Anyone who has parented a toddler for any length of time knows that a child's emotions are not to be trifled with. Most children, sometime between 18 months and 5, will experience highly volatile emotions. They'll be happy one minute and miserable (not to mention, making the people around them miserable) the next.

As parents, many of us have experienced getting our own emotions triggered by our child's. Yet another tantrum can cause all sorts of feelings of failure, frustration, anger, and more. In addition, many parents talk of feeling helpless in the face of their child's feelings. After all, you can't stop them and, many times, you can't do much until the child calms down.

When it comes to a child's long-term emotional development, though, there are definitely better and worse ways to deal with these difficult and unexpected outbursts. It's not easy but, then again, what about parenting is?

The Struggle

Most of us get to a point where we just want the screaming/crying/yelling/hitting/etc. to stop. No matter what, it's the behavior that is driving us crazy and the behavior that we want to eliminate.

The problem with focusing on the behavior is that it is a behavior, plain and simple. For most parents, a "behavior" is simply an action that we don't like. And, while changing a child's actions is important, the best way to change them is to go to the heart of the matter. This involves finding out what is causing the action.

It probably doesn't surprise anyone that most of what we call "behaviors" come from feelings. Sometimes this is obvious, like when a normally happy-go-lucky toddler pushes a child who takes away her toy. Other times, though, this can be harder to see, like when a healthy child complains of stomach problems every time her new baby brother cries.

When we only work to eliminate the behavior, we risk making things look better on the outside while confusing our children on the inside. A child may learn that she cannot hit a sibling, but she still feels the anger when the other child takes her toy. When she doesn't have any way to communicate what she's feeling, the feeling can get stuck inside, where it will eat away at her. She may even get the message that the feeling itself is bad, when we really only wanted to stop her behavior.

When we address the behavior but not the feeling behind it, we make the feeling and the behavior into one thing, instead of letting them remain as two. The important message to send our children is that the feeling is acceptable (even the feelings we don't like — after all, our kids can't stop feeling angry or sad, no more than we can), but that certain behaviors are not.

My daughter is in a place like this right now. We spend a lot of time working on the idea that it's okay to be angry, but it's not okay to hurt people. I want her to know that her anger is normal and natural, and that she has the power to choose how she responds to it.

Changing Our Tune

Practically, helping a child separate feelings from actions looks like a lot of conversations about how we feel and how we act. It requires us to label a child's emotions so that they can begin to understand what anger, sadness, frustration, jealousy, etc. feel like.

It also requires conversations about age-appropriate, acceptable actions that they can substitute for the unacceptable ones - sometimes called "replacement behaviors." For instance, my daughter is learning that she cannot push, hit, kick, or bite when she is angry, but she can stomp her feet, scream into a pillow, or say, "I'm really, really, really MAD at you!"

We must also begin to take these steps in our own lives. If we don't understand our feelings and the actions we take based on them, we're likely to commit unacceptable actions ourselves, which can further confuse our children (especially if our actions scare them).

Fortunately, we don't have to get it right every time. When we get it wrong, we get the chance to teach them to repair their relationships. We teach them, by example, to say, "I'm sorry" and ask for forgiveness.

Getting Results

Distinguishing feeling from behavior requires a lot from our children. It asks them to identify what they're feeling and then understand the actions that they perform when they're feeling that way. It's definitely not something that we can expect them to learn or be able to apply overnight.

It takes more of our time and energy, too, because we have to work with them on identifying feelings, substituting acceptable actions for unacceptable ones, and repairing situations when they can't do that. On top of that, we have to handle ourselves well even when we feel like pulling our hair out, throwing things, or shutting ourselves in a child-free room for the next 4 hours.

However, the result of teaching our children to separate their actions from their feelings is children who can feel, accept their feelings as feelings, and then choose their actions based only in part on how they feel. We will create people who do not repress their feelings but who are also not ruled by them, and who can choose constructive or even loving actions even in the face of powerful negative emotions.

I don't know about you, but those results seem worth the time and effort for me.