Parenting Big Scary Feelings – How to Build a Strong Bond

Parenting is haaaaaard! (Did you hear my whiny toddler-inspired tone there?)

But tirelessly (and sometimes sleepless-ly) putting in the work to raise your children so they become kind, strong, compassionate, passionate ethical people that this world needs more of is a pretty incredible reward. One of the best.

Parenting a baby can be exhausting with little sleep. But that’s often the easiest time. Baby is hungry? Food! Baby needs a change? New diaper! And so forth. Don’t get me wrong, figuring out what they need can be a bit of a puzzle. But once you figure it out, it’s often pretty easy to meet baby’s needs.

Fast forward to the toddler years, and it’s a totally different story. Kids are finding their voices, discovering themselves as beings separate from their parents, declaring their independence, and struggling to deal with some Big Scary Feelings in the process.

These feelings can be a lot to manage for one so small and inexperienced. But the way you show up in the situation can help you to build an even stronger bond with your kids.


Here’s an example…

Yesterday I was working in the garden, and my son, almost 2 years old, was “helping” me, playing with his garden tools. He kept trying to drink from his watering can, and I told him that it was yucky, and that if he persisted, I would need to take it away. (In toddler terms, of course.) After another warning, I took it from him – and he was NOT a happy camper.

One might say to a child, “Deal with it. You were told this would happen, and did it anyway, so get over it. You’ll learn your lesson and listen better next time.”

While I understand the logic behind that approach, I wanted to help my son deal with the big emotions that came up for him. Sometimes putting a name to something, and explaining that it’s normal, can make it seem a lot less scary.

(This holds true even for us adults – I’m sure if you have experienced pregnancy, labor, and birth, that there was at least one part of it that seemed scary or difficult, and hearing from your midwife or doctor that it was normal probably made you feel a lot better.)

As adults, we’ve been feeling emotions all our lives. But for little kids, it can be a scary unfamiliar experience to feel something so strongly.

And so, seeing my son overwhelmed with emotion, I took a break to sit with him on the grass. I put aside my work, my weeds, my frustration and impatience to have 5 uninterrupted minutes to just get something done, and I was present with my son.
Empathize Image

He screamed and shouted, demanding his watering can back. Instead of trying to reason with him, I empathized.

“It’s hard to have something taken away when you want to play with it, huh? I bet that makes you angry and frustrated, and maybe a little sad. Those are big feelings to deal with, and it’s ok to feel them. You don’t have to feel them alone. I love you, and I’m here for you. We’ll do it together.”

Someday he’ll have a broader vocabulary and I can explain what these emotions are, and what they might feel like in his body. I can provide him with more tools to process them. But in that moment, I gave him a safe place to feel his emotions.

I let him cry and stomp, appropriate behavior for a toddler overcome with big feelings. I gave him hugs, and I empathized. Later, when he wasn’t processing such emotion, I could explain to him why the watering can was taken away, and how Mama was trying to help him stay healthy. We could talk then about how he had the power to make a different choice in in the future.

The important part, though, was being present with him. If I had left him to deal with his feelings alone, unsure of how to express or manage his anger, he likely would have worked himself up further into a full-out tantrum. My presence helped him to calm down, and when he was ready, he moved onto a different activity with his shovel, still “helping.” Empathizing made all the difference.

And our bond grew stronger – he knows he can bring his big emotions to me, and that we can process them together. We’re on the same team.


A Toddler’s Compassion

My son and I have had conversations about feeling sad the past few weeks. Sometimes the neighbors aren’t available to play. Sometimes the weather isn’t good for a trip to the playground. And he’s found a lot of comfort in my hugs as we talk about sadness.

When the deer got into the garden and ate my peas, spinach, and chard, I was heart-broken. I told my son, “Mama is sad.”

His response instantly warmed my heart. “Yug!” He shouted, flinging open his arms. He had learned that hugs helped him feel better when he was sad, and he wanted to help me, his Mama, deal with sadness, just as I had helped him to process his in the past.

My heart melted.

I am so proud that I’m raising a caring, compassionate person who wants to support others.

When he hears a baby cry at the store, he wants to bring that baby a passi, because that’s what helps him feel better when he’s crying.

And when someone he loves says they’re sad, he insists on giving them a “yug.” And for the record, toddler “yugs” are some of the best!

How has being present with your children and their emotions helped your family? Share in the comments below.


