“Why are you making such a big deal out of it?!” my daughter challenged, angry with me for being upset. I was walking ahead of her, head down, working through my feelings on my own, but ready to burst. She wanted me to be over it. She wanted me to say “it’s ok.” She wanted me to let it go and exonerate her from the guilt she was feeling and the discomfort of having upset me.
This all began because as I loaded up my rucksack, I noticed that the buckle was broken. Keith explained that my six year old daughter had closed it in the car door and broken it.
It was a mistake, and I wanted to say, “never mind, it was just an accident,” but some part of me wasn’t able to be so understanding, patient, kind in that moment. I’d hardly slept the night before and I felt tired and irritable. I needed to walk ahead and have a quiet couple of minutes to breathe away my frustration. But suddenly, when she wanted to know why I was making such a big deal out of it, the angry words in my head took a one-way ticket to my mouth. Why, I asked, why was I not allowed to be upset when I felt bad?
Every day we (myself included) send our children messages that their feelings are not okay. Or maybe we don’t mind their feelings, but their chosen way of expressing them is unacceptable: getting angry, shouting, crying for long periods of time. All of these behaviours create discomfort. At best, we want them to stop because we feel sorry for our children and we want them to be happy. At worst, those emotions make us uncomfortable, or we think our children are over-reacting. Whatever the motive, children often receive the message that bad feelings are unacceptable.
We say things like:
It’s not that bad.
You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
Why don’t you just move on?
I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.
This really isn’t a big deal.
Why do you have to make such a meal out of it?
You’re such a drama queen.
When I was angry about the buckle on my rucksack, I needed time, space and understanding. I wanted to be left alone. But there are other times when I’d love a kind and sympathetic word: “You seem really sad.” “I can see that you’re upset.” “Sorry to see you’re having a rough time.” A kind word spoken, the gentle touch of a friend’s hand on my shoulder, a hug and sympathy– this is what most of us need when we’re upset.
Young children don’t yet realise that our society expects them to bottle up their feelings and have a stiff upper lip. When they’re upset, they say so. When something hurts their bodies or their hearts, they express it. When a hurricane of anger takes hold of them, they feel it and express it, come what may. Unlike adults, they don’t try to edit their feelings for the sake of others. They don’t hold things inside til later. Doing so is learned behaviour: we teach them through word and example that negative and unhappy feelings aren’t ok, or only acceptable when expressed with temperance, preferably in solitude. But why should they learn such nonsense? Why not let them feel their feelings? After all, children cry for a reason, and normally it is a cry for consolation.
Yes, there are times when we need to help our children move from negative feelings to more positive ones, but all too often we can rush our children along when they’re not ready to let go. (I hope to write about helping children move on in a future post.)
There is a fine balance to be struck between allowing a child to harm himself or others in a fit of anger versus giving that angry child space to express his feelings. I do not suggest that we facilitate destructive behaviour, but neither should we strangle negative feelings. There must be a way of using those inevitable difficult moments in our children’s lives to build connection. The difference for me is in this shift in perspective: in helping children to express their feelings, we aren’t trying to ameliorate the situation or smooth everything over. In giving them space and helping them to work through their feelings, we are giving them permission to be authentic and creating an opportunity for connection. Keeping this fresh new goal close to my heart means that I relate to my child differently.
First, I am human. I reach out to my child in my humanity– person to person. When I see someone else in pain, the cause is irrelevant, their age is irrelevant, the solution is irrelevant. What is relevant is compassion. I can reach out and touch my child, give her a hug, rub her shoulder or back, and relate to her from the heart. In order to do this I must shrug away the judgemental stares of others and onlookers’ pressing desire for correction or punishment. (See the comments below this post for some good examples of how many people long for retributive justice to be meted out to those who are in ‘the wrong’.) After all, I am her mother: who else will comfort her when she is unhappy?
Because I am not trying to erase her feelings, I can help her name those feelings. “I can see that you’re really upset. That must have hurt when you fell over.” “You’re so angry at him for taking your toy. You were really enjoying playing with it, weren’t you?” I find that people are often afraid of speaking to a child this way: it seems artificial or forced. But don’t we often say similar to our friends?: “Oh, I know just how you feel. That must have been awful!” Or, we share a time when it happened to us too. People long for consolation, and children know we are being sympathetic when we help them name their feelings. In my experience this also helps children to develop an awareness of their own feelings and the vocabulary to talk about them, so they can eventually say, “I’m so angry!” Often naming a child’s feelings in an open and non-judgemental way allows them to express their feelings more deeply, so don’t be surprised if doing this seems to make things worse rather than better. At least for now.
When it comes to human feelings, there are no quick fixes.
Finally, I can teach my child from a place of connection, the most meaningful place of all. One of our greatest responsibilities to our children is to teach them. They learn more from those these trust. So instead of shutting them down, we can connect with them, listen to them with body and words, and then show them how to work through their unhappiness. This may be as simple as wiping your toddler’s hands when he falls in the mud (he learns: when people are hurt, we treat them with love and kindness). Or, perhaps when he is upset because of an argument with a sibling we listen, empathise, hug and promote problem solving (he learns: we deal with problems calmly, through negotiation and it’s ok to get support in doing that). Maybe your child is full of rage because the other children in her social circle are being unkind. We can listen, invite our child to express anger through punching cushions, running really fast around the garden/up and down the road, having a big shout and a shake-out, crumpling or tearing up an old newspaper… then perhaps we help to problem solve (she learns: it’s ok to be angry and I can express it without hurting myself or someone else. She learns: my parents care enough about me to really listen and help me with this problem.).
The teaching element comes late in the game and is sometimes unnecessary. Most people don’t want advice when they’re unhappy. How many times have you said to your partner that you don’t want a solution to the problem, you just want to be listened to? True empowerment means having the resources to find your own solutions, or to select from some that are put before you. I truly believe that with our compassion and support children will do that.
When I’d calmed down enough to express myself more constructively I was able to admit that I’d overreacted about that buckle on the rucksack. After all, it was just a piece of plastic on a backpack. My six year old daughter was right: why make such a big deal out of something so inconsequential? Looking back on that interaction many weeks later I know she was actually asking, “Aren’t I more important?” And, yes, my child, you are more important to me than anything else. I love you when you are angry, when you are sad, when you are frustrated, when you are discouraged. I am your mother and I will be your consolation.
Photo credit: By Crimfants (http://flickr.com/photos/crimfants/327861820/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons