Express Emotions and Build Self-Esteem

Help your Child Express Emotions and Build Self-Esteem: 
Three phrases to help you set limits while allowing your child to express themselves.

Children enter into this world with different temperaments and personalities, but they are also shaped by their environments. Whether your child was born, an outgoing communicator, or a quiet observer, parents can encourage children to express their emotions. It’s important for parents to allow space for self-expression, because it helps children learn that their voice, perspectives and feelings matter. Feeling like they matter, is the foundation of self-esteem and having positive self-esteem helps kids make friends, and learn new things, and feel good about themselves.

Encouraging self-expression in children seems like a really simple parenting idea, until we realize that on a daily basis, parenting involves trying to get our kids to do things that we want them to do (ie. Brush their teeth, get dressed, wash hands). When kids express their strong opinions about these activities, it’s common for parents to have the gut-reaction to shut down the protests, and encourage our kids to ‘just do as I say.’ When we insist that our young children do as we say without protest or complaint, what young children hear is that their feelings and opinions aren’t welcomed. So does this mean we should we just allow our kids to defy us, so they can express themselves? Of course not! Children need parents to be the strong leaders of the family, so they can just be the kids.  So how do we encourage self-expression, but also remain the strong confident leaders of the family? Well, it’s not easy, but it takes a balance of the two sides; strong and confident, and soft and understanding.   

When a child protests your adult-led plan, you can state boundaries around their inappropriate behavior, but then pause, take a breath and soften, become curious about their perspective. What is feeling so important to my child right now? What am I not understanding about their perspective? You might even try finding appreciation for your child’s strong voice. “Wow, you are sending me a clear message right now, that you don’t want to stop playing!”  When we affirm the feelings underneath the message, we let children know that their opinion matters, while also letting them know that we are the leaders, and they do not always get to do what they want.

Supporting self-expression in our child begins first with supporting ALL of their emotions, even when they are inconvenient or unpleasant for us. Here are some phrases we use at home when our children are having big feelings. These phrases can help children feel understood and validated, as well as help us adults, pause to connect with our child. 

“You’re showing me”

         Many children struggle to use their words when they are upset (heck-many adults do too!). Sometimes the only thing your kiddo can do is to “show” you their feelings with behaviors. If your child is yelling or kicking, reflect back to them, “you’re showing me that makes you mad, I’m not going to let you hit me.” This lets the child know that you understand what is underneath their behavior, it may even help them realize what they are feeling themselves.

“What’s your plan?” 

         From a young age, children can develop ideas and “plans” for how they want things to go. The problem is, when things don’t go according to their plans, they can have a hard time adjusting and being flexible (this takes cognitive brain structures that they just don’t have yet). Parents may genuinely not understand what the child is planning, OR sometimes parents can clearly guess what their child was intending, but the child thinks the parent does not understand. Both of these scenarios will cause the child to continue to protest until they feel understood. Asking your child what their “plan is” is a respectful way to help your child find their voice.  If your child’s plan was to do something you don’t want them to. Then you can empathize with their feelings, and set a limit. You might say, “I see, your plan was to take that truck outside so you could play with it in the sand. That sounds like fun. We aren’t going outside yet, so let’s find another way to play with the truck until then.” 

“You are welcome to feel ___ about that.”

         When we come up against a limit we need to set for our child, it’s important that we stay firm on the limit but allow all the feelings. Sometimes children actually need us to say out loud that their feelings are welcome. You may say, “It’s time to go. I know it’s hard to stop playing. You are welcome to feel disappointed about that.” This statement helps the child feel more calm, but it can also help the parent too. It gives everyone permission to do their job, and understand that protesting, or complaints from your child can be welcomed, and aren’t necessarily a threat to the parent doing their job.   

While these phrases may not necessarily stop a child from having a tantrum (although sometimes they can!) what they can do is help children and parents put words to what the conflict is, allowing children space to have thoughts and feelings about it, while also allowing the parent to remain the strong and confident leader of the family. Finding this confidence in the tough moments can be a challenge. Remember that there are many opportunities throughout the day for connection and to allow for self-expression. Children often explore emotions through play, games and stories. At Slumberkins we want to help spread the message that all feelings are welcome!


  • Laura

    Thanks for giving a bit of a script. I always understand the concepts of these things but don’t always know how to say what I’m trying to, and this helps the delivery big time.

  • Susan Hall

    Love this! I need to remember these phrases when I see the tantrums brewing to help me maintain my calm and offer the connection. I love how these give me some ways to address and acknowledge and empathize with the big emotions while still setting the boundaries and maintaining control.

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