  1. This a great post, Nicole. How we teach our children to feel and be with their emotions will impact their life. I know this (though sometimes I forget): when I push aside my emotions (and in doing so model that for my kids), everything seems worse (tempers, tantrums, moods). My reminder for today: empathizing in the hard moments rather than reasoning. Thank you!

  2. Nicole

    Glad you enjoyed it, Robin! 🙂

  3. Sara Yant

    I hope it’s ok to share this long story! It’s something I wrote after an experience with my kids (ages 10 and 12). Thank you for your stories and encouragement – and desire to help raise compassionate kids and be present with them as they grow through different things. Wonderful!

    Cracks of Light

    It’s surprising when something sweet rises from unexpected loss. We naturally search for meaning, to find even the tiniest cracks of light shining through to the darkest places. In this, we emerge finding something deeply beautiful.

    Our family has been enjoying the new wonders of living near a forest preserve: The delights of colorful blooms, deep greens and reds, the flurry of bright feathers, the joy of baby geese and deer, rabbits and turtles, dragon flies and blue herons. We walk and wonder at life all around us. We carefully steered a baby duck back to the water as she dangerously moved toward a busy road. We felt triumphant!

    Recently on our way to town, we came across another rescue opportunity. Driving by the lake, we spotted a large turtle making her way across the busy road. Of course, we turned the car around and prepared to carry her carefully to safety where she could continue her journey and lay her eggs. I wish I could tell you that we triumphed again and celebrated in our mission. But this is a different story, one that lets light shine in the cracks of darkness.

    I told the kids to wait in the car as I opened my door. Then, as if time slowed before our eyes, I saw the car coming and thought “Oh no, my kids are watching”. We heard the terrible crunch, my chest thumped in pain as my daughter burst into tears. We were all shocked and moved the car, got out, and had moments together that I will never forget. I whispered “Help me find the words” knowing this memory will remain.

    In the next moments, we cried, expressed our shock and sadness, our wishes that things like this didn’t happen. And we just shared this grief together. Later, as we drove away, still carrying the weight of it all, we talked about loss. I was able to tell them that life is a precious gift and if we didn’t feel the pain and sadness of loss, it would mean we didn’t care, we weren’t truly living. They seemed to grasp this. We felt grateful for life, for the times we can help, and sadness for the times we can’t. It wasn’t our fault this happened. The other driver hadn’t seen. We needed to move through this and find some meaning.

    I dropped the kids off and went to work, but I cried several times that day. I realize there are much greater tragedies and losses in daily lives, the nation, around the world. Our tiny experience is but a reflection of loss and grief at all levels. With sorrow, I was able to recognize a gift: My kids could have something to process that gives them tools that will help them down the road with deeper losses they will undoubtedly face. I also recognized the roots of compassion and value for all life growing deep in their tender hearts.

    Last summer, the grief of losing my sweet mother to ovarian cancer was still raw and heavy. At times it still is. A friend gave our family monarch eggs to care for. We had the delight of watching them (and many more!) through all stages and setting them free after emerging from the cocoons, transformed. It was magical! The pain and sorrow of our loss was still there, and I want more than anything to have my mom back. The Monarchs didn’t remove our sorrow or change our loss. But they were cracks of light in the darkness. What a gift to witness change and beauty in butterflies even in the midst of grief. It made us think perhaps the pain and ache will make room for a bit of peace along the way.

    We need to grieve losses. Be patient and kind as others grieve. It helps to find bits of light in darkness and find some form of gratitude for the gift of life we have today. It gives hope and strength in the journey. Loss, grief and struggle change us, yet we may emerge from this season with new and deeper beauty.

    Elisabeth Kubler-Ross said: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These people have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

    • Sara, thank you for your vulnerability sharing this beautiful and touching story. It brought tears to my eyes! I love that you were present with your children through the experience, and how you framed it: “I was able to tell them that life is a precious gift and if we didn’t feel the pain and sadness of loss, it would mean we didn’t care, we weren’t truly living.” This runs very deep.
      I’m sorry for the loss of your mother. I imagine that loss aches daily. What a delight that the monarchs brought you “cracks of light in the darkness.”
      Thank you for being such a loving, dedicated mother to your children. They are incredibly lucky to have you! Sending you big hugs and gratitude!

      • Sara Yant

        Thank you, Nicole, for such kind words and all you do. Our kids are such gifts – even on those exhausting days! – they bring us to the present and I so appreciate and need that!! Blessings to you.

  4. Wonderfully awesome way to deal with overwhelming feelings. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

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