As parents it pains us to see our kids in pain ― so we want to protect them from negative emotions such as frustration, irritation, failure, sadness, disappointment etc. But in fact when we hasten to clear obstacles from their way or to soothe away their upset too strongly, we’re sending some dangerous messages:
We’re saying we don’t think they can handle what the world throws at them, that they can’t hack their own feelings ― something which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We’re also saying we think negative emotions are to be avoided at all costs ― which encourages our children to stuff them down.
Freud taught us that negative emotions don’t go away, they simply resurface in ever more violent ways ― and most modern physiologists agree. Emotions need to be expressed in order to be released. In fact, many psychologists consider the ability to express negative emotions in a healthy way as the cornerstone of mental health. And this is something our children can practice from birth.
As we said ― when we’re down, the only healthy way to feel better is to move through a negative emotion ― to ride the wave of it, if you will. Sitting with the emotion, learning it, accepting it and reaping its lessons, rather than stuffing it down.
But when we ourselves have such a fixated agenda on our children’s happiness it can be so tempting to deny their less-than-happy states. So what can we do to help them move through emotions and come out, healthier, on the other side?
1. First, regulate yourself. If negative emotions trigger an intense response in you see that as an invitation to work that out. Were certain emotions not tolerated in your own upbringing? Was crying shut down? Was disappointment invalidated? Was upset hushed? If so do some soul searching and ask yourself which “shoulds” you’re holding onto ― perhaps it’s time to let them go. If you are triggered by your child’s big bad feelings, you won’t be able to hold a safe space for them to move through them, supported by you.
2. Cultivate a detached empathy. You need to reach a place where you can hold space for them without associating too deeply with their feelings. If you’re identifying too greatly with their emotions you become enmeshed with them and can’t be the anchor they need. Imagine them as a ship going through a storm ― they need a calm, centered captain who isn’t overwhelmed by storms.
Further, when you add your big feelings to theirs, you overwhelm their capacity to regulate themselves. Saying things like “It makes Mommy sad when you’re sad” only burdens them further and adds guilt to their already challenging feelings. They need to know that you’re totally fine, although empathic, no matter what they are feeling.
3. Accept emotions ― not behaviors. On the one hand we’re striving to be tolerant of emotions ― to validate and empathize with the tough feelings our kids are experiencing ― but on the other hand it’s our job to keep them and others safe. So if their behaviors are violent or destructive, rue or hurtful you might need to set limits to those behaviors ― all the while empathizing with the emotions that drive them.
For example, you might request that your child stops crying or fussing, that they keep their hands to themselves or that they return something they’ve grabbed ― but still empathize with the fact that they’re having a hard time.
4. Develop your child’s emotional vocabulary. Take the opportunity to label the emotion they’re experiencing and provide vocabulary for safe expression. The more precisely you and your child can describe the feeling, the easier it is to feel “heard” and move through them. Check out this extensive list if you need an “emotional vocab” refresh.
5. Provide a healthy outlet. Your child may not have ideas for how to healthily express their sorrow, embarrassment or despair. Offer them the opportunity to draw about the feeling, to dance it out, to paint or sing ― any creative outlet can be amazingly healing. Of course playing out the feelings with dolls or puppets can also be an excellent outlet for kids.
Do you get triggered by negative emotions in your child? How do you help them, and yourself, move through them?