How To Fill Your Child’s Emotional Cup

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Have you ever noticed that when you’re busy your child seems to need your attention more? You’re probably not imagining it! When you aren’t giving your child attention, they might feel like their emotional cup isn’t being filled. Let’s talk about how to fill your child’s cup.

I’ve noticed over the past few weeks that my 5-year-old has been extra needy. I thought once school started it would get easier, but now he’s cranky and challenging me even more when he gets home from school. 

I remember learning somewhere in my training to be a therapist that if you’re feeling annoyed by a child, they’re probably needing your attention.

So I’ve been trying to let my son help with little tasks and include him in making dinner when I can. Somehow that always seems to backfire though!

Making Lemonade

Last week for example, he noticed a lemon on the counter and asked if we could make lemonade. I was hesitant because I knew how messy it would be. Then I remembered a few days earlier I had told him that maybe we could make homemade lemonade one day. So I reluctantly agreed.

I let him squeeze the lemon juice into a cup and then pour it into water bottles for he and his brother. He seemed to be having fun but insisted on adding more sugar. I could feel my temperature start to boil as I envisioned the sugar getting all over the floor. 

I tried to take a few deep breaths and remember that I was doing this to connect with him. Fortunately, no sugar was spilled, but my son didn’t really like the lemonade because it was too sour!

After we made lemonade we went to Barnes and Noble to pick out a book. Both my sons had earned a free book for completing their summer reading program.

You wouldn’t believe how difficult this little outing was!

They were fighting over who got their shoes on first before we even got out the door. When we got there, my 5-year-old wanted a book that wasn’t on the “free book” list. He repeatedly asked why he couldn’t pick out a different book.

Despite multiple threats to leave with nothing, they eventually decided on their free books and we got back into the car to head home. My 7-year-old accidentally sat in the opposite booster seat that he rode in on the way there and unknowingly drank the rest of his brother’s lemonade.

You would have thought he killed his dog! The waterworks ensued and just when I thought he was over it, the 7-year-old shouted, “Heyyyyy!!!!!!! Charlie!!!!!”

The 5-year-old had poured the little lemonade that he had left onto the 7-year-old’s head. I was livid! I was so over his misbehavior at that point that I invoked the smack down of all punishments- no tech time!

Commence World War 3

Let me just say that the car ride home was way less pleasant than on the ride to the bookstore where both kids were happily drinking their homemade lemonade and dreaming of the new book they’d soon be getting.

Child who looks angry and needs their cup filled

Not only that, I then had to deal with the ramifications of taking away the 5-year-old’s screen time while his big brother still got to have his. It felt like more of a punishment on me, then towards him.

I began to think maybe trying to go somewhere as simple as the bookstore in the afternoon on the first week of school was too much? Was I being too harsh?

A few minutes later, my husband came home from work and I was practically in tears. He gave me a break and took the boys out for pizza so that I wouldn’t have to cook and I stayed home to try to relax a little.

When I have free time, I often find myself looking at Pinterest so that’s what I was doing when I stumbled across this picture. It all started to make more sense! You can find the downloadable pdf here: https://upbility.net/blogs/news/the-emotional-cup#comments.

How to fill your child's emotional cup, what empties the cup, and ways children deal with an empty cup.

My 5-year-old was acting out because he needed his cup filled. He was exhibiting all of the signs listed!

Ways That Children Deal With Having An Empty Cup

  1. They steal from other people’s cups or steal from their happiness- like when my son poured the lemonade on his brother’s head.
  2. Misbehave to get your attention and show that they need a refill. This was definitely happening!
  3. Seem to have bottomless cups, or need constant “topping off.” Do you ever feel like the more attention you give your child, the more they seem to need? It’s because their cup is empty and far from being “full.” So adding a little attention (even when it feels like a lot to you) isn’t enough.

What Empties The Cup?

The cup is a metaphor for emotions, so if a child’s cup is full they are content and happy. What leads to an empty cup will vary for each child. I eventually realized that my son’s cup was probably feeling empty because he was stressed by the start of a new school year.

He was having to make all new friends and adjust to a new routine in a new classroom. It might have even felt a little lonely for him. He was also definitely exhausted from having to get up super early and spend 7 hours in school.

How To Fill Your Child’s Cup

So now that I know his emotional cup is running on empty, here are a few ways I can try to fill it:

1. Encourage Play

It would be so easy to let him watch tv or his iPad when he gets home from school to veg out, but I’ve tried to maintain consistent play dates at least once a week and encourage him to actually play with his toys with his brother.

2. One on One Time

Last week my oldest had a play date at a friend’s house so my youngest and I were able to have some 1:1 time. We went to a splash pad, got ice cream, and went on a play ground for a while. It was challenging for a bit, because his cup was so low that he demanded even more of my attention now that he was getting it.

But I know that it was just what he needed and we did have a good time. Plus, it’s so much easier to manage one of my kids compared to having both of them by myself!

3. Love and Affection

I’ve always tried to tell my kids I love them, but I’m working on making a more conscious effort to say it more often.

4. Connection and Friendship

My son got to have several of his school friends over this weekend for his birthday and I’ve seen a huge difference in his behavior. It’s probably a combination of all of these things, but I know that being the center of attention helped fill his cup.

5. Doing What They Love To Do

How often do you let your child choose the activity for a family outing, without influencing their decision at all? This is a hard one, but can really help fill their cup and will be worth it in the long run!

If you think your child’s cup may be empty, think about whether they may be experiencing stress, loneliness, or fatigue. Then you can implement some of these strategies to fill their cup back up. Let me know which ones work for you!

5 tips for filling your child's emotional cup with mom reading to child

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7 comments

  1. This is a great read! My kids’ school teaches this and it’s so amazing to see kids trying to fill each other’s cups 🙂

  2. I love this. My oldest just started kindergarten and I’ve been going through the same thing lately. Great info thank you

  3. Wow! I do not have any kids yet, but that sounds really hard and stressful! I liked the way looking at it about filling a cup! It totally makes sense! Thank you for sharing!

  4. Thank you for this post! Parenting is especially tough when you have more than 1 kid and you’re trying to balance your time and attention on them equally. It’s a constant battle that can sometimes feel like you’re always losing! It’s great to hear that I’m not alone 🙂

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