‘You get what you get, and don’t get upset’—Emotional suppression in early childhood

As adults, we can unintentionally use language towards children that suppress their emotions—short term and long term. Be You consultant, DR KATHRYN HOPPS, looks into what this can mean for the child and more thoughtful responses we can use.

I recently overheard one child say to another, ‘You get what you get and don’t get upset’. The words were spoken about what the pair had been served for lunch. Children accepting what they get, without expressing negative feelings about it, certainly makes for a quieter life in the short term for educators and parents.

Unfortunately, expressions like ‘you get what you get’, can function in both the short and long term to suppress children’s emotional expression. Suppressing and not accepting emotions is ultimately detrimental to positive mental health and wellbeing for children now, and in the future as adults.

Being okay with all emotions

Being aware of, okay with, and ultimately valuing and welcoming a range of emotions is important for emotional wellbeing. It is vital that everyone feels emotionally safe at home, in education settings at work and in the community.

Emotions are a very important indicator, for example, that something is wrong —and when adults unintentionally teach children —through our words and our actions—that some feelings are not okay, children learn to suppress particular emotions that adults are uncomfortable with or are inconvenient. One consequence of this is that children learn not only to suppress emotions but also not pay attention to what their feelings might be telling them—for example, to leave an unsafe situation, to speak up, to seek help.

Here are some other common expressions which discourage the acceptance and expression of emotions:

  • ‘Stop being a cranky pants’
  • ‘Stop crying’
  • ‘Put your tears away’
  • ‘You are being angry/ you are angry’

Emotion coaching

It is important to feel all emotions including uncomfortable ones, experience them and give them time. Educators and parents can help children to be okay with all emotions through being in tune with children, by being with children as they experience difficult emotions, and guiding children to learn appropriate ways to express them. The Gottman Institute has summarised the emotion coaching approach for parents into 5 steps. For educators, emotion coaching offers a way to learn how to help children understand, express and regulate their emotions.

Part of learning how to be an emotion coach involves replacing the above list of responses to children’s emotions with some alternatives.

Here are some examples of words that empathise with, name and accept children’s emotions:

  • I understand that you feel frustrated/disappointed/annoyed/ jealous…
  • It’s okay to feel overwhelmed/sad/angry/nervous…
  • I will sit right here with you while you are feeling left out/scared/embarrassed…
  • It is upsetting/annoying/disappointing when…
  • It doesn’t feel nice/fair/good when [a certain situation] happens

Educators and parents can help children accept their feelings at the same time as guiding their behaviour – as young children are still learning socially appropriate ways to express emotions. We can do this by saying things like:

‘it’s okay to feel frustrated, but it’s not okay to hit/bite/yell…’

For early learning services and schools seeking to critically reflect together on practices that support children’s emotional wellbeing, mental health initiatives like Be You can provoke deep thinking about the words and actions we use every day in responding to children’s emotional expression. Ultimately this type of reflection on, and learning about, how to better support children emotionally, is one part of how we can improve mental health outcomes for all Australians.

ECA Recommends 

50 fantastic ideas for exploring emotions
By Sally Featherstone, Phill Featherstone and Kay Margetts

Emotional competence is a gift we can give to a child, but it doesn’t develop without adult support, guidance and modelling. Children developing a strong sense of wellbeing is a core outcome in the EYLF, with personal, social and emotional development at the heart of best practice.  Click here to purchase a copy on the ECA Shop.


Dr Kathryn Hopps

Dr Kathryn Hopps is an early childhood educator, researcher and Consultant. She has a practitioner background working in a range of children’s services and schools including centre-based and mobile services, family day care and school age care. Kathryn’s research expertise is in transition to school. She is currently working as a Be You Consultant, supporting early learning services and schools to support children’s social and emotional wellbeing and ultimately grow mentally healthy communities. Kathryn is also an Adjunct Research Fellow at the School of Education, Charles Sturt University. Follow Kathryn on Twitter @drkhopps

6 thoughts on “‘You get what you get, and don’t get upset’—Emotional suppression in early childhood”

    Anna Harris says:

    Kathryn, thanks for your article. I felt an instant twinge of recognition for that statement “you get what you get…”. I understand the importance of emotional expression and am Action Team Leader at my service. I would appreciate advice, however, on the flip side of this equation. If we allow children to fuss over which colour bowl their meal plan is in, or indeed the contents of the bowl (which contains food parents have approved and paid for) then we create an endless cycle of fussing.
    The bigger issue is where does resilience fit in, while still supporting appropriate emotional expression?

