Has your child ever had a tantrum or become angry and started hitting someone?
Have they ever been frustrated and thrown the toys or pencils all over the floor?
Or maybe they started crying when a dear relative went home after a visit.
Perhaps in those moments, guided by good intentions and a willingness to help your child, you tried to name their emotions.
After all, it’s common parenting advice.
You might have heard the saying, “name it to tame it,” so you said things like, “You seem angry,” or “I see you are frustrated.”
But what happened?
Your child got angrier or more frustrated, yelling, “I’m NOT angry,” or “Shut up!”
They were supposed to calm down, not get angrier! What’s going on?
If this scenario sounds familiar, know that you are not alone. Many parents have experienced a reaction like this. Rest assured, there’s nothing wrong with your child for reacting this way.
But why do we get this type of reaction when we try to name or label our children’s emotions?
Why does naming their feelings sometimes backfire?
Isn’t it helpful for them?
And if we don’t name emotions, how can we support children when they’re overwhelmed by them?
To answer these questions, let’s look at what’s behind the “name it to tame it” advice.
Where did the “name it to tame it” idea come from?
“Name it to tame it” is a phrase coined by Dr Daniel Siegel and used in his book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.
The phrase is now a widely-used piece of advice for parents, who are encouraged to name their children’s emotions to help them manage their feelings and calm down.
The origin of the phrase began in experiments with brain scanners that monitored how, when a participant was shown something very emotionally evocative, they could name the emotion they felt and it would calm them. In one interview explaining his findings, Siegel describes this response as “squirting soothing neurotransmitters” to the limbic brain to calm it.
This research suggests that if we manage to name our own emotions when overwhelmed by them, it helps us to calm down, and “tame” the emotions.
As a short-term strategy, this can be helpful at times. Naming our own troubling emotions could prevent us from yelling at our children, lashing out at them, or blaming them. It might also give us a better chance at responding to the present moment in a more mindful way.
But this doesn’t explain the very different reactions we see when we name emotions for our kids.
In fact, naming our children’s emotions or having them name those emotions for themselves to calm them down can backfire and can do them a disservice in the long run.
Let’s see why.
Why naming emotions doesn't help children
The human brain can be viewed as having several different regions. One is the prefrontal cortex, a region that is implicated, among other things, in logic, reasoning, decision-making, and impulse control. Another is the limbic system which supports a variety of functions, including emotions and memories.
When all parts of the brain are harmoniously working together, we can easily control ourselves and make sense of what goes on around us. We are able to handle situations and find solutions.
But this state of harmony can become impaired when the brain is overwhelmed with emotions. The brain loses its integrated, ‘calm and rational' state, and enters an emotional emergency or ‘survival' state. In those moments we feel like we can’t think. This is where overwhelm kicks in, we get upset or “go ballistic.”
Children don’t like these states of overwhelm, they don’t feel good when they can’t think or can’t control their impulses. It can even be scary for them. They want to feel good again, they want to be able to think, and they want to be able to control their behaviour, but as long as the brain is flooded with emotions, that can’t happen.
You can discover more about how your child’s emotions work in the free guide ‘How Children’s Emotions Work’ or take this free online class ‘Understanding the Brain Science of Children's Emotions.’
Attune and listen to support a child to heal and build resilience
In challenging moments, the best thing we can do to support our children and the healing process is to hold space for them. We can do this by staying close, by listening to them, by allowing them to feel the emotions in their body and show us how they feel, without naming anything.
We call this process Staylistening and it is a powerful way to support an upset child. When you can stay close by and quietly attune to their emotional moment, children can begin to feel the feelings in their bodies. They will express and release those feelings through crying, yelling, struggling, and other bodily movements.
We can read these physical expressions as an outward sign that an internal process is taking place, where the brain sheds the tensions causing the overwhelm.
When we can offer warm attention while they are upset, children co-regulate, and slowly but surely internalize our calm response and the invitation to process feelings for themselves. This process helps them grow into strong, resilient adults, in touch with their own emotions.
Naming emotions stops a natural healing process
When an upset child is listened to with warmth and connection, their brain senses the connection, and the child can use it to release the emotions flooding their system. Call it nature’s own healing process.
The goal is to supportively listen and welcome your child’s full range of emotions, giving them the opportunity to fully clear them. When we allow this process to happen, our children feel good, safe and connected again when they’ve finished offloading their upset.
By contrast, using words to name children’s emotions interrupts, and in some cases stops, the healing process because labeling the feelings pulls the brain into a ‘rational' state. In this interview, Siegel stresses the importance of listening and attuning, supporting the child so that they recognise that although they feel uncomfortable they will be ok.
As Patty Wipfler, founder of Hand in Hand Parenting explains, naming “pulls the child away from being able to feel the feelings. It pulls the child away from noticing what’s going on in their limbic system and offloading the tension there, to trying to agree with you or disagree with you about the feeling that you named.”
In fact, when children process their feelings adequately, they reach their own state of calm. This happens not because they’ve tamed the emotions, but because those troubling emotions are no longer there. As Patty says, “Feelings that are felt fully are feelings that evaporate afterwards.”
If we want children to be able to feel and express those feelings in order to unload them and move on, then naming emotions does just the opposite.
We might get distracted or frustrated
Naming emotions also has some wider implications.
When we get caught up in trying to figure out the ‘right words’ to say, or in thinking about how to calm a child down, we lose our connection with them.
This sense of connection is the very thing they need to feel safe and seen and to believe they can make it through difficult or uncomfortable situations intact.
What about emotional literacy?
We might also get distracted by thinking that we need to teach them emotional literacy.
But thinking that we can use this as a learning moment does not line up with what we know about how the brain responds in moments of overwhelm. Since the prefrontal cortex, the region that is implicated in reasoning, is, essentially, out of action, a child is not in a good place to receive wisdom or be taught anything.
They cannot grasp new concepts or take in new information and so these are not “teachable” moments.
When we become preoccupied with teaching our children it’s easy to overlook what kids really need in the moment: a trusted companion who can help them navigate the emotional storm. Try talking, in general, about emotions in calmer times.
Children can feel alone, misunderstood, or intruded upon
A child’s emotional life is theirs. Who they trust with it, and how to express it, is very personal and so naming emotions for them can also feel intrusive.
As Mona Delahooke, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, explains, “From the time they’re toddlers, children are developing a sense of autonomy. When we suggest how they might be feeling they might feel intruded upon—and defensive.”
In those moments a child might feel like the adult crossed a line. They might get angrier or yell, leaving the adult to feel like naming emotions has backfired – which, in fact, it has.
Children can experience several emotions at the same time or can express a myriad of pent-up emotions. By naming just one, or mislabelling them, children might feel unseen or misunderstood.
It can be hard to be with an upset child. Your feelings deserve attention too.
Witnessing a child in the depths of big feelings can be extremely hard and your own feelings may bubble up as you try to support your child. Yelling and crying, anger and upset can spark your own frustration or annoyance. If this happens, know that it’s normal and very common. You can read more about why it happens and what to do about it in I Swore I’d Never Say That.
When we consistently shush, calm, or distract a child from their emotions they may sense those feelings are “off limits,” and try to stuff them away, which isn’t beneficial for them in the long run.
This is why as parents, it’s important that we address our own emotional needs outside of our relationship with our children.
If you find it challenging to stand by as your child is feeling all their emotions, reach out for support. Listening Partnerships can give you the space and attention your feelings also deserve.
If you have ever tried a Listening Partnership or had Listening Time, you will have noticed how allowing your feelings to be felt and expressed doesn’t make you more reactive and out of control. Instead, it helps you to become more resilient when faced with stress.
When You Just Don’t Have Time To Listen
Of course, it's not always possible to allow them time to fully Staylisten. Sometimes, we have to be out of the door, or we have obligations we cannot put off. In those cases, we might use distraction or “name it to tame it” in order to try and calm our children in the moment.
When it can give us a calm patch of time we need to do whatever we need to do and that’s just fine. It’s helpful to know that the feelings that were there have not, however, disappeared. You’ll see that children will soon try to find another opportunity to release and heal from those same prickly feelings, hopefully at a time when you are able to listen.
So did the experts get naming and taming wrong?
Did the experts get it wrong? Not entirely. Dr Siegel certainly wasn't wrong when he says that naming emotions calms the system. If that is your goal, naming works. However, he also points out that children should be allowed to feel their feelings if we want them to be able to build resilience and cope well in stressful situations. And that vital step is one that often seems to be overlooked.
Talking about emotions with a child when things are calm helps them identify feelings intellectually. But when feelings have already overwhelmed a child’s system, valuable work is done when a child can feel them fully, release them, and move on.
In those times, lean in, listen and let them feel what they feel.