Being Present Parents by Watching for Secondary Emotions

Who hears their mother’s voice in their head when your kid is melting down?

Does it ever say anything like… “You would NEVER have gotten away with acting like that?”

Or… “And that’s why we used to spank kids!”

Or even… “So-and-so’s kid used to do that… they’re a very dangerous criminal now.”

Maybe not that last one, but who knows? Your kid having BIG feelings is a universally distressing event, whether you’re a brand-new parent, going through this rodeo for the fifth time, or a grandparent watching your kid try to parent the next generation.

One thing that parenting consultants tend to agree on is this: Parents’ reactions to their children’s loss of control isn’t usually about the loss of control itself. (Although toddler screams can certainly be ear-shattering and a teenager’s words can definitely hurt.)

No, the fact that we’re using the word “reaction” at all means our feelings are already out of context. 

We’re displacing something inside of us and projecting it onto our children when we have a reaction to their emotional dysregulation. 

Not because we’re bad parents – often, it’s because we want so badly to be good parents.

Maybe we’re trying too hard to turn our children into augmented and enhanced versions of little people… and when they seem to fall off the track and regress, we see the shiny future we’d planned for our capable kids fly out the window. 

It’s possible that, too, we are so invested in all the millions of micro-ways we’re trying to bolster our childrens’ development that we take a step in any other direction as a personal failure.

Experts recommend that, to avoid this self-centered and detrimental lurch towards the reactive, we should try to catch our children when they’re having secondary emotions.

These are emotions we feel in response to other emotions. That’s why it can be so hard to deflate a big emotion – we’re going after the wrong one.

Let’s examine three of the more common secondary emotions a little more closely…


This secondary emotion can be very frustrating to dissect in the moment.

After all, your child is wound up. It’s likely that if they’re angry, they’re protecting that anger very fiercely. Anger comes from the part of you that believes you deserved better treatment.

It’s not a bad thing! It has its place in the pantheon of dynamic feelings we experience as human beings. 

But anger isn’t the first emotion we feel – it’s just the emotion we land on.

Before anger comes…

Disappointment. Rejection. A thwarted expectation. Embarrassment. Loneliness. 

Lots of things can precede that feeling. It’s important when your child is exhibiting anger or rage to identify what came before it. 

Act like a detective and try to solve the case: “You seem like you’re feeling angry. Is that right? Do you know why? Did you hope something different was going to happen? Are you surprised that you weren’t able to control what happened?”


Here’s how you know shame is a secondary emotion: You have to be taught to feel it. It is necessarily external. 

That means that something comes before shame. It’s likely an emotion your child has learned isn’t acceptable, for whatever reason. 

Maybe it’s sadness, and they feel guilty for feeling it. Maybe it’s jealousy, and they feel silly and childish for feeling it. Maybe it’s disgust at themselves for not living up to the standards set for them, and they feel unworthy.

A shame spiral is difficult to stop in an adult who can access tools and resources to help themselves.

In a child, it’s much harder to halt. Put your detective hat back on and try to determine where the feeling is beginning: “You seem like you’re feeling badly about yourself. Do you remember what made you start feeling this way? Was it something you thought, or something you did? Was it something someone else said or did?”

Keep going until you get to the root. 


Frustration, like shame, comes from experience. 

Expectations have to be set in order for someone to feel frustrated. Often, in children, this manifests with crying, refusal to cooperate, disinterest in trying new things, or the dreaded toddler reaction – a meltdown.

Underlying frustration, we’re likely to find: feeling sad when they’d rather feel happy, feeling embarrassed that they’re not getting complimented like the other kids around them, or feeling disgust with themselves for not doing something “right.”

There might even be some fear there of retribution if they can’t perform the way they think they’re supposed to.

A detective might ask… “You seem to be feeling very frustrated about something. Do you know what it is? Is there something you’re afraid of happening? Is there something you think you should be doing instead?”

It can be quite difficult to meet children where they are – especially in the middle of an unregulated moment.

But tracing their feelings back to the source can help let some air out of that big balloon. Try understanding their primary feelings before you diffuse their secondary feelings.

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