The other day my son was screaming about how unfair it was that he didn’t get a toy at the store like his older brother did. The four of us were in the car and his intense scream was piercing our ears and putting us all on edge, especially because we physically could not distance ourselves. It was unfair that one kid got a toy and the other didn’t, on the surface and to a 4-year old, but we had our reason for not getting him one. We tried to tell him to quiet down and take a breath…and explain to this little guy why he didn’t get anything but he went on crying. He was unable to listen to his reasonable, calm, doting parents who were just trying to help.
But four-year-olds don’t have the cognitive reasoning skills that adults do. Fairness is a huge part of their lives because morality develops from a more concrete (black and white) thinking to more a more abstract way (many shades of gray) of understanding the world. When an injustice has happened, especially involving coveted objects such as toys, they react. Instead of trying to use adult reasoning on our child, we decided to try a different approach. We let him scream. We let him own the intensity of the moment: his his fists were clenched, his jaw was tight, and his throat was probably burning. Instead of trying to reason with him and instead of trying to silence him we just let him go on like we would have if he were a toddler throwing a tantrum (this basically was a slightly more advanced version of that, was it not?).
Both a little skeptical but having no other good options, we let him go on. We held a safe space for him to let out his feelings by staying near him (this was easy because we were in the car), acknowledging his big feelings without judgement, and staying silent so as not to inject our agenda into his emotional process that really just needed to be felt. The staying silent part is CRITICAL because that is where the safety is really created. Without punishment, threat, coercion, or judgement we let him feel his anger to get through the anger. And you know what? By holding this emotional container for my son, the screaming stopped almost immediately and didn’t say another word about it…ever.
Us parents are so well intentioned to have our kids see the other side of a story and it feels harmless to interject our life experience to the matter at hand, but in fact it can be a very selfish attempt to get them quiet. Silencing our kids pain is detrimental to them. Our kids need to feel anger, sadness, and discomfort and learn to travel through those emotions so that they can learn to move beyond those emotions.
What if we instead approached our children’s “bad” feelings with a gentle curiosity to help them explore these feelings? What if we don’t even see this feelings as “bad” anymore but just as they are: sadness, anger, discomfort without the label of “bad” (and therefore miserable) and instead welcomed the range of emotions as tools of learning and growth? Imagine the courage we could show our kids by letting them feel the full spectrum of human experience and knowing that they are OK during those feelings and that we are OK with them during those feelings. Imagine the intense safety we adults would feel if we could experience all emotions without judgement?
We want our children no matter their age to feel their emotions, all of their emotions, not just the ones we “like” or are comfortable with. Squelching our child’s feelings would have given him the underlying message that 1. we cannot tolerate his big feelings 2. big feelings are bad he should ignore and/or repress them and 3. our love is conditional to his “good” behavior. Certainly none of these are messages we want our children to learn, even if it means short-term compliance to behavior we like.
So the next time your child is expressing their big emotions stay close, stay curious, and stay silent and surly keep your arms ready for when they collapse towards you for a great big hug full of warmth, connection, and safety.
Contact Emily for a free parent coaching consultation to see if she can help your family become a safe haven for peace and connectivity.
(c) 2017 Nurture: Family Education and Guidance