Some of the biggest challenges in our families grow out of discomfort with emotions. Last week I wrote about the importance of listening to feelings because many of us bypass feelings (children's and our own). Today I am approaching feelings from a different direction, that of having the courage to let kids get upset.
Life includes big and small upsets. Kids don't always get invited to birthday parties. They don't necessarily get the part that they want in the play. Many don't go to prom with their first choice of dates. Pets and even family members get sick and die.
These experiences are rough for parents and kids! When children are upset, they may express it in not-so-evolved ways. This can trigger our own big feelings, perhaps anger, shame, frustration, and/or fear. Many of us consciously or unconsciously work hard to avoid these moments.
Have you gotten into the habit of going for drives to help your child fall asleep? Making a special meal for your child when they refuse the one you prepare for the family? Buying a toy because your child saw it and wants it, even though you do not want to? Letting your child use the car even when they haven't taken care of a responsibility? For a parent who is uncomfortable with conflict, these choices can seem sensible and logical, but they actually limit a child's chance to build emotional resilience. Children, and all people really, need the experience of having big and challenging emotions within the context of a loving and safe relationship.
A child who gets upset that you won't buy a toy in the store may throw herself on the ground weeping. If you are able to stay both loving and firm, she learns that it's safe to have big feelings. Her emotions don't make you go away and they don't necessarily control your choices. A child who is managed so that upsets don't happen can't actually learn how to work with big feelings, can't test the safety of the connection, and has less experience with emotional maturation.
If you find yourself over-managing situations to keep your child from being upset (pay attention with this idea in mind and you will start to sense when you are doing it), consider what is happening for you. Are you afraid of their feelings? Or afraid of how your own feelings may get triggered? Are you worried about how other people will judge you? Can you imagine seeing emotional situations as teaching and bonding opportunities? A chance for your child to feel loved and accepted even during a tantrum or outburst? And for them to learn that the outburst won't trump your decision.
What do you think?
As a mom (to 2 teenage sons), wife, and person in the world, I have been on a long imperfect journey. I have made many mistakes, but with mindfulness, emotional reflection, and lots of support I have learned enormously from those mistakes.