    Dr Kathryn Hopps says:

    Thank-you for your question and your interest in my blog post Anna. Firstly I think that it is beneficial to consider a child’s perspective – that some things that might not seem like a big deal to us as adults, are a big deal for a very young child. In relation to meal times for example, often children have very little opportunities for agency. If we build in opportunities for empowerment and choice this can help – for example, if a choice about which coloured bowl or what to eat isn’t an option then consider other windows for choice such as where to sit or who to sit next to or when to come to the lunch table (progressive meal times). Secondly – I think that regardless of what a young child is expressing their feelings about – the feeling should always be named and acknowledged. For example, if the issue is not-negotiable, then still helping children to name the emotion and adults acknowledging they are feeling this way is important and makes a remarkable difference to a child’s connection to their emotions. This helps children accept what they are feeling and will assist with self-regulation. For example, with the coloured bowls – following Gottman’s five steps of emotion coaching – 1. recognise this as an opportunity for to support emotional learning – 2. Saying something like “I understand that you are disappointed about not getting the blue bowl” 3. assisting the child to calm and self regulate if needed, and then 4. later (not in the moment a child is dysregulated), you might like again to acknowledge that they felt disappointed/frustrated/annoyed and what they might be able to do next time – such as they express in words that they are “Disappointed they didn’t get the blue bowl”. Another way to think about this is – children may not have a choice about some things (like what’s for lunch, or wearing a seatbelt in the car), but they should feel free to feel what it is they feel about it and should be supported to feel okay with the emotion, give it time – this helps uncomfortable emotions pass more quickly. It is still important to have boundaries – if being given the coloured bowl they like is not a option, you don’t have to compromise on this- but you can still acknowledge how they feel about it. Young children are learning to self-regulate and one of the steps along the path to learning to self-regulate emotions and behaviour is the recognition and naming of emotions. This is why an adult’s response is so important when emotions are expressed. Two key aspects of resilience are recognising emotions and being willing to overcome difficulties – and learning about this starts early – with what seems to us like small difficulties are important contributors to learning resilience. I think it is beneficial to unpack what ‘resilience’ and ‘coping’ is and what it is not, for example, pushing uncomfortable emotions away completely when they come up isn’t part of resilience – self-regulating them is, and young children are still learning how to do this.

    David John says:

    Thanks for bringing up this point. I have to say that I feel confident in my use of ALL of the examples you gave in the “Emotion Coaching” section when dealing with the young primary students I teach, but I also use the “get what you get” line – very occasionally, because anything loses its value if you use it too often – and don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.

    If the phrase is framed in the context of a group activity – i.e. there are other children involved in this activity and by reacting the way that you are currently, it’s not fair to them – then I would argue it is entirely legitimate. Very often the child will realise as the activity progresses that they were mistaken to make a fuss about it (a good example is a music activity where everyone starts with one type of instrument and then swaps them around during the song), and this gives a good opportunity to allow them to reflect on this. Or, even better, that one of their friends will point this out to them (not a likely scenario in ECE, I know, but happens all the time in primary).

    Children can be selfish at times, and classroom teachers are time-poor, so having shorthand phrases that “get to the point” and don’t cause lasting damage work well when used wisely.

    Lisa Dixon says:

    You get what you get, and it’s ok to be upset or disappointed! I really dislike these dismissive, ‘pat’ phrases that are rolled out without thought or reflection.

    Charlie says:

    I would like to see the research that more agency in childhood is beneficial and at what age? Can you suggest some readings on this? I actually feel that the “paradox of choice” is often what is causing this wave in anxiety amongst students. If I don’t have agency and I accept that I get the red bowl and that my feelings about it shouldn’t cause an emotional upset to ruin my day and those around me, is actually teaching emotional regulation. The colour of my bowl is inconsequential to my enjoyment of eating and being grateful for having a meal prepared for me is what the phrase you refer to is meant to teach the children. When agency is important, young children should be given no more than 2 choices within confined boundaries..this will then mean that they don’t have these emotional escalations. Allowing a student to think in life I always get to choose and obtain everything I want whenever I want it or demand it is setting them up for failure. Children can’t self-regulate they need to co-regulate and if as a classroom teacher of 20-25 you are setting up routines whereby their agency is encouraging emotional distress I think you will have a difficult year.

    Marion says:

    Charlie. I agree with you and this is why. Agency does not have to enter every aspect of our children’s education. Sometimes a choice such as which colour plate can set up a situation which are not only utterly avoidable but which can trigger an anxious child to react if they are not getting what they want. Then their friends will want that colour whilst children on the fringe of the group “get what they get ….”. The lunch table can be one a place for the have and have nots in the power game of life. I know the coloured plates scenario is just an example of agency happening in our childcare facilities but young children should not have to face where they sit in “the pecking order” when they are together at the lunch table. Let’s just have white plates and offer individual and tailored support in play situations where status isn’t so obvious and staff have hopefully more “space” to deal with the emotional needs of each child.

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