Have you ever heard yourself say to your hurt or upset child something along the lines of “Don’t Cry! You’re okay. Up you get. You’re fine.” Have you tried to distract your child or make them laugh when they are really having a hard time? I have, especially to my son.
Hmm. I wonder why?
It’s clear that he is sad/hurt, and not okay. But here I am telling him that he is okay, or trying to cajole him into being okay. Strange.
He is expressing a totally normal emotion (sadness), and I’m essentially (or directly) telling him not to cry. Weird.
What the heck is going on? Things aren’t lining up here.
Why do we do this? I don’t know what I was afraid of… that he’d never stop crying, that he’d turn into an emotional marshmallow, or that he wouldn’t grow up tough enough for this world.
I don’t think any of those things are actually true. I don’t think that the sadness will last forever, I don’t think that if he gets upset it means he is weak, and I don’t think that not being in touch with your emotions prepares you well for the real world. In fact, I think there could be an epidemic of people not being in touch with their emotions, and as a results, lots of displaced sadness in this world. There is an epidemic of people medicating, drinking, shopping, netflixing. and eating so they can distract themselves from how they really feel. Now, why would someone want to feel different than how they feel? Why all these pick me ups? Why the numbing?
Is there a chance that as adults when we feel sad, we don’t know what to do with it? Is there a chance that, not only were we not taught what to do with our sadness, but made to feel bad for feeling that way? Is there a chance that because of our own pain and disconnection from our emotions that we play out the same cycle with our own kids…not letting them feel sadness, making them feel bad for expressing negative emotions?
I did. My knee jerk reaction was to stop the sadness. Even when he was a baby, I could barley stand the crying. Anything to stop the crying. I was uncomfortable with sadness. I didn’t do it well. I saw it coming and I’d do my best to shut it down or run away from sadness. But, avoiding an entire emotion is a little suspect, a little unhealthy don’t you think?
Fast forward a bit. When my 2nd child was born, something shifted. I became more okay with the sadness and crying. I didn’t get as worked up. Why? Maybe it was because she was the 2nd born and I was used to all the crying. I think that’s part of it…knowing that the world wasn’t going to end because my child was crying. But, if I’m totally honest, maybe it was also because she was a girl. I allowed for her to express her sad emotions way more than I allowed it for my son, and perhaps I still do. Because of my experience, I wonder if it could be a function of being a man and having a son. If you are a Dad with a son, watch out for this tendency. I wonder how it plays out for other families.
In a way, my young daughter taught me to be okay with sadness, to sit her and to sit with it. I learned that sadness passes. We feel it, and it moves on. When we feel it, it gets processed and doesn’t linger. When we allow someone to be sad, when we sit with him/her, when we acknowledging feelings…this is the medicine. Ironically trying to fix someone’s problem often has the opposite effect, leaving the person feeling unheard and disempowered. As a man, I found this insight to be especially useful when dealing with my children, my wife, and anybody else really.
The whole family has benefited. Instead of shutting my son down or distracting from how he was feeling, I allow for him to take time to be sad. I even allow myself to be sad these days. What used to be scary and foreign to me, seems more natural, even healthy now. The irony here is that my son seems way tougher, capable and more resilient now than ever. It seems backwards. But it actually makes sense. When my son gets sad/frustrated now, I imagine his experience going something like this:
I did something/something happened. I got hurt/upset and sad. It sucked. I got angry, sad and so on. But then I got some support. My parents honoured my feelings. I got over it in my time. I’m okay. Life goes on.
This seemed a lot more healthy than what was happening before which involved yelling, blaming, shaming, and certainly not processing the emotion. Bottling things up isn’t good for anyone. The emotions are going to come out at some point, in some way. When we aren’t allowed to feel what we feel, these unfelt emotions will surface at some point and they will not be easy to deal with. They go underground and come out at random times, unpredictably, with increased intensity. Try parenting that unpredictable volcano of emotions whilst dealing with your own personal volcano of course. Blow ups everywhere!
So, let them feel sadness.
[…] I get it now that screaming, yelling, manhandling and threatening a small child, who may already be feeling uncomfortable, sad, or scared, does not help the situation. I get it. But at the time, I wasn’t thinking. I was just reacting. Why anger would be my natural reaction when witnessing an unhappy child though did cross my mind. The long and the short of it was that I was triggered; unfamiliar, and uncomfortable with sadness. […]
[…] – let them feel sadness […]
Thank you Drew. This reminds me how important emotional validation is in maintaining good relationships. I routinely validate emotions in my children that are routinely experienced, such a sadness or anger. But I still struggle to recognise and effectively deal with secondary or tertiary emotions like jealousy, greed, denial, etc. Any advice Drew?
I do two things.
#1 I check myself. Am I reacting to things appropriately? Am I getting worked up, tense, angry? If something is really bothering me wrt what my child did, it may just have more to do with me than him. If I’m getting triggered it definitely has more to do with me. So I become aware of my triggers and regulate myself when I sense I’m getting worked up.
#2 I look at the behavior and ask some questions : what is really going on here? Is my child trying to communicate something, are they trying to get a need met? Are they lacking a skill? How can I best help here?