Prepared by: Stephanie Fredericka, LCSW
When we see our children upset, as parents, our gut reaction is to shield them from these unpleasant emotions or situations. It seems natural to want to protect our children, and allow them to experience only happiness, while pushing away the sadness, anger, frustration or disappointment. But, what if we allowed our children to experience these emotions that we often label as “bad” or negative? This may indeed sound unsettling. You may be wondering, “what is the benefit of allowing our children to feel these negative emotions?” I’ve pondered the same thing.
To Fix or Not To Fix?
One of the hardest parts of parenting is watching our kids undergo sadness and wondering, how can I fix this now? Or often times, we don’t want our children to know when we are sad or angry. My three-year old son (or threenager as we call him) is very intuitive, and extremely good at reading my emotions from my facial expression. He will ask me “what’s wrong mommy, why are you sad?” My natural, quick response is to say, “I’m not sad, everything is okay!” I realize that I have bee sending the message that we shouldn’t feel down, as if that emotion is something not to be discussed. But what message is this really sending to our children?
n a 2016 article, “Instead of Denying Our Sadness to Our Kids, We Should Teach Them How to Cope,” published by The Washington Post, Dr. Smita Malhorta states that: “By constantly telling children to ‘turn that frown upside down,’ our society sends them the message that being sad is almost unnatural.” She goes on to discuss how we should stop this practice and begin to allow our children to feel, no matter what the emotion.
Validate and Empathize Instead
We can take many approaches in coping with these unpleasant feelings. This particular approach is mindfulness, which entails learning to recognize our feelings and sitting with them in a nonjudgmental way. According to Malhorta, she describes mindfulness as “allowing the emotions that make up our inner world and viewing them compassionately and without judgment.” When working with children, it's important to incorporate this practice of mindfulness into the “coping skills toolbox” with which I aim to equip each child. When beginning this process with younger children, my goal is to help the child to recognize and label the range of emotions that they experience.
As children start to identify their moods with operative words, they can then start the process of allowing themselves to feel comfortable sitting with an unpleasant thoughts or feelings, without labeling it as bad. The next step is to incorporate a coping mechanism to help them work through this state. At first this can be difficult for children to navigate, because so often they hear that there’s no need to be sad and to just think happy thoughts! Through validation and empathy, the child begins to understand that it is okay to feel whatever emotions they may be experiencing. Over time, they will become more comfortable (and natural) with this process, and are able to give it a label as well.
Processing the Emotions and then Letting It Go
When trying to process negative feelings, I like to imagine sitting with or holding onto the emotion, in a nonjudgmental space, and working through the way the particular emotion and how it is making the child's body feel - we run a body scan to identify how each body part is feeling. We then visualize letting that emotion go (when ready) just like releasing a balloon.
As the feeling moves past them, we then engage in an activity that promotes calmness, such as reading, listening to music or playing with Play-Doh. With time and practice, this approach soon becomes a safe way for a child to navigate their emotions. It takes the focus away from figuring out “why,” and shifts to “letting it be.” I find most children are capable of being flexible with their thought process. They adapt, and learn to sort out their feelings with this approach, allowing for this kind of thinking (mindfulness) to flourish.
Lean Into the Negative Rather than Running Away
As parents, we can conduct feeling check-in’s at home with our children by asking them how they feel inside. Now keep in mind that you, as the parent, will also be learning to sit with the negative feelings that we are so often taught to 'run away' from or 'distract' ourselves from with food, social media, or whatever. As you try to comfort your child, you will find that you are also comforting yourself and becoming more okay with just sitting with the feelings and experiences that you have come to know as 'bad' or 'need to be fixed' (within yourself or your child).
As this process develops, you and your child will learn to feel more comfortable with negative emotions. Malhorta reports that by “leaning into their sadness and being comfortable with it, children learn resilience.” We understand that we are not the emotion we feel, but only the way we feel in a moment. We then strive to overcome it. This is a very powerful tool for children to learn and become comfortable with, as we look to send the appropriate message. That it is okay to feel, while keeping in mind that our emotions don’t make us who we are; they are just a part of our journey.
Instead of Denying Our Own Sadness To Our Kids, We Should Teach Them How to Cope Instead Dr. Smita Malhorta July 21, 2016
Dr. Liz Matheis
Dr Liz Matheis and her team specialize in assisting children and their families with Anxiety, Autism, AD/HD, Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Struggles