As parents we naturally want to protect our children. We want to take away their hurts and make them feel better. It’s our parental instincts to want to make it all better. When it comes to feelings, we can’t always do that, nor is it best to; to try to whisk away their bad feelings and make them good again.
We must teach our children the language of emotions and help them express their feelings. But first we must give them permission to feel; and here I mean to feel the negative emotions –the anger, the jealousy, the irritation- the ones we would prefer to hide in the closet. We are often uncomfortable with these feelings and so we try to take them away, minimize them, placate them, or even yell at them to stop it, to quit feeling scared or mad.
In reality, we cannot stop our kids from feeling any way. We cannot prevent them from feeling bad. What we can do is help them learn to cope and deal with their feelings and express them appropriately.
Managing our feelings is a life-long ordeal. This is the underpinning of our entire life.
We all know adults, and too many in our society today, who cannot tolerate their own painful emotions and take to numbing them with addictive substances.
We need to be able to withstand our children’s painful emotions and not run in to squelch them right away. They need to know it’s OK to feel the bad as well as the good, and to be able to tolerate the negative emotions within themselves.
So how do we begin to do this with our children?
- By acknowledging their feelings. “Wow, that’s really scary.” “I see that made you mad.” “I know that’s so upsetting.” This helps them feel understood. It gives them ownership of the feeling and allows them to feel it before we rush in to try to problem-solve it away.
- By being a good listener when they talk (how to get some of them to talk is another story). That means not jumping in with our “brilliant” advice-giving right away or our judgment calls.
- By holding them or sitting with them and saying, “it’s OK that you’re mad, sad, ….” We have to show that we’re not “scared” of those big, bad feelings and that they are normal and can be managed.
- By using our own personal examples of difficult emotional situations. “I felt so sad when I left the hospital that I sat in my car and put my head down on the steering wheel and cried. Then when I felt cried out, I wiped my tears and started up the car to drive home. I put some music on to help soothe me.”
- By helping them come up with ways to handle the bad feelings. “What can you do next time you feel angry at your friend?” Guide them toward problem-solving. There’s nothing more satisfying for a child (or for any of us for that matter) than knowing he/she did it or figured it out on his/her own. That speaks wonders for a child’s sense of competency.
One of my children felt extremely stigmatized and embarrassed by our divorce. She cried that she was the only one in her class with divorced parents. (which I found to be unusual because even 18 years ago divorce was at a high) That ripped at my heart. Many nights I sat with her in bed when she expressed this and I just held her and said, “I know, it’s lousy; I’m so sorry.” It was very hard for me to hear her express her pain about this. But it was of utmost importance that she be able to express it, feel that it’s OK and normal to have such feelings, and feel understood so she’s not further alienated. Brainstorming ideas, such as groups for kids of divorce, came up later.
There is no magic solution for many life situations that evoke strong and painful emotions. But having your feelings understood and acknowledged is extremely soothing to the soul. It goes a long way in healing and in helping someone move on.
Recommended reading: “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber and Mazlish