without sounding like a therapist!

But for now, here are some practice cases for you commentators to work with. Let’s see if who is willing to give a shot at some proper responses to the following common scenarios. Anyone up to the challenge?

“Ma, you’re so mean, you NEVER let me go to Chaya’s house!

”Waaa! Mimi’s bike scratched me!”

“I am NOT doing this homework, it is too long!!”

“Why do we have to eat supper now? I’m missing all the fun outside!”

“Ugh. I hate this supper!”

“It’s YOUR fault that I missed my bus this morning!”

Moshe Norman is a Licensed Social Worker in Lakewood, NJ, and specializes in parent-child relationships by helping parents identify and develop their child’s lagging skills. He can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. R’ Moshe is such a tzaddik & a huge mentsh. He is also very bright & he knows the sugya of Children’s mental health superbly. I used to shmooze w/ him a LOT when he lived in Coventry & he gave me a ton of good, normal, implementable advice for raising my kids thru their turbulent ages. His article is great. Thanx, R’ Moshe ! Ur the best !! Hatzlocha !!

  2. Very informative and clear! If I understand correctly, to validate would be to “mirror” their statement and perhaps name a feeling with it to show I understand? Ex: “It must be so disappointing that the supper we are having is one that you don’t like.” But I wouldn’t try to pacify by offering alternatives I guess. Not sure how I would address the “you’re so mean” statement. I guess it would depend on the age of the child because that sounds disrespectful.

  3. Mrs. E, thanks for the brave shot! Yes, naming the feeling is certainly a plus, as it gives the child an emotion with which to identify the feeling. This helps him to identify this feeling in the future when he experiences it again, enabling him to tolerate it better. That is, assuming you are certain which emotion he is experiencing.
    I would caution you, though, regarding the words “It MUST be.” I hope to discuss this in next week’s article, but I did mention the idea of validating “without sounding like a therapist,” and those words are dangerous territory. Stay tuned!
    With regards to “You’re so mean!” I hope to address that as well. But for now, let’s refer back to the point in the article that addressed the “content” of the complaint vs. the “emotion within the complaint.” When the child says “You’re so mean!”, if we get stuck on the content we say, “Go to your room, you can ‘t call a Mommy mean!” That is what I call “a fight,” or grounds for a potential power struggle. It addresses the “content” which can be debated. You defend that you are not mean (which she may disagree with, and she might be correct!), or use your power of authority to punish her for saying so, but she is still upset about the perceived injustice. You may have forced her mouth closed, but haven’t helped train her to tolerate “upsetness.” You haven’t addressed her emotion. We want to see “You’re so mean!” as emotion and imagine there was no content!

    How about, “Wow, I can see how upset you are if you are calling me names! Are you upset because I didn’t let you stay out late? I could see how that is upsetting.”
    Don’t forget, however, to come back later that night or the next day, when things are calm and happy and say, “Remember yesterday you were upset that I made you come in earlier than you wanted? And then you called me ‘mean?’ I understand you were upset, and it really feels inappropriate when you call me names, even though you are rightfully upset. Is there some way we can agree on no name calling, or can we come up with a different solution when you are so upset at me?”
    This way you address what is appropriate and inappropriate so that she can learn what you will & won’t tolerate, AND it is done in a way that she will be open to listening—not a fight!

  4. These answers might be a little paradoxical, but here goes…

    Ma, you’re so mean, you NEVER let me go to Chaya’s house!
    – Yes. I’m the meanest mother in the neighborhood…. And you will never go to Chaya’s house again…

    Waaa! Mimi’s bike scratched me!
    – Bad bike! Bad bike!

    I’m NOT doing this homework, it’s too long!
    Ok. I understand that. Then just do the first and last question. Maybe the teacher won’t notice that the other answers are missing!

    Why do we have to eat supper now? I’m missing all the fun outside!
    Because in the morning we eat ‘breakfast’…

    Ugh. I hate this supper!
    Is that all you have say to your dear mother after she slaved for hours over a hot stove?!

    It’s YOUR fault I missed the bus this morning!
    Yes. And it will be MY fault when you miss the bus again tomorrow!

    How did I do?!
    All kidding aside… a well written article.

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